For a certain period of time in the 1970s and early-'80s, today's featured actress represented an ideal female blend of strength, integrity and beauty, inspiring legions of little girls into believing that the impossible might be possible. This stemmed from the fact that the woman portrayed one of TV's most prominent heroines, a capable (but still very sensitive and human) powerhouse with a strong moral code (similar in some ways to Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman, but on a moderately more believable scale.) Before long the high level of fame would dissipate, but, to at least one generation, there remains strong affection for TV's first bionic female, Lindsay Wagner.
Born in Los Angeles, California on June 22nd, 1949 to William and Marilyn Wagner, her childhood was far from magical. Her photographer father and her mother had married as teens and were ill-prepared for a secure, conventional married life with a child. Her mother, in particular, lacked the maturity and experience necessary to be a homemaker and, over time, young Lindsay emerged as the maternal figure, especially after her parents divorced when she was but seven. Lindsay's mother remarried a cement contractor and the family moved to Portland, Oregon when she was fifteen. (Later, her mother would emerge very helpfully as Lindsay's personal manager, helping to develop a string of successful telefilms that starred her daughter.)
Having already studied dance when she was thirteen, she took an interest in acting after baby-sitting actor James Best's children and accepting his advice to attend classes. In school, she won parts in various plays, then after graduation got work as a fashion model, her lean, 5'9” figure perfect for the late-'60s/early-'70s clothes of the day. Wagner disliked modeling, however, finding it boring and unfulfilling. In 1969, she appeared on television as one of many attractive hostesses dotting the set of Playboy After Dark, a laid-back program with famous musical guests hobnobbing with Hugh Hefner before performing a song or two. Wagner, though very appealing, didn't fit the typical Playmate body type at all (in short, she was not buxom in the slightest...) She met and married (in 1971) a music publisher named Allan Rider, but the union was over by 1973.
She was also granted a contract with Universal Studios in 1971, one of quite a few talented individuals who could be utilized in the company's films and multitudinous TV series, though this practice would soon cease as the “studio era” came to its official, complete close. As a contracted actress, she made her dramatic TV debut in the police procedural Adam-12, with other parts in quick succession such as on The Man and the City, The Bold One: The Lawyers, Sarge (as shown here with a young Randolph Mantooth), O'Hara, U.S. Treasury, The F.B.I., Rod Serling's Night Gallery and Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law. This last one was of some distinction because the costar of Owen Marshall was one Lee Majors. But he comes into further prominence a tad later.
Having toiled in these TV dramas, Wagner was at last ready for a chance on the big screen. She landed the co-leading role (opposite Peter Fonda) in 1973's Two People. In fact, the director of the film, Oscar-winner Robert Wise, was so enamored of Wagner after seeing her in action on TV that he took his project from Columbia Pictures and aligned it with Universal just so he could have her star in it.
The romantic road picture was a sort of hybrid updating of One Way Passage and It Happened One Night with Fonda as a Vietnam draft dodger who comes upon a disheartened fashion model (Wagner) in Marrakesh. She is there for a photo shoot while he is on his way back to the U.S. to turn himself in to the government.
She falls for him and wants to provide a life for them both in Europe on her sizeable income, but he, weary from wandering all over, will not be dissuaded from returning to New York to face his punishment. She has one secret of her own that might complicate things, but will it make enough of a difference in the end?
The low-budget (done through Wise's own production company) movie has an interesting supporting cast that includes Estelle Parsons, Geoffrey Horne and, as Wagner's mother, Frances Sternhagen, but it was not a great success, even on its own humble terms.
Nevertheless, Wagner was then chosen to play the female lead in The Paper Chase (1973.) A drama concerning the study of law at Harvard University, the film starred Timothy Bottoms (for whom? Bah-dah bum!) as a first year student under the guidance of crotchety old sage John Houseman. Bottoms falls for Wagner, not realizing at first that she is Houseman's daughter.
