In this week’s episode, Lindsay Wagner of The Bionic Woman, stops by the Stash and has a surprising effect on Walt Flanagan. Here, one of the most iconic women in sci fi, talks about the groundbreaking role of Jaime Sommers and working on a series on the cusp of new special effects technologies.
Q: In the episode, Walt Flanagan is so starstruck at the sight of you he can barely form a complete sentence, but you don’t seem very phased. Is it common for adult men to be stunned speechless in your presence?
A: It’s very common — for both men and women. When someone grows up with something as such an important part of their childhood, it never really leaves you. Even though you grow up around that, it still registers in your mind in that same sort of innocent, tender, unguarded way in your heart — and as you grow up and develop your adult personality around it, when something triggers that thing that was so important to you as a child, that child just kind of comes alive again inside of you. I get to see that a lot — sometimes people get very outgoing, demonstrative and excited, and some other people clam up and are surprised even themselves by how they feel. That character meant a lot to a lot of people: a female, a strong female, that cared and had compassion, especially for children because she was a teacher as well. So that character was very meaningful for almost two generations growing up, and I get to see that from people all the time. It moves me so much, that it meant so much to them growing up. So Walt’s reaction wasn’t a surprise, but it did tickle me because I know he’s been dealing with all kinds of sci-fi celebrities for years.
Q: Walt’s childhood preference, too, for The Bionic Woman over The Six Million Dollar Man is indicative of the show’s ability to bridge the “gender divide.”
A: I think the attempt that we made to make her so real and so human and so relatable — and the sensitivity of the character was relatable to kids in general because they haven’t become hardened yet, and boys, especially perhaps, hadn’t become the “hardened self” that’s “expected” in a male in our society, in that generation. I think people forget that this new balance of masculine and feminine in our society — women being allowed to be strong and men being allowed to be sensitive and still strong — is a very new thing. I think people 30 and younger don’t get that it was literally just decades ago when that wasn’t so. And so Jaime Sommers was — as we portrayed her, and very intentionally so — trying to bring about a balance in human power. We were trying to show the balance between masculine and feminine, that it doesn’t have to be just the masculine way to be powerful. You don’t have to sacrifice sensitivity and caring for other people — including your so-called adversary — while still being powerful enough to take care of things if it’s not going right. I think the youth – the girls and the boys — responded to that. I’ve had several men tell me that very thing, “I loved your show because it taught me that one could be strong and sensitive at the same time.” I think that’s why a lot of men have told me they liked The Bionic Woman over The Six Million Dollar Man.
Q: It’s hard to see history being written while you’re in it, but when you were working on the show, did you realize it was going to be as groundbreaking as it was?
A: We didn’t know it was going to be as iconic as it was. Groundbreaking, yes, because we were intentionally trying to break ground, or the glass ceiling if you will, in some ways. But as far as the magnitude, the iconic status, continuing on and on, reruns forever, we weren’t aware of that. We didn’t really think about it — we didn’t have time to think about that.
Q: What was it like working on a show that was rather ahead of its time in regards to technology and special effects?
A: It was so demanding, since back then, shows on television didn’t do all the kinds of things we were doing on the show. The rhythm of television production had to change a bit for this new wave of technology and special effects to come into it. Younger generations can’t even imagine it, because the kinds of things we were doing on our show were cutting edge then, and it’s laughable now for kids. Even young adults look at it and think, “That was cutting edge? That’s a slo-mo camera, I can do that on my iPhone.” [Laughs] But that’s how fast technology has advanced. We were working in a paradigm that was filled with more or less a “talking head” kind of show, so the production was always trying to get done on time — and never getting it done on time. A normal show would have a few actors talking, get some shots, some closeups and move on. We had all these falls and jumps and explosions. The falls had to be done with three cuts — I would have to shoot a take-off of some sort, sometimes using a mini-tramp and all the other things that we use. And then we’d have to shoot the landing, where I’d jump off of some scaffolding they’d built. And then the long fall had to be set up separately with my stunt double jumping off a building — whatever number of stories she was jumping off at the time — and all that needed to get done in order to make one little jump, which we had often multiples of in one episode. So we were kind of always scrambling to get the production schedule to accommodate that.
Q: You were able to influence a lot of the episodes, particularly the episode “Biofeedback” focusing more on mind over matter. Were there other ways you were able to influence the direction of the show?
A: Yes, it was a lot of me bugging them to not make Jaime a stereotypic male superhero that just happened to wear a skirt. I wanted to have stories written where she had to think her way through things, or because of her compassion for a particular adversary, she was able to resolve things without going in and bashing someone because she was stronger than them. If you look at the arc of the whole show, there’s actually very few times where Jaime actually hits anyone — and that was my desire. I said we had to have her use her mind, and have her mind come up with creative ways to use her strength, so that we’re constantly reinforcing to the kids watching it to use your inner power — and if you have physical strength on top of that, all the better to enhance whatever you’re doing. But not to go out and just bowl people over. That’s kind of what, on a cultural level, the whole cultural revolution was about — it was about balancing out power with compassion, the masculine and the feminine. Moving from depending so much on external power, and moving to internal power, and going into what that would mean for a hero, which includes looking at your adversary as a human being who has desires and fears and everything else the same way — and maybe you still feel like you have to proceed and stop someone from doing something. But you approach things differently if you don’t see them as an inherent devil or nonhuman, just a thing that needs to be stopped. If you see them as someone who has desires and concerns, that kind of thinking will sometimes give you a creative idea as to how to approach the problem, instead of just simply going and finding the strongest thing to whack them with.
Q: Jaime Sommers was one of the first precursors of the female action star on TV. Is it easy to spot the similarities between Jaime and other heroines on TV today?
A: I really like Supergirl. When I saw that trailer, I was like, “Oh, I wonder what they’re going to do with this,” so I watched the first season and there’s no question in my mind that the creators of that show grew up with The Bionic Woman. It’s very reminiscent.
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