Lee Majors might not have been an overnight success in Hollywood, but he was pretty darn close: he made his on-camera debut in 1964, and by the following year he was playing Barbara Stanwyck’s stepson (not to mention Linda Evans’ stepbrother) on The Big Valley, which kept him occupied for the remainder of the ’60s. This alone was enough to make him a familiar face on the small screen, but after spending five seasons as Steve Austin on The Six Million Dollar Man during the ’70s and five further seasons as Colt Seavers on The Fall Guy in the ’80s, Majors was a card-carrying TV icon.
Since then, Majors has continued to work regularly, and if his full-time gigs in the ’90s and ’00s weren’t quite as high-profile as they were in his heyday, his guest appearances on series like Son Of The Beach, Community, and Raising Hope have shown that Majors isn’t scared to get a little goofy, a trait also demonstrated with his latest endeavor, Ash Vs. Evil Dead. Majors sat down with The A.V. Club during this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, where he explained how he came to play Bruce Campbell’s father on this season of Ash Vs. Evil Dead, complained about the residual effects of doing his own stunts, and spun stories about working with everyone from Joan Crawford to Elvis Presley.
The A.V. Club: Starz was kind enough to provide a copy of the season two premiere, and you were pretty great.
Lee Majors: Thank you! I haven’t really talked to people who’ve seen it, so I’m always trying to explain to people what I was doing in the first episode. It’s gotten silly, I’ve been doing it so much. But I did Comic-Con last week, and now the TCA tour this week, and I’ve just been starting from the beginning, talking about my character and this and that.
AVC: How did you find your way into the show? Did Bruce Campbell come to you?
LM: No, no, no. I really just came from the agency. My agent said, “They’re interested,” and I said, “Well, I’m not familiar with the show, I’m not familiar with the…” [Hesitates.] I never really did any horror stuff. All my shows were kind of family-oriented action shows with not that much blood, hardly. So I said, “Well, let me look at the last year.” And I sat down to watch the first show, and I ended up watching all 10 shows at one time. I got hooked on it! And it’s so funny. It’s marvelous how they take away from the horror so it’s not that bad. You’re chainsawing somebody, but you’re throwing out this crazy funny line. It just made me laugh out loud. [Laughs.] So I said, “Yeah, I’d like to be a part of that. I think it’s fun!” And I’m shooting it in New Zealand, so that was even better. It’s a long way down there. I was there 28 years ago. I did a commercial for Toyota in New Zealand.
AVC: It wouldn’t have occurred to me that you’d look similar enough to Bruce Campbell that you could play Ash’s father, but when the two of you are onscreen together, it’s striking.
LM: Well, yeah. And Ash takes all of his stuff from me, his dad—the woman-chasing, the raunchiness, all that kind of stuff—and as you saw, we don’t get along. I don’t like him. You saw the confrontation. And as the show progresses, it gets a little more competitive, maybe, with the women. And there are a few more remarks that hark back to Steve Austin. You’ll get the funny lines. I loved it when he showed me his hand and says, “It’s stronger, faster…” And I said, “Bullshit! It looks like a piece of crap made in China!” [Laughs.] When I read the script, that was in there already. So when I read that, and I read, “Who are you looking for, Bigfoot?” I mean, it’s just so funny. Right in the middle of this serious shit we’re doing back and forth, I’m throwing in these lines. It’s just such a funny show.
And the cast is so good. They all meld, and the chemistry is great. And Bruce is a very underrated actor, as far as I’m concerned. He’s wonderful. I’d seen him on Burn Notice a lot, but he can do drama, he can do action. And to do that with such a comedy flair, it’s hard to do. You have to be very intelligent and good to play somebody stupid. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? And I love the opening scene. Even the credits, when he’s getting ready to go out or whatever. He’s just got that attitude. I love it!
AVC: And your character clearly has a way with the ladies, as evidenced by his introduction to Kelly.
LM: Oh, yeah. “You can call me ‘Cock.’” [Laughs.] The first episode tells you pretty much everything you need to know about him. I hope people like it. I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people with me there.
