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Monday, March 1, 2010

RETROALITY.TV EXCLUSIVE: Lindsay Wagner interview, Part 2

In part two of our in-depth chat with '70s TV icon Lindsay Wagner, the prolific actress-turned-advocate reveals why she stepped away from the television industry at the turn of the century—after 25 years of non-stop work. Initially opting to take "a year or two" off, Wagner became increasingly interested in hosting her holistic healing workshops and retreats—and increasingly disinterested in endeavoring to tell issue-oriented, inspirational stories in a TV landscape that was anything but.

So the conscientious actress, who won an Emmy for The Bionic Woman in 1977 and became the Queen of the TV movies for two decades thereafter, focused her creative and transformative energies on her experiential workshops, titled "Quiet the Mind and Open the Heart." These programs—"designed to help us overcome our own personal challenges, while accessing the peace and joy that is naturally within us," she states—are open to the public as well as special interest groups as Wagner's way of sharing the body-mind-spirit connection that has energized and influenced her own soulful journey. She's also shared her health-minded outlook in a best-selling vegetarian cookbook, The High Road to Health (1990), and Lindsay Wagner's New Beauty: The Acupressure Facelift (1986). She has recently released a meditation CD titled Open to Oneness.

Wagner first received recognition for her critically acclaimed portrayal of Susan Fields in The Paper Chase. She became a household name globally, though, when she broke the mold for women on television with her iconic portrayal of Jaime Sommers.  She regularly collaborated with the series' writers in executing her character's direction and the show's unique style of storytelling.

Her influential media presence and "a desire to use that," Wagner says, "as a way to communicate ideas to help people in their personal journey" is demonstrated in so many of the films in which she starred, such as:  The Incredible Journey of Doctor Meg Laurel, about the struggle between naturopathic and allopathic healthcare (1979); I Want To Live, on the moral dilemma regarding capital punishment (1983); Child's Cry, about child sexual abuse (1986);  The Taking of Flight 847, centered on root complexities of terrorism (1988); Evil In Clear River, examining the quiet rise of the Neo-Nazi movement in America (1988);  Shattered Dreams, on family violence, which she also co-produced (1991);  Fighting For My Daughter, highlighting the problem of teen prostitution (1995 ); Thicker Than Water, expressing compassion for the animal kingdom and the importance of family (2005); and Four Extraordinary Women, focusing on the emotional effect of breast cancer on family members (2006). 

A trusted voice off camera as well, Wagner has served as the Honorary Chair of ICAN (Inter Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect) while also advocating for human rights, domestic violence awareness, animal welfare and the environment. From 2003-2006, in collaboration with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, she co-facilitated a counseling group for convicted batterers and their families, employing a range of psychological and spiritual techniques. 

Still naturally vibrant at 60, Wagner is contemplating adding a return to television to her already busy and fulfilling schedule.


So ABC was receptive to you having creative input on The Bionic Woman?
No, it was Universal. Well, yes, Universal and ABC. They had to have me. They had no choice. It wasn’t because they went, “That’s great idea, Lindsay.” They had to hire me. The public literally demanded that show come back on, and the board of directors were saying, “Get that series.” Because when the first (two-part Six Million Dollar Man) episode was done, they killed her off. That’s what they did in those days: They give the lead person in a show a love interest and then kill them off, get rid of them.

And that’s what they did. Only they terrorized all the kids in the United States by doing that. Because they weren’t even thinking of the fact that the Six Million Dollar Man was the quintessential father figure, if you will—the actual iconic, patriarchal (persona) of that whole generation. And then they created the female counterpart, the quintessential mother figure. And then they just killed her. So kids were freaking out and fans were writing letters and the network was going, “Whoa, wait a minute. We’d better do something about this.” 

I was doing a movie in Canada, called Second Wind, at the time. And that was after I left the studio. They said, “Please come back. We’ve got to bring you back to life.” I said, “Well, I’m sorry, I’m not doing any more.” And they said, “No. You don’t understand. We’ve gotta bring you back to life.” So there was this great big deal to bring me back to do another two-part episode in which they brought me back to life. And then they basically said, “Okay … we’re gonna send you to teach school and work with the kids, so everyone will know you’re okay and everything’s fine.”

