Richard Anderson, who died Thursday in Beverly Hills, Calif., at 91, was one of those sufficiently handsome postwar actors who never quite became leading men on the silver screen and therefore segued to a surfeit of television work.
Name any old show and Anderson had probably appeared in an episode or two or 20: “Perry Mason,” “I Spy,” “The Rifleman,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and, later, “Gunsmoke,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “Ironside” and of course “The Love Boat.” There was always a Richard Anderson part for Richard Anderson and, if not him, someone very much like him.
But it was his role as Oscar Goldman — the hard-driven division director at the fictional OSI (Office of Scientific Intelligence) on the hit show “The Six Million Dollar Man” and its superior spinoff, “The Bionic Woman” — that, whether he liked it or not, stuck for life. Oscar Goldman would forever remain a treasured role model for impressionable children of the mid-1970s.
Oscar was, in a way, our first boss. Stern and demanding yet also empathetic, coolheaded and no-nonsense: No team-building exercises. No semiannual evaluations.
When things go wrong for you on a mission in the jungle, or while hunting for Bigfoot, or as you are battling Fembots for control of the planet’s weather, it’s Oscar Goldman who worries most about you. It is Oscar, co-starring in both shows, who places calls up the chain of command, desperate to save your life, reestablishing radio contact and arriving by helicopter just as everything has exploded, ready to grab you by the non-bionic arm, lift you aboard and commence with the attaboys (or attagirls, in the case of Jaime Sommers). Memo to staff: Oscar cares.
Was his protectiveness personal or was he mostly worried about hardware? Six million dollars, after all, was a lot to spend on saving the life of former astronaut Steve Austin in 1973. It cost the OSI even more (the amount was alluded to but never revealed) to rebuild Steve’s wounded onetime fiancee, Jaime, a former tennis pro, in 1975. Steve and Jaime worked off their medical debts to the U.S. government by carrying out special-ops assignments. (Is there a new health-care policy lurking in this throwback?) Oscar gave them impossible tasks, but he also gave them the confidence to carry them out.
As such, he was a key part of the bionic narrative of back yards and sandboxes, so much so that the toy company Kenner issued an Oscar Goldman doll to go along with the track-suited Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers dolls and their assorted accoutrement (rocket capsules, geodesic dome houses and, for her, the “Bionic Beauty Salon”). Generation X is lucky the toy industry noticed us at all; other than “Star Wars,” there’s pretty much a wasteland between Howdy Doody and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We had only what we had, but I’ve often wondered: Who had an Oscar Goldman doll? It’s possible to imagine that only the richest and loneliest children came to possess one. He was dressed in a turtleneck and a garish ’70s sport coat. His big accessory was an exploding briefcase.
Yet I do remember, at age 8, wishing to have one, not merely to complete the set but perhaps to also honor the type. When he was playing the part of Oscar, Anderson was in his late 40s and early 50s, a bit older than my father and, distressingly, the age I am now. My world seemed at the time filled with approximate Oscar Goldmans, in the form of all the men who happened to be around — other kids’ fathers, or my father’s business associates, or neighbors.
These latter-day Don Drapers were always coming and going, sometimes freshly divorced and pulling up in new convertibles, shirts open-collared, hair combed over elegantly rather than pathetically. They carried non-exploding briefcases and hung around at the tennis club or the pool bar. They had sizzling brown suntans, gleaming dental work, big chunky silver wristwatches and shaded, enormous eyewear. Forty years later, you realize what all the women saw in them. Forty years later Oscar Goldman is a stud.
To watch episodes of “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman” now is to be mildly horrified at Oscar’s sexism. With Steve, it’s all man-to-man, “pal,” “buddy”; on the other show, he continually patronizes Jaime, underestimating her abilities, marveling that she has managed to accomplish the mission, then teasing her flirtatiously, caressing her shoulder.
So was he an ideal boss? Probably not. Even now the tech industry struggles with the passive-aggressive management styles of far too many male hotheads who maintain surprisingly backward notions about the capabilities of women.
But those guys aren’t anything like Oscar. The only helicopters they ever summon are the ones that spare them the nuisance of traffic jams. The moment you need them is always the day their kid has a dance recital. Today’s he-man bosses might or might not have your back — and usually not. Where are they when you’re trapped in Bigfoot’s ice cave? Where are they when the timer on the bomb is ticking down? Come back, Oscar. Come back.