AVC: It might actually surprise people how much comedic work you’ve done. You appeared on Raising Hope a couple of times.
LM: Yeah! And you know Michelle Hurd, who’s on Ash vs. Evil Dead? Her husband, Garret Dillahunt, that’s whose father I was playing on Raising Hope. And Shirley Jones played my wife. That was a good, funny cast. Cloris Leachman—I worked with her in The Big Valley. And she was tough then. She and [Barbara] Stanwyck would go at it! [Laughs.] But on Raising Hope—she’s out there. She’d moon you in a second! You know, they kind of have to have her lines off-camera on big cardboard things, but even at her age, she still gets them down. I don’t even know how old she is, but she’s got to be up there pretty good.
So, yeah, I played Garret Dillahunt’s father, I played the father of Scott Baio on his show [See Dad Run]… I’ve been playing a lot of fathers lately. I don’t know about that shit. [Laughs.] I didn’t like it when Bruce started calling me “Pop.” That makes you feel a little older! “C’mon, son!” I call him “son,” he calls me “Pop.” We dress up when we go to all these things. We’re spiffy. But he’ll… [Gestures at the pocket of his suit jacket.] This is a square. He wears a puff. You know, where they puff it up? So I said, “You know, we’ve got to talk—are you puffing today, or are you squaring today?” So we don’t have the same. We’re at each other all the time. It’s just funny. But he’s a big help. He knew that I was a little older, and we had some action stuff, and he kind of takes it easy with me and helps me get through it. He makes it looks rougher and tougher, but he really takes care of me. So it’s been great.
AVC: You’ve certainly done your fair share of rough and tough over the years.
LM: I wish I’d used my stuntman more in my 53 years. I started out in The Big Valley, doing all my stunts, doing all my horsebacking and everything, even calf roping. And if you’ve ever come off a horse with cowboy boots on, with those heels, and you’re going down and tying a calf in the mud and doing all that… [Trails off.] And in The Six Million Dollar Man, they ran my butt off. And here’s the thing—running through the woods in bell-bottoms, and your bell-bottoms are swinging and snagging on every little branch there is… [Laughs.]
I did a lot of the stunts on The Fall Guy, too. In fact, after I finished The Fall Guy in 1985, I said, “You know, I’ve got to take a break!” I was exhausted. Mentally and physically. And they wanted to do one more year, and I wouldn’t do it. I think I turned down about $21 million dollars—and my agent and my business manager at the time were crying all the way! And I think if I had it to do over, I’d probably have done it. But I still enjoy working—I’m 77—and I haven’t stopped.
AVC: Speaking of The Six Million Dollar Man, the complete-series box set that came out a few years ago was one of the greatest things ever for those of us who grew up in the ’70s.
LM: Well, thank you. I wish I’d gotten money from it! I didn’t. I wish I had Universal’s accountants as my accountants. I probably wouldn’t be paying any taxes! Every time we question them about it—“Oh, we’re still in the red! We haven’t made any money off The Six Million Dollar Man!” Unbelievable, huh? [Points at the recorder.] And you can put that in there! I think I’m getting ready to audit them, because so many people did. James Garner, Jack Klugman—a lot of people audited them. It’s amazing what they can do. Even Don Johnson went after somebody a couple of years ago and got a settlement. It’s just that I have, like, 12.5 percent of the merchandise, and I haven’t gotten shit. Do you know how many dolls they must have sold? And lunchboxes and stuff?
AVC: I myself had a doll and a lunchbox.
LM: Oh, you know what? It wasn’t a doll. It was an action figure. [Laughs.]
AVC: During the panel, Bruce Campbell made a joke about Barbara Stanwyck, your co-star on The Big Valley, being a battle ax, but what was she like to work with?
LM: She was very tough. She was my mentor, you know, and she took me under her wing. Like Bruce can tell you, I’m on time, I’ve never been late, I hit my marks, I learn my dialogue, I know everybody else’s dialogue, and I know to keep my mouth shut. That’s what she taught me. It’s worked well ever since. You do good work, you keep working!
