Looking Back on “The Fall Guy” — an Aria of 80s Sexism
The Lee Majors-crooned theme song from his old TV show “The Fall Guy” snuck into my head this morning. It’s a stumper as to why or how this happened, and it proves only that I watched way too much TV in my youth.
The series (about a stunt man who is also a bounty hunter with two young assistants) ran 1981–1986 with a staggering 19.9 rating. The theme song (which ran for a staggering minute and forty-one seconds) got stuck deep enough in my cranium that some odd collision of neurons brought it back up to consciousness.
So I went to YouTube, repository of all video ephemera, and found the theme song in seconds:
The first two lines (four seconds) of the “Fall Guy” theme song reveal a lot about the show:
Well, I’m not the kind to kiss and tell,
But I’ve been seen with Farrah.
Nobody under 40 will get the reference: Lee Majors was married to Farrah Fawcett in 1976, when she hit it big with “Charlie’s Angels.” He was already a big hit with “The Six Million Dollar Man.” They separated in 1979, divorced in 1982, but apparently remained on stable enough terms for him to include the reference and for her to cameo in the 1981 pilot.
What’s interesting about the reference is that in the first moments of the series (and each episode) the viewer is reminded that the star of the show — not the character, the star — has been famous for quite a while, played other characters, had a famous marriage to another star. From the first moment, in other words, the series deliberately blurs the line between star and character.
This is somewhat rare for movies and television. Ordinarily, our default definition of “immersion” is to think of losing ourselves completely in a story where we forget that the character is played by a person with a life. Instead, “The Fall Guy” credits — and the series’ habit of getting celebrities to make cameo appearances — articulated a different sort of immersion that included both characters and performers.
Back to the theme song: this morning I sunk into my chair to watch the opening credits on YouTube… and found myself surprised by an aria of sexism across at least three dimensions.
Dimension #1: the theme song, “The Unknown Stuntman” (lyrics by series creator Glen A Larson, Gail Jensen, and David Sommerville) talks about how the singer performs deadly stunts with actresses, only to then watch as the actresses fall into the arms of their leading men rather than into those of the brave stuntman. But the singer is a chauvinist, saying that he has “never been with anything less than a 9” and brags that “I never spend much time in school, but I taught ladies plenty.” It’s not a surprise that the ladies decline to spend time with him.
There’s also a weird anti-logic in the song in which the male actors are valuable enough to merit stunt doubles but the actresses do their own stunts.
Dimension #2 isn’t about the theme itself, but about the history of the performers named in the song: Farrah Fawcett, Bo Derek, Sally Field, Cheryl Tiegs, Raquel Welch, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood. Of them all, actor-directors Redford and Eastwood still have vibrant careers, while the actresses are all either dead or largely retired. Career longevity for women is criminally shorter in Hollywood than it is for men.
Dimension #3: in the opening credits, there are many, many images of Lee Majors and co-star Douglas Barr in various action sequences, but only one image of the third stunt person cum bounty hunter, Heather Thomas, who wanders through swinging doors in a tiny bikini.
While “The Fall Guy” was never my favorite show, I did have fond memories of it… memories now complicated. Allegedly, there’s a movie version in development with Dwayne Johnson attached.
I wonder if they’ll keep the song.