The film was a sleeper hit (later inspiring a TV series by the same name), but most of the accolades went to producer and sometime actor Houseman who had been a successful radio performer rather than an on-screen presence. He won his part after it was turned down by James Mason, Edward G. Robinson, Melvyn Douglas, John Gielgud and Paul Scofield. For his trouble, he took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar!
Still under contract to Universal, Wagner returned to TV, making multiple guest appearances on shows such as Marcus Welby, M.D. and two episodes of The Rockford Files. In 1975 (based upon her solid work on Rockford), she was brought on as a guest star for The Six Million Dollar Man, a highly popular show starring Lee Majors as an astronaut who is brought back from the brink of death after a crash landing with mechanical legs, an arm and one eye. Now imbued with super speed, strength and vision, he works as a courageous government agent.
Wagner signed on for a two-part episode as Jaime Sommers, Majors' old girlfriend who has become a tennis pro. When a skydiving accident nearly kills her, just as they are on the brink of marriage, Majors arranged to have her saved with the same bionic technology that was implemented in his own body. She gets new legs, a new arm and (in her case) a new ear with supersensitive hearing. Things go along swimmingly until her body rejects the new parts and, in a tragic turn of events, she dies.
Viewers went wild over Wagner's character. She brought to the one-shot role an extreme naturalness, a sense of kindness, vulnerability, humor and sympathy that simply would not go away in their minds. Not only were the ratings for her episodes impressive, but the fan reaction was such that the producers decided they had made a mistake in killing the character off and that she should actually be launched into her own series. And not just any actress was going to do, either. The Bionic Woman needed to be Lindsay Wagner.
Trouble came twofold. In the first place, Jaime Sommers died at the end of the storyline. That issue could be explained away as part of a governmental cover-up in which the character was cryogenically frozen, preserving her body until surgeons could fix what was wrong. Then, in order to separate from from the parent series, she would be given amnesia that made her forget having been in love with Majors' character. The bigger problem was that in the meantime between the filming of the episode and the decision to launch a series, Wagner's contract with Universal had expired with re-signing. She was no longer obligated to take the part!
The result was that when it came time to sign Wagner up for The Bionic Woman, she was in the driver's seat when it came to salary negotiations. With the help of a savvy agent and her own determination not to be undersold for what was something she was only partly interested in doing (and what might prevent her from doing further movies), she scored a (then) whopping $500,000 a year deal.
When Majors discovered that this newcomer was making more for her show than he was on his already proven series, the atmosphere became chilly indeed. After producers agreed to increase his own salary as well, things became more pleasant and soon he and Wagner developed a solid friendship and a significant amount of chemistry together. Wagner reappeared on The Six Million Dollar Man in order to launch The Bionic Woman and he appeared on her show five times thereafter and she on his as well.
Wagner also remarried in 1976 to fellow film and television actor Michael Brandon. During the early part of their marriage, when The Bionic Woman was taking off into the stratosphere, Brandon was only able to land an occasional TV-movie, putting him decidedly in the back seat career-wise. He would, however, later proceed onward to a long, steady career as a useful, all-purpose character actor.
Things were almost nipped in the bud when Wagner was involved in a nasty car accident and suffered a laceration to her right upper lip! While her bionic counterpart was known to stop a car with no brakes by merely placing her foot outside the door to drag the vehicle to a stop, Wagner was clearly all too human herself and was left with a visible scar. Early season one episodes sometimes reveal the discoloration and indentation, though rather than ruining her face, this became something of a distinctive trait of hers or even a badge of honor.
The Bionic Woman was an immediate hit, with Wagner's take on the heroine different enough from Majors' rendition of the similar hero to stand on its own. Whereas The Six Million Dollar Man was mostly an action-oriented show, The Bionic Woman, while still containing various action scenes, managed to incorporate more of a human element into its stories. Much of this came from Wagner's insistence that there be dimension to her character and a reluctance to incur violence. The character rarely brandished a gun.