AVC: I feel like you’re someone who makes a point of being there to read your character’s lines for other actors when they’re doing their coverage.
LM: I’m always there, yeah. As Bruce can tell you, I’m never more than about 5 feet from the camera all day. I’ll walk over and sit in that chair near the camera and be right there. And, of course, Bruce teases me. He and Ted Raimi do an impression. Like, they’ll say, “Lee, you all right?” I say, “I’m good.” I always say, “I’m good.” [Laughs.] I didn’t realize it, but then they’d say, “You want some coffee?” “No, I’m good.” I was just laid-back and settled. But I’m always there. The younger kids picked that up, too, a little bit. They were a little bit late getting in to the set, because they’re younger, and they’ll run out and do things. Anyway, they learned about being close to the set. Because time is money. If they’re ready to shoot, you’ve got to shoot. That’s the main thing.
The reason I did all my stunts was because they could put one camera on me, and then do the wide camera at the same time, and they’d have me covered. Otherwise they’d do a wide shot, but they couldn’t do any close-ups, because if you’re using a stuntman, you can’t do close-ups. So they’d have to move the camera, get a piece of your face here, a piece over there—but they got it all in one take. So that’s what I learned—it helped the production move along. But even though it was fun, and at that age you feel invincible, and you feel like you can do anything…
AVC: A few years later, you realize you’re not and you can’t.
LM: I realize—and I’m saying it right now—that I wish I’d used my stuntman more. [Laughs.] I need a replacement on my left knee, more or less, but I’ve been holding that off for about the last three years, so as long as I can get along, I’ll be okay. But if they said “fire,” you’d be out of here before me!
LM: [Groans.] Oh, why did you bring that up and embarrass me in front of a bunch of people?
AVC: What was that experience like? Because you would not necessarily be pegged as a Viking.
LM: [Laughs.] You know, I don’t know. I had a little time off, and they said, “It shoots in Florida, on the coast there, out of Tampa,” and they had a bunch of Tampa Bay Buccaneers that were gonna play Vikings, so… I don’t know, I thought it’d be fun, so I did it.
Well, then I ended up being one of the part owners of the L.A. Express at one time, Burt Reynolds ended up being a part owner of the Tampa Bay team they had—the Bandits—and we went to an away game down there, and when I was in the little suite with the owners, I went into the bathroom, and they had a poster of The Norseman on the door! I said, “Burt, you son of a bitch…” [Laughs.] So he was teasing me about that, too. So it’s funny you brought that up. But I still have that helmet. And Cornel Wilde was in it, and Jack Elam, who was probably one of the best Irish poker players in the world. You couldn’t tell where his eye was going. You couldn’t read him!
LM: Oh, yeah! Lauren Hutton was in that!
AVC: It’s got a pretty great cast—Hal Linden, Ray Milland, George DiCenzo, Tess Harper…
LM: One of my best friends is Terry Kiser, who was in Weekend At Bernie’s. You know, the dead body? [Laughs.] He was in it, and he and I used to be competitive at Pac-Man. But I was always beating him. So while we were doing that film at Paramount, he would slip out, and I would never see him at lunch anywhere. Well, that’s because he was going down the street to a place that had a Pac-Man machine, and he had a book that he was studying, so later… I had a lake cabin up on Lake Mead, and I had a couple of different Pac-Man machines up there. He said, “You wanna play?” I said, “Sure!” Zzzzzzip! I didn’t even get onto the machine for 20 minutes! He kept running it up. I said, “You son of a gun, that’s what you were doing!” So he got back at me.
But, yeah, Starflight, that had a great cast. Lauren Hutton asked me—she had a gap tooth, and she had a thing where she could fill it, and she said, “Do you think I should?” I said, “Are you kidding? To me, that’s attractive. That’s you!” So you’ll see in that movie, she didn’t wear the filler. Other times she did, but not that one.
AVC: Between The Big Valley and The Six Million Dollar Man, you did another series, one that hasn’t been rerun very much: Owen Marshall: Counselor At Law.