And that was it, again. So I go off again. And when that (two-part episode) came out, the response was so huge that the board of directors basically said, “We’ve gotta to make this a series.” And I was uninterested. So they chased me forever and kept throwing money at me. I said, “It’s not about the money. I want to do something meaningful.” I mean, I didn’t say those words, but for me it didn’t have enough to grab me. Because for me the acting was about an ability to communicate through story things that are important to me. That’s what my interest was. Storytelling has always been my interest in the industry. And I happen to believe very strongly in the influence that it has. And even then I knew the potency of the influence of television.

Do you see now, thirty-plus years later at these fan conventions, that what you put out was indeed taken from the show?
Yes. And that’s what’s happening now. People are old enough—whereas the kids would go, “Oh, Jaime Sommers! You lifted a car!”—now, people are coming and sharing with me, including the men. It’s interesting. In that generation when they got to their thirties, the women started coming to me: “You know, you have no idea how much that (show) meant to me.” They’d tell me these stories about how they pushed through. Remember, this was the beginning of a whole gender cultural revolution. And so those kids became the first wave of women to take positions that’d never been taken by women in the business world, in the political world.

I heard so many stories about how that helped them say no when Dad said, “You have to go to nursing school”—because when they wanted higher education, they had to go to nursing school. And this one woman wrote me from NASA. She’s a space engineer. She said she would call on the memories she had of Jaime Sommers to give her strength when she was bucking the velocity that our culture as well as her family had for her as a woman to go the direction for her to go.

So I heard a lot of stories like that. What was interesting to me was about ten years later when those kids got into their 40s, the men started coming forward. My estimation as to why is because it wasn’t cool for me to cop to the fact that they really got off on The Bionic Woman—and not just because they were hitting puberty. But because they really liked what was going on there.

So many men have told me, “I feel like you gave me permission to be strong and sensitive—your character.” Because they had to break through their own gender conditioning, they couldn’t tell me that until they got to be 40. Because they weren’t strong enough to just come out and say, “Hey, like it or not, I used to come home and watch it.” So many men have told me, “I used to lie to my friends, that I had to go home because my mom wanted me to go home, because I wanted to see The Bionic Woman but I didn’t want to tell anyone I wanted to go home to see The Bionic Woman. I would tell them that I wanted to go home to see The Six Million Dollar Man, but I had to hide the fact that I’d go home to watch The Bionic Woman.” It was all these guys right around 40 that finally started disclosing.” (Laughs.)

So you’re seeing that more and more.
Oh, yeah. It’s just kind of open now.

You have a real exchange with fans at these events.
Oh, yes. I also want people to know what I’m doing now. Not everyone’s interested in what I’m doing now—they’re interested in getting a photograph and remembering and that’s about it. But a lot of people have followed my career and they go, “Oh, really? Oh, God, that’s cool.” And a lot of people come to my workshops having met me at autograph shows. A couple of workshops have actually been generated by people who came to a workshop and said, “Oh, I’d love to host one.”

That’s fantastic. And bionics are still very much part of the culture—and now popular medicine.
Now they’re selling an apparatus for hearing better. They call it a bionic ear or something like that. Lee (Majors) is kinda moving in on my territory there. (Laughs.)

And yet, the Bionic Woman remake flopped after a few episodes. Did you feel that the producers and writers got it?
No, not at all.

It was completely different. And there certainly was no attempt at looking at life through a more balanced masculine-feminine mindset. And that was our goal with that show. She had the physical strength of and beyond a man, but she was a woman—she thought and had a heart. To put all of those qualities together. Not that she was genderless, but the whole thing we were talking about in the Sixties and the Seventies and beyond is allowing all human beings to recognize that we each have masculine and feminine in us. And it’s okay to utilize it, and you don’t have to become genderless. That’s not what that means. It means you of yourself. You’re always going to have a dominant (energy)—depending on how you’re born. But you don’t have to be devoid of opposite-gender consciousness.

And devoid is a good word to describe the remake. In focusing so intensely on the technological aspects of bionics, they made her pretty devoid of humanity.
Yeah. I hear that all the time. It lasted eight episodes.

