Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Cinema of Lee Majors

As a kid growing up in the 70’s, fixated on genre television and cinema, there were a few pieces of filmed entertainment that stood tall above all others. These were: Star Wars, Star Trek, Superman, and . . . The Six Million Dollar Man. Clearly the last entry there, at least in the year 2011, is not on the same level as the others. It hasn’t aged particularly well, and the principals have long been out of the limelight. Even so, to this day Lee Majors ranks high in my book of actors who are on the highest planes of coolness. In his iconic role as Col. Steve Austin, he was every bit the equal to the likes of a Captain Kirk or Han Solo back in the day. Shortly after the show left the air, Majors actually turned up in my hometown in Kentucky to shoot a movie called Steel, which ultimately became famous for a terrible accident. After that there was a long silence until he found more success on television with The Fall Guy. So as far as I knew, Majors had only that movie to his credit and no more. All these years I’ve labored under the misconception that his television typecasting confined him to the small screen during the interim period between Steel and The Fall Guy. Boy was I wrong!

Recently I was digging through Netflix and came across a movie called The Norseman(1978). I’m not particularly a fan of Viking movies, but the poster image looked very cool. It’s one of those wonderful, painted posters that were so common in that era, and it inspired me to investigate further. Lo and behold it turned out the star was Lee Majors! I sat there dumbfounded wondering how I’d missed that during my youth. Needless to say I added it to my queue, and gave it a quick sample. In the course of about 10 minutes I understood exactly how I’d missed The Norseman. As many of you who frequent our program know, I have a high tolerance for schlock, and a special fondness for the lowest of B-movies (I’m looking at you Gymkata). The Norseman plunges to an epic level of bad however, and offers a grueling test for the most tolerant of critics. Let’s just say that Majors, a fellow Kentucky native, has no business being cast as a Viking. His delivery and accent don’t ring anywhere near the vicinity of truth (sort of like Keanu Reeves in those period dramas folks were intent on casting him in during the 90’s). This was his first big screen role following The Six Million Dollar Man, so I guess the filmmakers hurtled forward with the singular goal of cashing in on his name recognition. It’s a miracle Majors survived this. Rarely do I say don’t bother watching, but I urge you to stay away. Life moments you’ll never get back await you.

Following The Norseman Majors landed the lead in Steel (1979). Even though Steel was filmed in my hometown, and had its premiere at a local historic movie house, I didn’t end up seeing it until cable. This is a bit of a miracle because we frequented the drive-in, and no doubt it ended up there at some point. My memory of the film is not at all bad, but it failed to register as an action classic. The setup is pretty awesome, and typical for the early 80’s. In a nutshell a reluctant/renowned expert is drawn out of retirement/seclusion to do what he does best (e.g. accomplish an impossible mission), and assemble a team of skilled experts to help him in the cause. In this sense it is not unlike a few Seagal movies, save for the fact Majors is portrayed as having human flaws. Majors plays Mike Catton, a legendary construction foreman who has lost his way due to a terrible accident (leaving him afraid of heights). Fortunately for action movie lovers everywhere George Kennedy shows up to lure him out of retirement, so that Majors can help him build a building before an evil developer closes in.

Aside from an appealing setup, the movie has a few other interesting items of note. As I mentioned it’s infamous for the stunt accident which cost stuntman A. J. Bakunas his life. I can remember the shot in the trailer of the fall in question, and it was pretty spectacular looking. Apparently they shot the footage without a hitch, but reshot it to achieve the record for high falls. The fact that it was so unnecessary makes it all the more tragic, and I also recall there being a significant backlash to the film as a result. Beyond this regrettable aspect, Steel boasts an all-star cast featuring the likes of Jennifer O’Neill (Scanners) and always reliable villain Richard Lynch (The Sword and the Sorcerer), and at the helm is cult director Steve Carver (Big Bad Mama, Lone Wolf McQuade). Most interestingly it was produced by Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer who would go on later to make all of the Highlander films. I need to track this one down again, as I suspect at this stage in life I would appreciate this film a great deal more (having immersed myself in low-rent, DTV action films and learned to love them).

Despite the controversy surrounding Steel, the Majors big screen express could not be stopped. Next up he starred in an Italian Jaws rip-off called Killer Fish (1979) with Karen Black and James Franciscus. This one mixes jewel thieves and piranhas, which sounds like a no lose proposition as far as I’m concerned. Plus it’s directed by Antonio Margheriti, director of Yor, the Hunter from the Future! I can’t imagine that it is a quality film in any respect, but the talent roster guarantees that it will be entertaining. It would have to go a long way to top Enzo G. Catellari’s awesome The Last Shark (aka Great White), which also starred Franciscus a year or so later (Castellari must have been impressed with his emoting during piranha attacks), but I can’t wait to find out how close it comes to doing so when I finally locate a copy.

So Majors had done Vikings and piranhas in addition to his construction man action piece, and I managed to remain blissfully unaware. How does one top such a triple threat? Easy! By making a political thriller on the dangers of subliminal advertising, beating Michael Crichton’s Looker to the same thematic punch by a couple of years. In Agency (1980), Majors plays an ad agency worker who discovers the dark motives of his firm’s new owner (played by Robert Mitchum). Again I neither saw this during its release, nor have any recollection of it whatsoever. The reviews I’ve read mention that it opens with an over-the-top deodorant commercial that is unforgettable, and quite frankly that alone is enough for me. Plus it has another cool poster and a Can’t Stop the Music Connection by way of leading lady Valerie Perrine.

If you’re keeping score here, since his departure of The Six Million Dollar Man in 1978, Majors made four films in the span of 3 years. Continued television success was just around the corner in 1981 with The Fall Guy. Surely it would be impossible to squeeze one more theatrical release into that period, right? Wrong! Majors capped off a five film run with the ecological thriller The Last Chase (1981). I vaguely remember this one on cable, and it has recently been given a special edition DVD release by Code Red (so I will be refreshing my memory of it very soon). In the not too distant future when oil is scarce, the United States government has outlawed all gas guzzlers. Majors, a former race car driver, rebels by taking his old car and heading out for California (which has seceded from the Union). Along the way he hooks up with Meatballs star Chris Makepeace, as they are pursued by a fighter jet piloted by retired Korean War vet Burgess Meredith. I don’t know about you, but the idea of Burgess Meredith chasing Lee Majors in a fighter jet is outrageous enough to sell me on this one! Perhaps even more interesting than that however, is the fact that this plot sounds incredibly topical 30 years later with oil prices being a major concern.

I can speak with personal authority only on The Norseman, but across the board each of these films has received horrible reviews online. That being said you have to admire Majors’ drive in making five films, covering a host of genres, in such a remarkably short period of time. Perhaps that time factor has a great deal to do with the quality of the efforts, but they all sound intriguing and feature interesting cast/talent rosters. The process of writing this has in fact made me inclined to go back and retract that statement warning you away from The Norseman. I hereby take it back and encourage you to watch The Norseman immediately! Hey, at least it’s easy to come by. I just checked on Steel at Amazon, and OOP VHS copies are starting at an absurd $2,475 dollars (doesn’t sound like a “steal” to me . . . couldn’t resist : )

Regardless of the quality of these films, Majors’ choice of subject matter in selecting projects which I was wholly unaware of has only increased my respect for him. And besides, regardless of what you may ultimately think about the films, you have to admire a guy who is willing to parody his action hero status in the mini-movie The Night the Reindeer Died in Scrooged. To me that type of self-deprecating humor speaks volumes about what a cool guy he must be in real life. To reiterate, go watch The Norseman immediately!