LM: I learned to tie a tie and wear a suit, and I learned some big words. [Laughs.] I was coming out of two Westerns, actually, because after The Big Valley, I went into The Virginian. And I was under contract to Universal, so they asked me if I’d go into that show, and I said, “Sure, sure, but… what is it?” They said, “It’s Owen Marshall: Counselor At Law, and it’s going on the air already. ABC’s gonna put it on.” And I said, “Who’s it starring?” They said, “Well, Arthur Hill.” And I said, “Arthur who?” And they said, “Well, see, that’s our problem—nobody knows who he is. We need a name to go with him.” So that’s how I ended up co-starring with him in that show. He was a wonderful older actor, a gray-haired fellow, but he was a Broadway actor and a Canadian actor, but he wasn’t well known in the States. But like I said, I learned to tie a tie and wear a suit, and that was great training.
AVC: With the caveat that I didn’t get a chance to confirm this, IMDB says that you make an uncredited appearance in Clambake.
LM: Yeah, well, Elvis [Presley] and I were great friends, and I went over to [visit him at] the set at Four Star, over at the old Republic Studios. That’s where I shot Big Valley, actually. [Hesitates.] In fact, come to think of it, the Big Valley producers were producing Clambake—[Jules V.] Levy, [Arthur] Gardner, [Arnold] Laven. So Elvis was going to do a scene in a bar with Shelley Fabares, trying to pick her up or whatever, and in the back these waiters were wearing—oh, you know, the tasseled cup hats that the Shriners wear.
LM: Yeah, and they were also wearing vests with gold trim and stuff. So I went and put one of those on, and then they put a mustache on me. So I’m cleaning up a table, and Elvis is about 5 or 10 feet away from where I’m cleaning, and as he’s talking to her, I’m knocking over glasses and shit. Finally they said, “Cut!” And he didn’t look around—he just kind of shrugged—but I think I did it three times in a row, and on the third time he turned around and said, “What the fuck are you doing?” [Laughs.] I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that. “What the hockey puck are you doing?”
AVC: It’s all right. We won’t censor you here.
LM: Well, anyway, the next take, I did it right, and you can spot me back there. So, yeah, it’s me with the mustache, cleaning the table behind him. He called me “Double Trouble,” because they did a movie where he was playing cousins [Kissin’ Cousins], and he had to play a blonde, so he played two parts and had to dye his hair blonde for the one part. And his Memphis Mafia kept teasing him: “You look like that guy on The Big Valley, Heath Barkley!” [Laughs.] So he called me “Double Trouble,” and we used to play tricks on each other all the time. He’d be on stage in Vegas at the old International Hotel, and I’d come off the other side from where he’s leaning down and singing, and I’d get some scarves and bring ’em out, and he’d hear this roaring over there from the other side of the stage, and he’d see me and go, “What the hell are you doing over there?” We’d do stuff like that all the time. We had a good time. It’s too bad he died so young.
AVC: You also turned up—several years later, and credited this time—in a brief appearance in Scrooged.
LM: Scrooged came out of the blue. I got a call from [director] Richard Donner. I didn’t know him, but he asked if I’d do a cameo, and I said, “In a Bill Murray movie? Sure!” I didn’t know it was going to open the movie. I just got this gun they gave me, and this gun they gave me… I mean, it was so heavy. I was a lot stronger then, and I could hardly hold it up, it was so heavy. It was a real thing! Usually you think they’ll give you a rubber one or a plastic one, some kind of thing they’ve mocked up, but this was an actual gun. I just saw the movie the other night. I only watched the opening. I don’t have to watch the rest of the movie. “You’ve been a real good boy this year.” [Laughs.] There I am, saving Santa Claus!
AVC: How was the experience of doing Community?
LM: Community was… [Long pause.] It was interesting. It was an unusual cast.
AVC: There seems to be one of two reactions when you ask an actor about Community: either they unabashedly loved it, or they’re not entirely sure what it was all about.
