From Bionic Man to Second Banana: Lee Majors Shines in 1990s Action Series RAVEN
From the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s there was arguably no bigger star on television than Lee Majors.
Beginning with the soapy Western The Big Valley in the 1960s, continuing with the legal drama Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law and the cyborg fantasy The Six Million Dollar Man in the ‘70s, and concluding with The Fall Guy, Majors delivered big action and ever bigger ratings. And he did it for twenty years, essentially without a break.
By the time he wrapped five seasons as stunt man/bounty hunter Colt Seavers on The Fall Guy in 1986, Majors was feeling less than bionic. He had knee and back surgery, got married again (six years after his divorce from Farrah Fawcett), started a new family, and took time off. When he returned to series TV in 1992, it was in an unaccustomed role: sidekick.
“You can’t be a leading man and hold your stomach in forever,” Majors, then 53, told The Washington Post. “I didn't want to carry a show.”
The series that marked Majors’ transition from headline-grabbing superstar to character actor was Raven, a martial arts adventure set in Hawaii. Majors played “Ski” Jablonski, a private investigator who’s knocked back a few too many burgers and beers since his Green Beret days. Jeffrey Meek was Jonathan Raven, Ski’s former Special Forces colleague who now devotes himself to finding his long-lost son (and kicking butt with his sweet ninja moves).
The 33-year-old Meek, six foot two and wiry with a mane of black hair, was a trained martial artist, but had never done it on film when he was cast in Raven. Still, he impressed the experts.
In 1994, Black Belt Magazine named Raven one of the best martial arts action shows in TV history. But while the fight sequences – many choreographed by Meek, himself – were memorable and plentiful, Raven was about much more than Taekwondo.
Created by Frank Lupo (The A-Team, Hunter, Riptide), Raven combined self-contained, “case of the week” stories with elaborate mythology that went far beyond typical primetime action shows of the era. In the ninety-minute pilot film Return of the Black Dragon, we learn the character’s elaborate and tragic origin.
Jonathan Raven (played as a child by Josh C. Williams) grew up in Japan, the son of an INTERPOL agent and his wife. At the age of 12, Jon’s parents were assassinated by the evil Black Dragon Society when his father attempted to bust a Yakuza drug ring. Under the tutelage of Sensei Masahiro (Seth Sakai), Raven became skilled enough to infiltrate the elite paramilitary cult and kill the men who murdered his parents. His revenge complete, Raven is now a freelance vigilante, fighting for the little guy using his finely tuned physical abilities and mechanical, chemical, and biological ingenuity.
Sounds a bit like Batman meets MacGyver, right? In fact, early episodes go far to establish Jonathan as a brooding soul, haunted by his past like Bruce Wayne. This is especially acute as he searches for the son he never met, whisked away for his own safety after the Black Dragons vowed vengeance on Raven and everyone he loved.
So where does Lee Majors fit into all of this? As the much needed comic relief. At first, the two seem like unlikely soul mates: the meditating vegan from Japan and the scruffy, alcoholic from Tulsa. But soon we learn that Ski has more to offer than meet the eye. He’s a former commando, skilled at going undercover (as a pushcart vendor, bellhop, etc.) and proficient in firearms (he has four guns on him at all times). He also has a boat (the Brew-Ski) that makes a convenient safe house. More importantly, he balances Raven’s consuming intensity.
If you only know Majors as a handsome hero, Raven will be a revelation. Calling upon his Kentucky upbringing, he plays Ski as a crazy-like-a-fox good ol’ boy, constantly encouraging his adversaries to underestimate him, and then making them regret it. While the tone of the show can careen from super-serious to broadly comic, Majors remains remarkably consistent. And his portrayal, inspired by Western icons like Gabby Hayes and Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, earned him an increasing amount of screen time as the series progressed.
Raven’s backstory progressed, as well. In the second season we learn more about his past as a hired assassin for a shadowy, CIA-style organization. The ninth episode of season two functions almost as a second pilot, answering lingering questions and opening up huge potential for new stories. Sadly, that potential was unrealized and Raven did not return for a third season.
Today, Raven feels more substantial than many of its early ‘90s contemporaries. But what makes the show work now is exactly what the network didn’t want from it back then. Meek told Martial Arts Illustrated that CBS wanted producers to “stay away from the Japanese stuff,” preferring it to be more like Magnum, P.I. Ironically, Raven was replaced by Walker: Texas Ranger, which retained the martial arts but dispensed with the Asian mysticism.
Meek went on to success on stage, television, and as a respected acting instructor. Lee Majors, who turns 78 on April 23, continues to grace the small screen, most recently in Ash vs. Evil Dead. More than half a century after his first role, the former Bionic Man is still on the TV treadmill.
And what was that first role? As the much-younger husband – and first axe murder victim – of Joan Crawford in STRAIT-JACKET.
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