One of the most successful toy lines – and TV series – of the 1970s was the Six Million Dollar Man. It featured crime fighting secret agent Steve Austin, who was half-man, half-cyborg! Millions tuned in every week, and most fans had the action figure! Here’s the story…
The success of the show
Three TV movies aired in 1973 to much praise from viewers! The story starts when astronaut Steve Austin, played by Lee Majors, is involved in a terrible accident, and to save his life, the US government fund a six million dollar operation. They fit bionic legs, allowing him to run up to 50 miles an hour, a bionic right arm capable of lifting 2 tonnes, and a zoom-lens eye!
The success of the trilogy of TV movies led to the station ordering a regular TV series. It ran for 5 seasons from 1974 to 1978, and became one of the most-watched shows on air. Kids and adults loved tuning in each week, which got the guys at Kenner excited.
Kenner release the original action figure
Kenner quickly swooped in and acquired the rights to produce toys for the Six Million Dollar Man and in 1975, released its 13 inch Steve Austin! Similar to G.I. Joe and Action Man, it was more of a doll than an action figure. It wore a red jump suit, similar to the one worn in the titles of the show.
It also came with a plastic engine block that you could hook on his right hand. Then, pushing the button on his back, his right arm would crank upwards; lifting the engine block, and simulating the immense strength of his bionic arm.
The arm also had a rubber skin-coloured sleeve which you could peel back to reveal the mechanics underneath. However, this was very delicate and perished over time, making it an incredibly rare surving feature in the collector market today.
The figure also had a wide angled lens for a left eye, so that when children peeked through the hole in the back of its head, it would simulate the Six Million Dollar Man’s bionic eye!
Three editions of the doll were made at the same time, and on two of them, the bionic arm and leg could be detached from the doll (an afterthought by Kenner, which would make them some extra money later on).
Released at the same time was the Bionic Transport and Repair Station. It doubled up as a rocket ship to transport Steve Austin from mission to mission, but it could also be folded out into an operating room play set; allowing you to carry out vital repairs on the super agent.
By 1976, the Six Million Dollar Man was the bestselling toy in America!
Rival toy firms want a slice of bionic pie
This got rival toy companies hungry for a slice of bionic pie, and they started to muscle into the market with cyborg-esque adaptations of their existing lines.
Hasbro, under the GI Joe brand, released ‘Mike Powers – The Atomic Man,’ which had an exposed robotic arm, leg and even a flashing eye (sound familiar?)
In the UK, under their Action Man brand, Palitoy brought out Atomatic Man – ‘A member of the Action man team.’ He, too, had an ‘atomic’ robotized arm, leg, a ‘signalling eye,’ and for bonus points, an atomic heart pacemaker – which actually looked more like a giant metal nipple.
Expanding the collection: A new wave of toys
The Bionic Woman, who was Steve Austin’s girlfriend in the TV series, soon had her very own show which. She, too, had her own bionic arm and leg but instead of a bionic eye, she had bionic hearing. Again, Kenner acquired the toy rights to the series. They released the Bionic Woman doll – which, sadly, focused more on fashion accessories than on the kickass secret agent stuff. Barbie already had the fashion doll market cornered, and so the doll never did great.
In 1976, Kenner took no time in releasing a new wave of toys for the Six Million Dollar Man Collection.
Cleverly, as an add-on to the doll their customers probably already owned, Kenner released sets of Critical Assignment Arms and Critical Assignment Legs. Children simply had to detach the old bionic limbs and pop in the new ones. These sets featured an oxygen supply arm, a first aid leg, and an exploding leg that pops parts off when you press it.
The mission control centre was an enormous play set released in 1976, and it was essentially a chair and computer console covered over by a big mesh dome – a place where the Six Million Dollar Man could charge up and receive his orders! As play sets go, it was pretty huge – and it had to be, due to the 13 inch scale of the action figure.
It wasn’t just limbs and domes that Kenner brought out to play in its 1976 line – it also gave Steve Austin a villain to combat! The evil Maskatron figure came with 3 interchangeable masks, and when you hit certain pressure points around his body, his limbs would pop apart.
1977: The range grows
The following year, Kenner released 3 new uniforms for the Six Million Dollar Man, including a space suit; allowing children to gear up their old figure, ready for exciting new adventures.
It also released a new version of Steve Austin himself – this time, with a steel girder instead of the engine block, and this version of the figure had a gripping hand. A new mode of transport for the agent also made it into the line-up from Kenner, in the form of the Bionic Mission Vehicle.
A figure of Oscar Goldman, who was Steve Austin’s boss in the TV series, was also released. The figure itself had no cool features, but his briefcase would explode if you didn’t open it the right way – you had to pull and twist the handle. The Goldman figure even had its own play set – the O.S.I. Headquarters, which was essentially an office. It’s an extremely rare set.
The last year
By 1978, ratings for the show were down, and no more seasons were commissioned after the run of its fifth. But this didn’t dishearten Kenner, who went all-in.
The third and final version of the Six Million Dollar Man was released – this time he had a karate-chopping ‘biosonic’ arm, and came with plastic blocks and wood planks for him to chop through.
Another foe for Steve Austin was included in the 1978; and one of the most memorable enemies from the series – Big Foot! True to the show, the sasquatch stood taller than Steve (it was played by wrestling star Andre the Giant). The figure had a removable chest panel that exposed circuit boards underneath. The mould was later used by Kenner to create Chewbacca in a larger-scale series of Star Wars Toys.
The Bionic Woman received a nemesis in the form of Fembot – a red-headed female action figure, with a tear-away face, revealing a cyborg head behind.
The final toy ever to be released in the Six Million Dollar Man line was the Venus Space Probe – which was much smaller in scale than it appeared on screen, but has extreme collector value for being the last piece in the range.
Although the show and the toy line came to an end in 1978, Kenner’s range of figures and play sets was considered to be the first ever successful toy licensing of a TV series, and it paved the way for many more in the future.