At this point Retroality’s videographer, Curt Phillips, thankfully offers up this observation: And yet, that’s on DVD, but yours isn’t.
It’s a rights issue. It has to do with the rights to the Cyborg book. When Universal’s option on that book came up—a three-year option, whatever it was—somebody was asleep behind the wheel and (around) the day it became available, somebody else noticed and picked up the option. It was a distribution company in England. They said to Universal, “You have the film, but we have the option and the right show it.” And this whole battle began. And that’s why it went off the Sci-Fi Channel.

So they were in battles and negotiations as to how they were going to work this thing out. And then the family of the writer became involved. It just became a huge mess. Little by little they worked out various types of (agreements) and it’s being shown in Europe now and South America.

The bottom line is the characters. While they could do The Bionic Woman again—they had to change all of the ancillary characters. The only one that wasn’t in the Cyborg book was the Bionic Woman. Universal owned the Bionic Woman. And the other company owned all of the other characters (including)  Dr. Rudy Wells and Oscar Goldman.

So they had to create a (remake) with only the Bionic Woman and all-new characters.

So will we see the original anytime soon?—apparently you can watch the first season on it. I just found that out today. But as far as the show on DVD, they have it out in England and Germany in really nice quality. England has put out season one and season two, and Germany has put out season three, but they’re obviously in European zone, so you have to have a multi-zone machine to watch them. What I don’t know is why if they negotiated with them why they haven’t done it here. I don’t know what the problem is.

Sounds like they need to bring some East-meets-West feminine energy to conflict resolution! How did you manage to do humanize the “good guy-bad guy” dilemma on the series in the mid-’70s?
At that time it was the Cold War. And so the Russians were always bad guys. They were our nemesis, those agents or spies or whatnot we’re going after—we’re spies (too)—because we believe we’re right. We believe in what our country (stands for). So we make them look like some kind of a non-human or animal. But they’re doing for their country what they feel is right. We judge them as black and white.

(The show’s writers) made an attempt whenever possible to show the human part of the so-called bad guys. When Jaime Sommers went in there as a wrestler—“Savage Sommers”—the bad guy was this gal who was teaching me to wrestle. And they wrote this back story. Though I had to stop her and realize that this person I really like was actually this bad guy I was looking for, you got to understand what she was doing, what she was thinking and why. And it was kind of sad. And the woman had an awakening about herself.

So they tried to write everybody being human. And that’s what made it unique. And it was really hard to do, too. Especially when we started in midseason (in 1976) and had no backlog of stories. No other show had special effects like that. And yet they booked us in the same amount of time—six days—to do a show, just like Marcus Welby. So the writers and producers of various segments and (executive producer) Ken Johnson were just scrambling as fast as they could to try to keep me happy with me pushing: “No, this is too formula,” “No, you’ve got to make it more human” … They were incredibly creative and they did an amazing job. But sometimes I’d sit around thinking, Can you imagine what we could do if we had time actually to brainstorm about this stuff? Instead of oooh oooh let’s do this, let’s do that … hurry …

... throw the head of lettuce!
Right! We had to have so many bionics every fifteen minutes. It was formula. Television has formulas. Especially then. So we were obliged to have so many bionic actions. And that’s where a lot of the comedy came from. I’d say, “Let’s do funny things, let’s do fun things.” So I’d open up a can with my fingernail. Or I’d clean up my house really fast. I’d say, “What’s wrong with this having humor in it? What’s wrong with this being funny?” And it was like, “Yeah, why do we have to be so serious? This is for kids anyway.” And for families. We tried to make in interesting both to adults and to kids.

So once we allowed ourselves to open to that, it became a lot easier. The personality that was distinct to our show really starting flourishing after a few episodes, when we let our hair down on that issue.

And how nice that the male producers were receptive to your voice.
They were. And Kenny was very creative. And funny. He didn’t like being pushed. (Laughs.) But who does, you know? But he was so talented. And had a great sense of humor. And we gelled well together. And the writers, the staff we had, they were great.

Hard to believe that series was only two and a half years of your life. Of course, you’ve done so much other work—most recently, for television, some Lifetime movies?
I’ve done 40 films for television for all of the major networks, until what I call the big bang of the TV industry, when it went from three channels to 100 overnight. At that point it became difficult because the demographics were so shattered … When the cable thing opened up it was literally months when the whole thing just got wacked. As the demographics got shattered, each new cable station was pulling this demographic over here with their ideas, and the other one was pulling their demographic over here. And the networks were going crazy trying to figure out how to hold their people.

