In 1975 America was undergoing major changes. The cloud of black smoke from a million burning bras (courtesy of the women's liberation movement) was clearing, and women emerged from it with television prominence. Helping lead that charge was Lindsay Wagner as "The Bionic Woman."
Originally bought on for a two-part arc on ABC's highly successful "The Six Million Dollar Man" starring Lee Majors, in the series Wagner played tennis pro Jaime Sommers, a childhood friend and former flame of astronaut Steve Austin, who after being critically injured in a parachuting accident is given a bionic makeover at Austin's insistence.
Despite dying at the end of the first arc, Wagner's character proved so popular that Jaime was resurrected for another two-parter, "The Return Of The Bionic Woman." Her second appearance proved another ratings blockbuster, and ABC quickly gave Wagner her own spin-off and a permanent place in pop culture history.
For the next three years, tennis-pro-turned-part-time-schoolteacher-and-spy for OSI, Jaime Sommers thrilled audiences with her high-stakes adventures, and unlike TV super-women counterparts of the day, "Charlie's Angels" and "Wonder Woman," Wagner didn't rely on big hair and skimpy costumes, opting instead for a girl next door image - albeit one with extraordinary abilities. It was Wagner's ability to humanize an ordinary woman, unwittingly thrust into extraordinary situations, which made her the most relatable TV superwoman of the day.
Wagner, now 66, looks back on those times with extreme fondness.
"I have the most amazing stories," she reveals exclusively to Headlines & Global News. "I get to see the child that sill lives in all these 30-, 40-, 50- and even 60-year-olds sometimes, that's so wonderful. I've had tattooed biker guys stroll up to me all tough and will start talking to me, and all of a sudden they're 7 years old again. They'll talk to me, turn away and start their tough strut again. That child does live in all of us, so I consider it a blessing I get to see that."
Wagner also stands proud of the social issues the show tackled. "I feel very proud of a lot of what we were able to do, which people look at today and don't even get," she says. "Generations now don't even fathom life without a cell phone, but so much has changed on a cultural level. When you watch 'The Bionic Woman' now, unless you're looking for it, people don't see that or think about it. To just think, 'Wow they did that in those days?'"
One storyline in particular that stands out for Wagner saw her character's romance with an American Indian; it's those subtle societal changes the show tackled head on that she feels were important to have been a part of.
"Jaime Summers had a relationship with Tommy Littlehorse, played by Charlie Hill, a Native American comedian who came on as an actor to the show," she explains. "Jaime Summers dated an Indian, come on! I think the only possible other interracial thing that was happening at the time was 'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner,' and that was a feature film with big money and lots of stars. So for Jaime to have an interracial relationship was off the charts. But we did that on 'The Bionic Woman.'"
While Hill's character was short-lived, for Wagner it was a milestone. Especially when you consider equal rights issues for American Indians' was still a hot topic. "Either that year or the year before, Native American people were just given the right to practice their own religion," she says. "The principle that our country was based on, they were not allowed to do a sun dance, it was illegal, literally illegal. So we kind of barged in there with the rest of the movements, like with the Native American movement, and said, 'We're doing it.'"
While Wagner hasn't revisited the series in its entirety of late, she did watch a few episodes while working on its DVD release a few years back and admits, "As a much more adult actress I watch myself and do criticize myself here, then I'll think that wasn't bad, so I do go back and forth as far as my performance goes."
She also shares with Headlines & Global News why the show that made her a star, unlike her "Six Million Dollar" counterpart, never revealed the final cost of "The Bionic Woman."
"That was a whole political thing wasn't it?" she says, laughing. "She couldn't cost more than the man! They were going to make it more, but there was this whole political thing with the network because it was the beginning of the feminine revolution." Ultimately it was never revealed.
These days, Wagner, now an accomplished author, mother and humanitarian, spends the majority of her time working in the spiritual empowerment field, focusing on advancing human potential. It's something she's been passionate about since those "Bionic" days and actually fought to incorporate into the show.
"I was very much into meditation and body, mind, spirit connection and healing the body through the mind," she explains. "I brought a lot of information to the production office, and I kept trying to get them to do a story about mind over matter. They finally did with an episode called 'Biofeedback.'"
"It was an important episode because to get it done, I literally had to agree that I would do Bigfoot and the Fembot episodes," she says with a laugh. "We would barter. Originally I said, 'I don't want to do that, are you kidding me?' Of course those are the two things people remember most, but that story was another example of what we were doing. We were really pushing the envelope, and if you watch them again and think about the time that it was relevant to, it was important stuff."
Today Wagner is selective of the acting projects she undertakes, preferring those with a "feel good message," like her latest project "Love Finds You in Valentine." Based on the book by Irene Brand, the movie follows the story a young woman who, after inheriting a ranch in the town of Valentine, Neb., travels there intent on selling it, only to fall in love and rethink her entire life. Its premise hit home with Wagner.
"It's a lovely story, and I didn't have to carry the show on my shoulders, to be honest with you," she says, laughing. "There were just some things in there that kind of reminded me of some old family stories. I can remember going back to see the family farm where my cousin still lives, and there was something weird that happened when I walked on the land, it's just almost genetic. So that element of the story meant something to me and was interesting."
With the litany of female superheroes on TV today, Wagner remains proud of her pioneer status, even proudly displaying her "Bionic Woman" lunch box - "I think that is the coolest thing of all," she says - and still has her "Bionic Woman" action figure, albeit in a box, somewhere. She's also enjoying one new show in particular - "Supergirl."
"Compared to anything else, that show, I think is the closest thing I've seen to someone trying to incorporate the humanity of the character," she says. "I applaud them, and if they asked, oh yes, I'd definitely make an appearance."
"Love Finds You in Valentine" premieres Valentine's Day, Sunday, Feb. 14 at 7 p.m. EST on the UP Network.