As a mechanically-enhanced female (who cost the government millions of dollars!), Jaime Summers was impelled to become an agent herself, with Richard Anderson (as Oscar Goldman) and Martin E. Brooks (as Dr. Rudy Wells) playing their roles on both series. However, Wagner always infused humor, awe at her own abilities, fear, empathy and other traits into the role. She had a halting, quirky, fresh way of delivering lines that set her apart from others who might have coveted the part.
Initially, she was set up as a schoolteacher who would be called away for this mission or that one, but this was phased out over time and eventually abandoned. While the classroom scenes gave Wagner a chance to deliver various moral lessons, they also tended to be a trifle annoying, especially when Robbie Rist (the dreaded Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch) appeared as one of her students. When season two began, it was clear that the series was heading in a slightly more adult direction. Wagner was almost always braless and sometimes showed a downright startling amount of quasi-nudity for a 1977 family hour show!
A barrage of merchandise came out during the run of the show, from lunch boxes to board games to comic books to disembodied heads that could have their hair styled and make-up applied to them. Then there was the requisite doll that, despite having been developed to the exact measurements of Wagner's face, looked nothing like her. The doll, which came in a jogging suit modeled after the one she wore in the opening credits (and later a blue jumpsuit), had various clothes available for purchase, all with amusing names such as Peach Dream, Lime Lite, Casual Day, Floral Delight and the ghastly Country Comfort, seen below in all its squalor.
Naturally, as the next hot TV star, she was featured on the cover of TV Guide as well. Incidentally, was there really a time when a national magazine was published with so little clutter, bombast and hyperactive color on its cover?! It's practically refreshing to see such simplicity.
In her role as an undercover agent, Wagner would often be disguised as anything from a flight attendant to a female wrestler to a prison inmate to even a beauty contestant. In this way, the show prefigures the much later Alias, in which Jennifer Garner played an agent who changes her background and appearance each week in order to fight evil, though Wagner was nearly always still recognizable as Wagner, with only the occasional hat or wig to mix things up.
As an example of how networks once carelessly scoffed at shows that were actually performing well, ABC cancelled The Bionic Woman after one and a half seasons (during which it had been #5 and #14!) because the series didn't represent the demographic they were after. (They would kill now just to have a fraction of the viewers who faithfully tuned into the show at that time.) Realizing that the show had not fully run its course, NBC picked it up for themselves and put it on their slate for the 1977-78 season.
As I mentioned before, Wagner brought some serious humanity, believability and emotion to the potentially cardboard role and for her efforts she was twice nominated for Golden Globe Awards (losing to Susan Blakely in Rich Man, Poor Man and Lesley Ann Warren in 79 Park Avenue, hardly fair as they were both the leads of juicy miniseries before that was a category unto itself!) In 1977, however, she did win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Dramatic Series. With the expensive show unable to win significant enough numbers at NBC, The Bionic Woman was cancelled at the end of the '77 – '78 season (as The Six Million Dollar Man was at ABC as well.)
During one of her hiatuses from the show, she fit in a now-forgotten movie called Second Wind, all about running, with David Naughton as her fanatically invested husband who allows the sport to take over. She also headlined her own bizarre TV special, Lindsay Wagner: Another Side of Me, which couldn't have been more eclectic. She re-enacted her wedding to Michael Brandon (and played Guinevere to his Lancelot!), sang with Paul Anka and did a silent movie spoof with Avery Schreiber and Vincent Price. If that wasn't enough, she also swam in an aquatic ballet an amateur synchronized swimming team!
Sadly, however, her marriage to Brandon became unravelled and was over by 1979. Eager to shake off her bionic association, she took part in two TV-movies that took place in the past and in much simpler times. First came The Incredible Journey of Doctor Meg Laurel, all about a (then rare) female doctor who tries to start her practice in the country, but comes up against a crusty old medicine woman (Jane Wyman) who blocks her at every turn.
The title of this one was so long that in promos, they had to break it up in two in order to avoid filling the screen with the name of the movie!