LM: Yeah. I didn’t watch it too much. Some of the people on it were very nice and very good, and there were a few that were… Well, I won’t say who, but you’ve probably got a good guess about at least one of them! [Laughs.] But I think that reputation has gone around and on a few other things.
Francis Gary Powers: The True Story Of The U-2 Spy Incident (1976)—“Francis Gary Powers”
Just A Little Inconvenience (1977)—“Frank Logan”
AVC: Is there any project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you though it deserved?
LM: Not really, because the ones that I really liked did get some good stuff. But there was a film that I did—and Tom Hanks just did a movie about the same guy, but his perspective was different—about [Francis Gary] Powers. Mine was called The U-2 Spy Incident, but it was about the flight, and I played Powers in that film. Delbert Mann directed this thing—he was an Academy Award winner—and it was a two-hour movie just for television, but I really enjoyed doing that film, and it felt like a real movie. In fact, it was nominated for the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture Made For Television.
There was another little film I did called Just A Little Inconvenience. I think it might even have been nominated. But it was about a skier losing his arm and leg, and the guy was played by Jim Stacy, who actually did lose an arm and a leg in a motorcycle accident. Well, he played this part of the paraplegic, and I had to teach him how to ski, and he didn’t want any part of it. Barbara Hershey was the love interest. It was a great little film, and it’s been shown to wounded veterans to show them how they can still get on skis and do other things. So those were a couple of good films that I liked that I don’t know if they got enough praise or whatever. Not that I needed praise. I just thought the films were good.
AVC: There was one other TV movie prior to that with a title that begs to be asked about: Weekend Of Terror.
LM: Oh, my God! I think that was—kidnapping three nuns or something, wasn’t it?
AVC: I think you may be right.
LM: Yeah, Jane Wyatt was one of the nuns, and wasn’t Robert Conrad in that?
AVC: He sure was.
LM: Yeah, he was the bad guy. He was the one who wanted to kidnap them, and I held them. But I think I got them freed. I turned out to be the good guy. I couldn’t be the bad guy. I mean, kidnapping a bunch of nuns? [Laughs.] I always wore the white hat in my stuff!
AVC: You also did a sequel to High Noon for TV, and one that was written by Elmore Leonard, no less.
LM: Yeah, I just saw it not long ago. Well, I saw it whiz by. I didn’t watch it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you actually work with Leonard?
LM: No, we did that down in Arizona. There was a ranch down there, a Western set, outside of Tucson where they’d shot a lot of Westerns, and that whole thing was shot down there. What I remember most about that was the bad guy, who was on Bonanza. What was his name?
AVC: Pernell Roberts?
LM: Pernell Roberts! Unfortunately, Pernell was an okay guy when we were working together, but he was not really very nice with the crew. He was a little bit belligerent and demanding. And so comes the last day of shooting, where he and I meet in the street for the gun duel. There was a note from the crew in my trailer when I came in. It said, “Please use a real bullet.” [Laughs.] I never told Pernell that! Oh, and David Carradine was in that. I got along great with David. Pernell was kind of off to himself. But he was the bad guy. Maybe he was just staying in character. Who knows? I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. [Hesitates.] Is he still around?
AVC: No, he passed away a few years ago.
LM: Okay, then you can print it. [Laughs.] I wouldn’t want to say “use a real bullet” if he was still around. But I’m safe!
LM: Yeah, Will Forte and—the other Will. Will Arnett! I was their father, and that was one funny movie, I thought. But I didn’t do much. I just laid there throughout the whole thing. And Kristen Wiig was in it. You should be lying there unconscious and try to keep a straight face when they would screw up their lines and stuff. [Laughs.] It was just hilarious. And you know what? I had a fart machine, and I put it under the covers with me, so when they would start a scene, right in the middle of it I’d cut a big one. It cracked them up. We had so much fun doing that film. When I tell people that I was in it and I say that it’s a very funny film, if they see it, they say, “Well, hell, you didn’t do anything but lay there the whole film!” I say, “Well, I got paid!” And I do say “holy shit” at the end, but that’s all I can say on that. You don’t want to be politically incorrect these days!
