Lindsay Wagner’s life has changed dramatically since the 1970s, when her role as Steve Austin’s sweetheart in The Six Million Dollar Man spawned her own hit series, The Bionic Woman.
At 65, but looking years younger, the Emmy Award-winning actress is now a holistic healer with a passion for inspiring a new generation of actors and advancing human potential.
But she’ll forever be remembered as Jaime Sommers, the tennis pro empowered by top-secret bionic surgical implants after a skydiving accident, and she’s OK with that. “I got over that years ago,” the affable actress, author and activist said with a laugh.
Indeed, Wagner, who has two grown sons, is persistently referred to as “The Bionic Woman,” despite having appeared in dozens of other TV shows and movies, including the mini-series Scruples, The Rockford Files and Marcus Welby M.D., and feature films such as The Paper Chase, with John Houseman, and Nighthawks, with Sylvester Stallone.
“Some people get frustrated by that because sometimes the industry pigeonholes you. Some people start to resent that which gave them something wonderful.”
The Bionic Woman certainly provided wonderful opportunities for Wagner, who will be in Victoria this summer to conduct a six-day advanced acting retreat starting July 13 at Stylux Studio.
“It gave me the opportunity to do a lot of things I really wanted to do, to make something meaningful,” she recalled.
Even with the strictures that shooting a far-fetched cop show imposed, Wagner pushed to ensure her character was more than a tough guy in a skirt.
“We were able to do certain things you weren’t able to see in an action show,” she said.
“We tried to show you human interaction, not just perpetrators drawing the hard line. It was the time of the Cold War and people were fighting for what they thought were right. They weren’t just demons.”
Being the Bionic Woman at a time when “TV was my playground” gave her considerable clout, said Wagner, who, for years, was Ford Motor Co.’s ad campaign pitchwoman as a result.
“The [TV producers] were willing to let me try things,” she said. “The whole issue-oriented movies genre was pretty much taboo before then. I just started hitting them with one idea after another.”
Topics addressed in Wagner’s issue-driven films included domestic abuse (Shattered Dreams), capital punishment (I Want to Live) and terrorism (The Taking of Flight 847).
“My show was so off the charts I had no competition for many years,” Wagner said. It wasn’t until she went into business for herself that she realized she’d become as much of a filmmaker as actress, she said.
“We had three channels and now we have 1,000, but my success was about the fact I was doing material other people just weren’t doing,” she said, recalling her post-Bionic Woman period.
“No one had the guts or power to push through with those issue stories. It seems to be what was in the heart of the public as well . . . the culture was ready.”
Wagner particularly enjoyed playing Kate McKinnon, a crusading mother who becomes ostracized for attempting to suppress the anti-Semitic statements of a beloved small-town mayor and schoolteacher (Randy Quaid) in the 1988 ABC movie Evil in Clear River, based on a true story.
“It was actually based on the story of a woman in Alberta,” Wagner said. “The Americans made it into an American story, of course.”
Another highlight was 1979’s The Incredible Journey of Dr. Meg Laurel, in which Wagner played the orphaned Harvard Medical School graduate who returned to her Appalachian hometown in the 1930s to treat the sick.
She learns her modern medicine is in conflict with homespun remedies offered by Granny Arrowroot (Jane Wyman), the local medicine woman, however. “She used herbs and teas and natural remedies. I had wanted to do a story about the battle between the allopathic and homeopathic worlds. Instead of identifying something as bacteria and finding something to kill it, let’s see what I can do to enhance the integrity of the human body.”
The film tapped into Wagner’s fascination with natural healing. Wagner, who suffered from severe ulcers in adolescence, began studying it when she was 19.
She is a longtime vegan who has since co-authored the vegetarian lifestyle bestseller The High Road to Health and Lindsay Wagner’s New Beauty: The Acupressure Facelift. She would likely have become a naturopathic doctor if she hadn’t pursued acting, she said.
Wagner’s intensive acting retreats, inspired by her classes at San Bernardino Valley College, incorporate elements of her experiential “Quiet the Mind & Open the Heart” retreats and workshops, designed to improve lives by shifting perspectives. “I’m fond of the impact of being able to cloister yourself and focus,” said Wagner, whose stress-reduction techniques can be tailored to help performers overcome anxiety.
Sadly, Wagner recently lost her own acting mentor, James Best, who was best known for playing goofy sheriff Rosco Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard.
“He was an unsung hero, my only acting teacher, really,” Wagner said, recalling one exercise Best gave his students was sending them out to “people-watch” and then take note of feelings it inspired. “He always said ‘You can’t play anything that isn’t inside you already,’ ” Wagner said. “He even taught us a consciousness class, which is maybe why I blend those worlds.”
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