Next was The Two Worlds of Jennie Logan, which had her playing a contemporary housewife who moves to an old Victorian house, finds a gown, fixes it up, tries it on and then is spirited away to the past! There she becomes enmeshed in a romance and murder plot with Marc Singer and Linda Gray (who was Wagner's aunt by marriage in real life!)
Perhaps recalling how her Golden Globe nominations had been won away by ladies in sultry miniseries, Wagner next signed on to star in Scruples, a very glitzy and eventful three-night affair. A huge cast was assembled to put the Judith Krantz-penned novel on-screen. Barry Bostwick, Marie-France Pisier, Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Connie Stevens, Michael Callan, Robert Reed and Gene Tierney are just some of the names who popped up in the sprawling telefilm.
In 1981, Wagner costarred in two feature films, though neither one lit a fire at the box office. In High Risk, she played a young lady held captive in a South American compound who is rescued as a side effect of several Americans coming there to steal $5 million.
James Brolin, Anthony Quinn, James Coburn, Ernest Borgnine and Bruce Davison were also among the cast, so she was in good company anyway in the steamy, tropical adventure.
Nighthawks was a gritty police drama that starred (a scruffily bearded) Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer with Wagner as Stallone's ex-wife. Stallone and Williams must try to terrorist Hauer from completing his mission and Wagner becomes part of his plans.
The troubled film was first meant to be a second sequel to The French Connection, but Gene Hackman took a pass. It then ran into problems when the initial director left the movie midstream with an additional blow coming when the studio started chopping it up in order to make it more conventional and less violent. Some of Wagner's work was excised, including what Stallone considered “extraordinary acting” by her. Thus, she was left with little to do but take part in what was ultimately a preposterous finale.
It would be five years before Wagner ventured to feature films again. In the meantime, she made several TV-movies and worked on another series. In Callie & Son, she played the matriarch of a Texas family who is horrified to learn that her son Jameson Parker has wed a problematic blonde tart (played by Michelle Pfeiffer!) The two square off in an outdoor showdown that does not end well.
She remarried for the third time to Henry Kingi, a part Black/part-Cherokee stunt coordinator who she had first met during The Bionic Woman. Though the two seemed blissfully happy (and had two sons together), their marriage only lasted until 1984. Kingi was, and remains to this day, a very busy and sought after person in the stunt community. (Wagner's first born son Dorian is a busy stuntman and bit actor now as well.)
Another of her more meaty parts came with I Want to Live, a remake of the 1958 Susan Hayward film (which had earned that actress an Oscar.) She played a woman with a young child caught up in a crime that ultimately sends her to the gas chamber, though this pale rendition of the story (like so, so many that were done during the '80s) couldn't begin to erase memories of the original.
She managed to appear as a guest on Lee Majors' series The Fall Guy in 1983 and then did another miniseries, Princess Daisy, though not as the title heroine, but as her mother. Merete Van Kamp was Daisy. Based on another Judith Krantz “epic,” it costarred Paul Michael Glaser, Robert Urich, Claudia Cardinale, Stacy Keach, Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach (!), Sada Thompson and Rupert Everett. Two Kinds of Love had her playing the terminally ill mother of Ricky Schroeder and the wife of Pete Weller.
She got to work with Joanne Woodward in the 1984 TV-movie Passions in which they played women married to the same man (Richard Crenna) yet unaware of one another! Things get messy when he drops dead of a cerebral hemorrhage. This same year, she played Jessie, a doctor first introduced in a two-hour movie followed by a series. Tony Lo Bianco costarred as a police lieutenant while her mother in the show was played by Celeste Holm. Sadly for her, the series was cancelled after just ten episodes.
In 1985, she costarred in Martin's Day, a kidnap drama featuring Richard Harris, James Coburn, Justin Henry and Karen Black. It was one of many occasions in which she played a doctor. The little-seen film wasn't able to reignite a big screen career, however. All through the late-'80s, Wagner appeared in TV-movies opposite such male costars as Jack Scalia, Chris Sarandon, Carroll O'Connor and Armand Assante. Having worn her hair mostly the same way throughout The Bionic Woman, Wagner experimented a lot with it afterwards. Today's chicken or the egg question is: Who had this look first? Wagner or Meg Ryan? ("Bitch, Stole My Look!")