LM: That was made not far from where I’m at now. I’m in Houston, and we made that in Galveston. I remember that very well. How about having Don Rickles dying in your arms? And then, of course, when they turn around to get your close-up and he’s lying there, you’re looking down at him and he’s throwing these one-liners at you. It’ll crack your ass right up. You try to get your close-up straight. [Laughs.] It was very funny. I remember that I turned 50 years old on that film. They gave me a birthday party outside in the parking lot. But Don Rickles… I think he’s probably one of the funniest guys ever. When I was last in L.A., not long ago, I went into Craig’s restaurant, and there was Rickles. “Oh, there’s Majors! Hey, Majors!” He lived down the beach from me in Malibu, so he goes, “Oh, here comes the Messiah, the only gentile on the beach!” Right in front of everybody in the restaurant, he’ll just lay it on you. But I don’t mind it. He’s so funny.
Don Rickles, Tim Conway, and Jonathan Winters are the three funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. I spent a lot of time with all three of them, and each has their own thing that they do well. Conway—well, I just thought he was hilarious on The Carol Burnett Show. Jonathan Winters, I remember I was at a dinner with him and about 12 people, and there were paintings all around this private room. All of a sudden, he just gets up and goes to this painting, and he takes on the role of the artist and uses a different voice, and just goes through this whole thing about how he paints this thing and what it means, and it was so fucking funny. And then he’d go to the next one, and he’d change completely into that artist. That’s just the sort of things he’d do.
LM: Boy, you’re bringing up some obscurities. How about Strait-Jacket?
AVC: If you’ve got a story about Strait-Jacket, I’d love to hear it.
LM: Have you ever heard of it?
AVC: Absolutely. With Joan Crawford.
LM: My first piece of film ever. 1963. Black and white. William Castle directed it, who directed a lot of things with the same flavor as Alfred Hitchcock. I played Joan Crawford’s husband. In my hometown, in a little town in Kentucky, all the people came down out of the hollers to watch this movie in our one little theater. On the marquee, it said, “Lee Majors starring in Strait-Jacket, also starring Joan Crawford.” I’m glad I wasn’t there, because she chopped my head off with an ax before the opening credits came on. [Laughs.] That was the end of me! All my friends were pissed off. “I paid 25 cents for that?” My head did appear later in the movie, though. In a bed!
But even though I was only in it for that long, I still had to take these pictures with Joan Crawford, because we were husband and wife, so I had some in a bathing suit and she had her bathing suit on, we had our wedding picture… And I got copies of these pictures. They were Polaroids, that’s how long ago this was. So it was a very interesting thing. And the set was probably 48 to 50 degrees. There were crew people wearing winter overcoats and stuff, because she didn’t want her makeup to run. She was married to a guy named [Alfred] Steele, who owned Pepsi-Cola, and I remember they had a machine on the set, but she still had to put money in to get a bottle out. Can you believe that? She owned the company, and she still had to pay for a cold drink.
AVC: Strait-Jacket was your first film. Was Gunsmoke your first TV gig?
LM: Yeah. Matt Dillon shot me down in the middle of the street. [Laughs.] I never even met James Arness! It was just his back. They used a double. He’d fly in about every two weeks from Hawaii and do his close-ups, and then he’d fly back. That’s the kind of show I want! That, mixed with a little of Ironside. He was pushed around in a wheelchair and read from the teleprompter in court. Now that’s a series I want to do at my age.
LM: I want to be like Ernie Borgnine. Ernie Borgnine died at 93, I think, and he’d just finished a film. I worked with Ernie in a Western called [The Trail To] Hope Rose. It was a television movie, and we’re out in the hot sun, and he’s dressed in this black outfit. And you know how heavy those wool outfits were. But he never complained all day long. Just a jolly fella. We had a lot of dinners together after that. I just loved the man. I want to go the same way—finish a film at about 93 or 94 or 95 and then say goodbye! [Laughs.]