"Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster."
These words were a solemn call to adventure for kids who tuned in to watch the Six Million Dollar Man every week.
Just 5 years after a man first walked on the moon, an astronaut named Steve Austin crashed the jet he was test piloting. His crash was horrific, disfiguring, and left him near death. Through a combination of medical know-how and robotic technology, he was restored to become the world's first bionic man. America was still enthralled with NASA's space missions and any technological feat seemed possible. The Six Million Dollar Man TV show capitalized on these sentiments and became one of the most popular sci-fi adventure programs of the 1970s.
The Kenner toy company, buoyed by the success of the television show, started producing Six Million Dollar Man toys in 1975. Their first offering was the star of the show, Steve Austin. For the time, the action figure featured quite a striking resemblance to Lee Majors, the actor that played Steve Austin.
Now, kids at home could relive the TV Adventures and create bionic adventures of their own with the figures, playsets, and vehicles that Kenner released. There was no shortage of bionic toys on toy shelves from 1975 to sometime around 1978, when Star Wars toys became Kenner's main focus. I seem to recall looking at the back of a General Mills cereal box in 1978 that had a promotion showing both Star Wars and Six Million Dollar Man toys. So, I believe that Kenner produced them, in tandem, for a short time.
My first Steve Austin figure was acquired after saving my allowance for several weeks. My Dad took me on the trip across town to visit LaBelle's, one of the only retailers in town to sell toys. "Don't Go Breakin' my Heart" by Elton John was playing on the radio as we neared my much anticipated destination. The loose figure shown in the photos is my childhood figure that made it through. Steve's a survivor.
It may not seem like it now, but back then Steve was the "swiss army knife" of action figures. This is the first figure, that I can recall, that had built-in action features. Up to this point, an action figure's accessories tended to have action features but not the figure itself.
It's obvious that the designers of this figure found inspiration in other 12" figures that had come before like Captain Action and GiJoe. However, Steve upped the ante in several ways. He had a bionic eye that you could look through that made everything look smaller, oddly enough. This feature, however, left poor Steve with a gaping hole where his left eye should be.
Steve also had a less-than-subtle button on his back that would activate the "enormous strength" of his bionic right arm. Once Steve's head was turned to the right to engage the mechanism, you could repeatedly push the button and watch Steve lift whatever he was holding (the original release came with an engine block. The second "bionic grip" release came with an orange girder). Steve's right arm was also covered with a flesh-colored rubber skin that started at his shoulder and ended at his wrist. Since this rubber tended to deteriorate over time, finding a Steve Austin figure with this skin still intact today is more rare than Stretch Armstong's fingers and toes. The rubber skin could be rolled up Steve's arm to reveal removable "bionic chips"...one in his forearm and a larger one in his upper arm. These chips also had small holes in them that would allow you to plug Steve into various bionic accessories and vehicles via plastic cables.
Although, Steve had many special features, sadly he lacked much articulation. It was not possible to pose him in a myriad of ways like you could with other current 12" figures that were being produced at the time like GiJoe. Kids didn't care, though, and The Six Million Dollar Man toy line sold extremely well.
I also think Kenner missed the boat, somewhat, by not adding some sort of bionic feature to one or both of his legs. They rectified the situation later by offering a separately purchased set of legs with bionic features (Critical Assignment Legs). Perhaps cost constraints kept them from doing anything with the legs on the "out of the box" figure.
The second release of Steve Austin was identical to the first with two exceptions... the lower chip in his arm was now a yellow button that activated his "bionic grip" and Steve's lone accessory was now a rubber girder rather than an engine block. Steve's right hand was now articulated at the base of the fingers and would snap shut when this button was pressed.
A complete Six Million Dollar Man Steve Austin figure (1st and 2nd issue) includes a red top with logo, red pants, two white socks, and two red tennis shoes. First issue figures should include the engine block accessory. Second issue figures with bionic grip should include the orange rubber girder. Both versions were released with rubber skin and chips on the right arm.
This was a great toy and is from one of my favorite toy lines of all time. Each toy was fun and included several play features. Kenner went on to produce figures of several characters from the Six Million Dollar Man TV show, as well as several vehicles and playsets. I will be covering many of these other toys in future toy features.