Considering the fact that Lee Majors has downright dominated audiences' television sets at numerous points of his career, is it any wonder, then, that in his latest role as Ash Williams’ non-nonsense papa he’ll be running roughshod over even Bruce Campbell’s personality-rich Deadite destroyer?
Majors, of course, has a been a TV star of the first order since his first series, playing the sensitive rancher Heath Barkley in the sudsy Western drama “The Big Valley” in 1964. He reached bionic, iconic status a decade later as astronaut-turned-cyborg-secret-agent Col. Steve Austin in “The Six Million Dollar Man.” He became a fan magazine staple alongside then-wife Farrah Fawcett, and delivered his third ratings hit, “The Fall Guy,” as bounty hunting Hollywood stuntman Colt Seavers in 1981. Along the way, there have been countless film appearances, made-for-TV movies, guest shots, cameos, voice roles and more.
Now 77, Majors is a living, breathing aspect of Hollywood history, and he’s still in the thick of things, joining “Ash Vs. Evil Dead” for its second season as Ash’s intimidating father, Brock. “Who else would Ash want as his father?” enthuses his co-star Campbell. “It's Lee 'Goddamn' Majors to play his father! It's ridiculous – it's such a slam dunk, I can't even tell you… Honestly, the truth is it's just great to be able to every once in a while get a piece of casting where you're fist-pumping the whole time that we got him.”
With one eye clearly looking ahead to his latest TV triumph and another fixed on highlights from his storied showbiz past, Majors joined CBR for a rollicking look at the career of Hollywood survivor who’s not only still standing, but ready to do one or two of his own stunts.
CBR: So you certainly know your way around the set of a TV show.
Lee Majors: I would think so!
What was fun, different, or eye-opening coming aboard this show, “Ash Vs. Evil Dead,” and having such a crucial part?
Well, mainly the genre of the show, because I’ve done seven series that I know of – that I can remember! – and I’d never done anything associated with horror films. I wasn’t really familiar with the original movies, because I never really went to horror movies. And all the “Walking Dead” stuff, I’ve never seen it. But when they asked me about this show, I said, “Well, let me look at the first season of the show.”
I sat and watched the whole ten shows in one sitting. I got to the end and said, “This is a really, really fun show.” I mean, I was caught up in it, especially with the comedic aspects of it. When Bruce is chainsawing somebody and throwing out these funny lines, it just takes away from the horror.
Bruce has been a big cheerleader of yours.
He’s a sweet guy. He’s a very underrated actor. He can do anything.
What was the fun for you in creating the character of Brock, and finding the friction between Brock and Ash?
It was pretty easy, because when I watched the ten shows, I knew what his father was like. Like father, like son. I had the same kind of attitude that he does, except I’m a little gruff in the beginning because I don’t want him around. I just want to get rid of him, because he took my daughter away from me, I blame him for all that. He ruined my business. Nobody wanted to buy anything from a father of “Ashy Slashy.” I’m just like a hermit. He shows up, and I don’t like him. I say, “Whatever you’ve got to do, do your business and get the hell out.”
While he’s there, though, is -- what kind of continues to happen in that first episode is, we start out very rough on each other, and then become very competitive. Some competitive scenes, then some scenes where I pull some emotion out of him when we’re talking about my daughter and stuff. You’ll see a little more acting from Bruce, which is good. He liked it, because he got to do a little bit more than just slash somebody up and say funny lines.
There’s some great little bits of dialogue that pay homage to some of your other shows.
There are a few cues that go in there that are hilarious. In fact, Bruce has a couple, and Lucy [Lawless] has one – I have a good one, too.
When you saw those lines, did they prepare you for that, or did you get a good laugh out of them?
Oh, I got a laugh – as soon as I read it, I laughed out loud. That made me want to do it more, because they were just so funny. I love spoofing off on those shows.
How picky are you when you choose projects? I’m sure you get approached to do stuff, cameos and different roles, all the time.