In 1987, fans Lee Majors and her got a treat when the two stars teamed up for The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman. The two teamed up to fight off terrorists while Wagner reeled at the fact that Majors had a grown son from a previous relationship! (Naturally, the young man winds up bionic, too, after an accident.)
In 1988, Wagner portrayed courageous, real-life terrorist survivor and heroine Uli Derickson, a flight attendant who showed extreme bravery during a hijacking. The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story also had Wagner's cropped and permed hair at perhaps its crispiest ever!
Many more telefilms followed, including ones opposite Tom Skerritt, Bruce Boxleitner and even her old High Risk costar James Brolin (in Voice of the Heart.) In 1989, she and Lee Majors were back again in Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman, this time with yet another future star on board, Miss Sandra Bullock. This was intended to serve as the launch for a new Bionic Woman series to star Bullock, but it never came to fruition.
Another go round at a regular series came that same year with A Peaceable Kingdom, with single mother of three Wagner as the director of the L.A. County Zoo, costarring Tom Wopat, but the show only lasted for a dozen episodes.
A momentary bounce back to feature films came with 1991's Richochet, which starred Denzel Washington, John Lithgow and Ice-T. She played a district attorney and was fifth-billed.
After several more TV-movies, she met up with Lee Majors one more time in 1994's Bionic Ever After? By now, the jokes were flying fast and furious that the cyborg couple was getting mighty long in the tooth to be fighting crime, jumping all over, etc... Wagner refused to sign on for the project unless the two characters truly wound up married at the end, considering how long fans had waited for them to be united (almost two decades by now!)
For those who don't frequent the Lifetime Movie Network or other similar channels, it probably seemed as if Miss Wagner fell off the face of the earth, though, in truth, she has always continued working. Some more of her costars in the multitudinous TV-films she's done include Angie Dickinson, Anthony Hopkins, Piper Laurie, Perry King, Martin Sheen and even her old Scruples costar Barry Bostwick (in 1994's Once in a Lifetime.)
For someone who really is a favorite television actress to so many kids of the '70s, it was a little sad to see her more often in advertisements for the Sleep Number Bed than in movies and TV programs, though, like I said, she has worked continuously. A fourth and final marriage to film producer Lawrence Mortoff only lasted from 1990 to 1993. As of yet, a fairy tale ending with regards to romance seems to have eluded her, though she is proud of her two now-grown sons.
She has taken a deep interest in various charitable organizations, from domestic violence to animal welfare and also became heavily involved in acupressure, vegetarian cooking, spiritual awareness, meditation and holistic therapy. To this end, she sponsors various workshops and retreats geared towards attaining peace in one's life. Now, we in The Underworld don't go in for all that gobbledegook, but if it helps her and makes her happy then we are all for it!
Her sci-fi cred almost led to her being offered the lead in Star Trek: Enterprise when Genevieve Bujold abruptly quit during the first episode, but ultimately Kate Mulgrew won the part. Even so, Wagner has popped up in various sci-fi series, notably in episodes of Warehouse 13 and Alphas, her work apparently received positively enough for her to play the same character four times between the two shows.
In 2007, a dire remake of Bionic Woman (the word "The" wasn't all that was missing!) hit the airwaves and was mercifully canned after nine episodes. Unlike its predecessor, which was idealistic, forthright, engaging and, most of all, fun, the remake was dark, cynical and featured several unlikable supporting characters. Thus, it became just one more marred, disrespectful remake of a piece of beloved pop culture history to throw on the ever-growing pile of similar “efforts.”
We adore Miss Wagner who, after a few years of gaunt underweight followed by a few years of what looked like severe cosmetic surgery, has emerged looking great and demonstrating a strong degree of level-headed enthusiasm. Hopefully, her deep well of talent will not go unutilized for long as she undoubtedly has a unique brand of charm that still has so much to offer!