So the movies I was doing—I’d probably done 30 of them by then—were mostly issue-oriented movies that were people/character-driven looking at human issues that I was interested in doing stories about. Because of the strength of my popularity at the time with the networks, they let me do subject matters that were taboo before.

And I remember your other series, Jessie and Peaceable Kingdom. Do you think roles for mature women are starting to expand in television?

Honestly, I don’t have a clue. I’ve been doing my workshops so much over the last six to eight years, I’ve been pretty intensively focused on that (and) I haven’t even been trying to generate stories. Because I pulled away from the business a little bit, they kind of maybe don’t think of me as much as they used to.

As I was pulling away from the industry, little by little during that same time period there was a pool of executives coming in from the next generation. And so even though they all knew me from the past, they didn’t know me from the present. The older ones that were going out more, I had such relationships with them that they’d think of me for this. But the kids who were growing up weren’t the ones who were watching the kinds of intense movies I’d been doing—their parents were—and didn’t know so much about that part of my body of work. I hadn’t developed a relationship with the younger executives.

As I’ve been doing this work … I’ve been really liking what I’ve been doing.

You need some time away from the industry to really honor your new focus.
I did. I’d done 40 television movies, three series, specials, six mini-series, ten features—all in that period of time, at least about 35 of those TV movies, up till ten years ago. That’s a lot of work. I definitely wanted to take a break at that time. I decided I was going to take a year or two off … when the cable thing happened. There wasn’t as much receptivity to the types of films I like to do that they let me do and that they all wanted to do with me.

This was when everybody was scrambling: “What can we put on? Maybe that’s not intense enough? Maybe we need something more sensationalistic?” I was like, “Well, you’re not going to do that with my film.” (Laughs.) So that’s where we kind of ran into the rub. The game was changing so dramatically that I just didn’t want to play for a while. I wanted to see where everybody ended up. To see what kind of a culture and what kind of things I like to do would fit in in a couple of years when the smoke cleared. Chaos was going on with the business morphing like that.

A couple of years later there was a lot of reality TV and a lot of stuff to me that was negative, negative, negative. I still wasn’t sure a couple of years later where I’d fit in with what I like to do. So things have gone through whatever they went through. Some little bits and pieces that I’ve seen—I really don’t watch a lot—it seems to me that there are some interesting things finally coming on. That action show White Collar to me is an example of people willing to have fun again. And Leverage is a show that’s about fun; to me, it’s a modern-day Robin Hood. They have their obligatory fights in the show, but it’s not the same as this other dark, dreary, heavy stuff that makes the world look like a place that nobody would want to be in. Kids are being spoon-fed fear and violence.

I haven’t seen a lot of other things, but my mom happened to watch those (series) and said, “You’ve got to see it.”

So you’re not based in California anymore?
I am. I have a home in Washington state, too.

Does meeting with your fans inspire you to want to do more television work?
It does sometimes because people are like, “When are we going to see you again?” And “I miss seeing you on TV”—that’s the one that kills me. They have like a furrowed brow when they say it. Ohhh!

Maybe TV will keep evolving away from the all-techo-no-heart formula.
It has been said that’s what took Atlantis down: technology without heart. (Laughs.)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful interview of my favorite actress, Lindsay Wagner..she is such an amazing and beautiful soul, and i have followed her career since in was 11 years old..i love her to pieces!
I do hope she does another tv movie or series again soon!
Thanks so much for this!

CHRIS MANN said...

Hi Brian:

Thanks for your nice note! I am thrilled to hear you liked this interview with Lindsay. She is amazing, and she really embraces her fans. Class act!

Thanks again : )

Jon T said...

I just came across this interview, which is funny because I just got the second season of The Bionic Woman on DVD for my birthday. The timing couldn't have been better. Great interview with a lovely person. Nicely done! :-)

CHRIS MANN said...

Thanks so much, Jon. Glad you found (and liked!) the interview ... the Bionic gods must've been whispering "click this link" in your Bionic ear! : )