I’ve been playing a lot of fathers lately. You know Michelle Hurd who’s in the show – I played her husband’s father two seasons on “Raising Hope.” Garret Dillahunt – yeah, I played his father. I played a lot of fathers. I played Scott Baio’s father-in-law on his show. I’ve done a lot of that, but I like doing those because it’s comedy, and these are cameos, and you’re in there, and that’s it. So when I pick a role, I’m not looking for huge, huge, carry the thing, you know? I look to see if it could make a little impact, and then there’s some acting to it to make it good.
Aside from that, the next thing would be location. The only thing is, this one was New Zealand. I’m going, “Well, that doesn’t sound too bad!” Just getting there is the problem. But it was wonderful. I went up and back twice. It was 14 hours. It’s a long trip, but they treat you so well. And - I didn’t ask them for a lot of money. Just average, you know, because I really liked the show. Now, if it goes into the third season, Starz may have to step up a little! I was giving them a break.
You have this dual mantle: you’re a television icon, you’re a genre icon. How do you wear those titles?
I’m very humble about that. I get embarrassed by it. I’m up there waiting to do a photoshoot behind these two kids from “Ringside” or something. They were just all over the place with their photos. They were very funny and loud. But anyway, they spotted me out there and they said, “Oh my gosh, it’s the Bionic Man!” They were young, in their 30s. I didn’t think they’d know who the hell I was. They did, so they start taking their selfies and stuff. It’s all good. I’m just glad my work was appreciated.
I do some of the comic cons around the country, just to get out with the fans – because I never did them until this past year. It’s good to get out. Then you realize how powerful those shows were. I hit a lot of generations. I can tell. “Oh, I see. I can figure out.” They’re looking at “The Big Valley” picture. This group would be a little younger: “Oh, ‘The Fall Guy.’” Then one even a little younger, little older would be “Six Mil.” So you can kind of tell. You get at least three generations of different groups.
How is TV different from when you had a hit in the '60s, '70s and the '80s? How has it evolved? Or is it still kind of the same?
It’s the same thing. It’s the same. [Barbara] Stanwyck taught me, when I first started – she was great. She said, “You know, just be on time, hit your mark, know your words, and then keep your mouth shut.”
Bruce does a great imitation, because on the panels he would say, “Lee was old school – they’d say action, he was always on time, sitting on the set waiting. They’d do the scene, then cut. He’d walk over three feet and sit in the chair.” He said “And everybody else would run to the trailers, go get their stuff. He said, he’s there, and I’ll ask him if he’d want something and he’d say, ‘I’m good.’”
I didn’t really say a lot: I’m good. But he said it was great because some of the youngsters there even learned from the little old school, instead of running off to your trailer, it’s kind of more professional to stay close.
What was, for you, the most fun part of your time on “Six Million Dollar Man?” What was the thing you enjoyed most about that?
Oh, man. You know, it’s hard to say. It was fun to develop the character, but after a while, it got really tedious – and I hate to say “boring,” but it took two years before I had a love interest! I said to the producers, “This is the second season, almost the end, and I haven’t had a love interest.” I said, “I’m tired of looking at these hairy-legged guys on the crew. Can we get a lady in?” So that’s when we worked out the thing to bring in Lindsay Wagner.
But they ran my butt off on that show. I mean, we would do takes, take after take, ten takes of running at least 50 yards right at the camera and past the camera. The focus guy would miss it, you’d have to go back and do it again. If you don’t get it this time, you’re not going to get it. Today, I almost need a replacement on this knee – no cartilage in it. Shoulder? I can lift it to about there. It just takes a lot. And I did all my stuff, you know? Even in “Big Valley,” all the way up.
Then we went into “The Fall Guy,” and I did 80% of that stuff. But I always had a stuntman who coordinated it and helped me. He got paid, if I did a stunt – they got paid. Even in “Big Valley,” I did all the fights, but I had it choreographed by my stunt guy and I would do it, and he would get paid for it. On “Fall Guy,” we used every stuntman in the business on that show.
