You probably know Lindsay Wagner from her iconic portrayal of the “Bionic Woman” Jaime Sommers on the 1970s TV series of the same name. Wagner was the first mainstream female superhero – an impressive claim to fame. The “Bionic” series, which ran from 1976-1978, featured Wagner as a former tennis professional and bionic spy with superhuman powers. The show earned her an Emmy Award for Best Actress; but her career didn’t stop there. Spanning five decades, Wagner’s CV includes a seemingly endless array of feature films, TV movies and TV series. She purposefully selected issue-driven projects dealing with topics like child abuse, anti-Semitism and domestic violence. This year at the Durango Film Festival, Wagner will be receiving the Durango Film Artist of Distinction Award. There will be a restrospective of her film and television career, a Q&A, and an interview with producer Fred Fontana. We spoke with Wagner about her unique legacy and how the Bionic Woman became a progressive feminine idol.
You’re probably best known for playing the iconic Bionic Woman. What made her a special female superhero?
She was the only game in town! That was special. I was very involved in the development of the character, and I worked with the producer and showrunner Ken Johnson. We collaborated on trying to create a woman who was in a circumstance where she had to summon internal power she never had to deal with before. Which came as a result of all of a sudden having extraordinary external power. I said, “I don’t really want to be involved in this if we’re just going to do a story about a woman being in what has always been a man’s position.” I didn’t want to be a man in a skirt, going around bashing people and winning because I’m stronger. When you boil it down, it’s the classic formula. When your physical prowess is the determining factor, there’s a lot of humanity that’s not there. There’s so much missing. So I was constantly instigating them, all these guys, to think like a woman – let’s look at problem-solving, at compassion. We have to do what we feel is right; in those days, it was America in the Cold War with Russia. So most of our so-called adversaries were the Russians. We tried to find ways to come from the “feminine” perspective. But it was a mandate that we had to have two or three “bionic” actions between each commercial break! Thus we had to figure out how to get them in there, without these stories being physically and violently sensationalized. That’s where a lot of the humor came in. Action stories were always for men, and women were the ones in peril – so how do we write this espionage story differently? It was an exciting challenge, and I think we pulled it off, given that it was the first thing that had been done like that. We were also brave because we had a lot of success immediately – and then we started covering topical themes.
The show featured an interracial relationship between the Bionic Woman and a Native American character, which was very unusual back then. What was the response to that?
They loved everything we did! We had no backlash on anything. My feeling was that society was ready for it. Everybody was underestimating people. It was time. We were young enough to say, “Let’s go for it.” We did “Biofeedback,” which I brought in and really wanted to do; it was an episode about our ability to use our minds for healing, in ways we don’t think about in Western culture. And now that’s everywhere. But it was so confronting to our mindset at the time. I brought in articles about yogis who could pierce themselves and not bleed, the nailwalkers who walk on beds of nails, that kind of stuff. And I’m jumping off buildings, stopping a car with my foot, but when I kept pushing that story about “mind over matter,” I was asked, “Lindsay, who is going to believe this?” [Laughs] So we found out, I guess we can make money with women at the helm of this thing. I guess we can do stories about issues they would never touch before; I went on to do movies about child abuse, revisionist history, all of these things. It was a very morphogenic period in television.
You’ve spoken up about the current state of female superheroes in movies and on TV. What are your hopes for these superwomen in contemporary times, and how have they changed since Bionic Woman in the ’70s?
I think it’s the same issue. The problem is that TV and movies have gotten so violent. Now they have a woman having the superpowers to combat that level of violence … OK? And how is that any different than a Superman? And mind you, because so many of these things are so violent, I don’t like to watch them. I don’t actually know if they’re bringing the humanity into it. It’s finding the power of the heart, the mind, and using those stories – it’s not about not having ANY violence – it’s about, what is the dominant factor of resolution to the show or movie? That’s where the issue lies for me, whether it’s a man or a woman. This is all about conditioning a future generation. Because it’s such a profoundly influential programming tool.
You have a big interest in issue-driven films. “The Taking of Flight 847” is about a woman who saves a hijacked plane; it’s also the film you’ve chosen to show at the Durango fest. What do you admire about it?
It kind of chose me. I didn’t want to do it; I felt it was exacerbating the problem we were having already, it was inflammatory for no reason. But eventually, I ended up being able to work with the writer and get a rewrite done that I was comfortable with, that I felt was coming from a woman’s position, not with just, “how can I overpower this guy?” It was, how can I diffuse this? We had to truncate the story, and pick parts that were most important. Those parts had to do with how she saw this hijacker; it was how she delved into him as a person, how she reminded herself this was a person suffering and acting out. Instead of just, “this is the devil and I have to kill him.” Not that she wasn’t horrified by what was going on – but she still saw this person as a human being. He felt that, and he actually responded to her in a different way than he would have to someone else. She was able to appeal to his humanity.