I loved that show.
We had great guests. I was able to cast some great people: Roy Rogers was on there, all the western cowboys were on there – we even got Richard Burton! You’d be surprised if you really looked down that cast list.
“Big Valley” would be surprising because there’s a lot of those that were kids then, like Ellen Burstyn – her name was Ellen McRae. She played a nun. Richard Dreyfus was about 18 playing a 15-year-old. So there was a lot of people – Bruce Dern – They all went through those series, because that’s all there was on television.
You were a producer on “The Fall Guy,” too. Is there any more movement on getting a movies made of that one or “Six Million Dollar Man?”
The [“Six Million Dollar Man”] movie is being written as we speak, supposedly by somebody. Yeah, Mark Wahlberg has agreed to do it, and it’s called “The Six Billion Dollar Man.” That’s the title.
“The Fall Guy,” they’re rewriting that script. I know that for sure, and Dwayne Johnson has agreed to do that. So it’s kind of interesting – we’ll see what happens. They’re a year or two away. Their schedules are booked.
On this show, do you let the stuntman come in now? Or do you still evaluate and say, “Oh I think I can handle this one?”
Let me tell you, whenever it’s possible. I can’t really do a lot of twisting on my knee. I wear a little brace that keeps it pretty good when I’m working. I can do some of it. I know the camera. You know, you could throw me out of a scene, I’m out. When you see me landing, I can get almost on the ground, and they cut to me and I can slump in, you know what I’m saying? You don’t have to see me sailing across the room and hitting something hard.
I know enough how to work the cameras. When I look at a script, I say, “Yeah, that can be done. I know how we can cheat that.” I don’t know if I could do another Western, but it’s like I say, you shoot me starting to get on a horse, cut away, and then when you cut back, I’m on the horse, because I used a ladder to get on there! I can slide off of one, but getting on, you’d have to put your left knee in the stirrup. I couldn’t get up there.
Can I tell you something? That reminded me of Roy Rogers, when he did the show. He and I come running out of a saloon and chase these guys, and they think I’m in a Jeep. We jumped on our horses – he’s got Trigger right there. When I was a cowboy, when I get to swing over, I see where the other guy is, because once you get the saddle, your horse kind of has a tendency to want to go, and that makes the other horse kind of do that, and if he’s not on, it might throw him a little bit.
So I’m swinging my leg and I’m looking over, his foot misses the stirrup. So they had to cut. We did it - he looked at me and he said, “Lee, I think my spring has sprung!” But you know, he had those two six guns on that weigh a ton, and he was old then. I mean, that was in the '80s, he was a star in the '50s and '60s. He was a little older then. He and Dale Evans were in the show.
I always wonder about that moment in your life when you were married to Farrah -- you guys were photographed everywhere. You had that peak fame kind of experience. What was that time like?
I’ll tell you who’s probably had the same feeling is Brad [Pitt] and Jennifer [Aniston], and that didn’t last long, either. It’s hard when two people are in the business. Of course, I met Farrah and she hadn’t done anything. When I met her, she had only been in town two weeks, and she moved in with me. We were together ever since then, and I started her out.
I was doing a series called “Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law,” and I had her put in as kind of a recurring girlfriend. So she got some training. And even in “Six Mil,” she did probably three or four shows. And “The Fall Guy,” even though by that time we were divorced, we’d just gone through the divorce, she came in and did a nice part in the pilot, which people didn’t think I’d be able to get her to do. Glen Larson was very nervous. He said, “You think she’ll do it?” He got in a limo to drive to the house to make sure that she had come down, he was that nervous about it. She came in, [inaudible 14:27] it was great.
Yeah, but you know, that was back when we didn’t have the camera phones like they do now. You had paparazzi, you had the National Enquirer, but you don’t have the phone on you if you’re in a nightclub or somewhere, a dinner. Just not the exposure – or the exposure that you don’t want. So I was lucky that I was back in the old school days. I was always nice to the paparazzi. And even though the National Enquirer wrote a lot of stuff, not a lot of it was bad. Because I felt the best way to do was befriend them. If you collaborate more with them, they write good stuff about you.
The paparazzi would take good pictures; if you’d just stop and let them shoot, they’ll use the good ones. If you’re nasty to them, they’ll take the worst shot and print it. You know what I’m saying? You have to use it to your advantage. It’s not like Alec Baldwin -- he just wants to punch everybody. And those are unflattering pictures, and unflattering press that he’s always getting. You know, he should know better!
As the result of playing The Six Million Dollar Man, did you have a lot of people come up to you --
-- In the bar? How about in a bar? I walk in to get a beer, and a guy will say, “You want to arm wrestle?” You know? “No thanks.”
I was wondering about kids with prosthetics. Did you find a lot of people telling you, “I was a kid and I had an artificial limb, and you were my hero?”
Yes, yes. And even to this day, when I do the comic con things, people would come up and they'd say how they were helped so much by the show, and they watched the whole series while they were in the hospital or recovering from something.
I was probably responsible for some of it – somebody jumping off a barn – but a lot of them said, “I joined the service.” I had a lieutenant colonel the other day. He gave me this medal that he got. It was a bronze star, and he wrote this nice letter with it, in the box. He said, “I want you to have it. You inspired me to go into the service. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” And he wanted me to have that – and I didn’t really want to take it. He insisted that I take it. I almost had a tear in my eye.
Tell me, when you think about Barbara Stanwyck, who was this huge Hollywood star on the show that launched your career, what are the interesting memories that you have about her?
Well, she was very tough – very tough. Off screen, she would call me Heath, and Linda Evans was Audra [our characters’ names]. I remember when we finished the show, I knew to be on time. When we finished the show, we were meeting her for lunch or dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. I’m sitting there by myself, 12:30. She comes in at 12:31. Barbara sits down. I’m there. Five minutes later, here comes Linda. She looks up and says, “Audra, you’re late.” Five minutes: “Audra, you’re late.” It’s like, Didn’t I teach you better?” I’ve learned that, and I’ve never forgotten it. I have been on time for everything, all my life.
You are a Hollywood success story and a survivor. You’ve have a very nice, long run. When you look at the scope of your career, what do you think about it when you reflect on your time in Hollywood?
You know, time really flies I guess, because I go back and I can count like seven series that I did, and then I had a couple where I had arcs that I did at least five or six or seven shows, even though I wasn’t one of the stars of the show. I did three series over five years – and that’s 15 years on the air. You add in the other four series, and just all the hours, and it’s a lot of hours on film.
As I go back, and people say, “Is there any one thing that you might have done differently or you might have liked to have done differently?” They cancelled “Big Valley” after three seasons. My agent and I were in negotiations with the producer, director and writer of this particular movie, and we were in Malibu at the producer’s house, and my agent was there, and they were negotiating a three-picture deal. Two days later though, ABC said, we’re picking “The Big Valley” up. We go, “Oh, can’t do the film.” So I had to go back – ABC wouldn’t let me out.
They went to New York, and they found another young actor, Jon Voight, and the movie was “Midnight Cowboy” – which could have changed my career in a whole different direction to films. But as you know, I went through “Big Valley,” to “The Virginian,” to “Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law,” to “Six Mil,” to “Fall Guy,” so I never really had time for films, believe it or not.
When I had my break, last thing I wanted to do was go do more work at that time. I wanted to go rest up, charge, recharge the battery. After five years of doing “Fall Guy,” I had really burnt out, physically, mentally and everything. They wanted a sixth year, and I just said, “No, I can’t do it.” I turned down $24 million – and my agent and business manager have been crying ever since!
"Ash vs Evil Dead" chainsaws its way into Season Two on Starz, Sunday, October 2, at 8 PM EST.