FIVE SEASONS AND 100 EPISODES:
"MacGyver" Keeps Beating the Odds
It's early in the first season. MacGyver is galloping down the hand-packed sand of Pismo Beach, trailed by a band of shrieking Arabs. He looks ahead. Another large posse is coming straight at him. There's no way out. He's being attacked from the rear and from the front, flanked on the left with the ocean on his right. What do you do? If you're the producers of "MacGyver", you fly up in a helicopter, drop a hook to the saddle and fly our hero and the horse off into the sunset. "It was that kind of conceit that said, 'If we can do that, we can do anything,' " laughs John Rich, who executive produces the show with Henry Winkler and Steve Downing.
After five years and 100 episodes, that conceit felt by the
producers of ABC-TV's "MacGyver" series has grown into full-blown
pride. Like its hero, the show has week in and week out faced
seemingly impossible odds and still survived. Over its five-year
run, the "MacGyver" series has dodged lackluster ratings, slogged
through time slots set in quicksand and weathered a stormy move to
Vancouver. But doing the impossible is what the character and series
are all about.
The unique thing about our show is that we're in our fifth season
and we haven't peaked. We're still gaining momentum," executive
producer Steve Downing says, sounding like a proud father. "We're
tilling new ground and we're finding that this new ground is very
The reason, Downing says, can be found in the character itself.
"MacGyver," played by Richard Dean Anderson, began as and remains an
enigma. He started off as a vague idea Paramount's Tony Jonas
brought to the newly formed Henry Winkler/John Rich Prods. Winkler
and Rich took the idea of "the man you call when all else fails,"
and developed five or six variations, enough grist to hand the
show's creator, Lee David Zlotoff. Zlotoff did some research and
came up with a fellow at Caltech named John Koivula. Koivula was
something of scientific jack-of-all-trades with a broad knowledge of
chemistry, gemology and physics. With that background, "MacGyver"
was born. He was to be a unique TV hero. Instead of brawn, he used
his brains. Instead of solving problems with a gun, he solved them
with a seemingly endless array of ingenious devices created from
ordinary objects at hand. They would later become known as
"MacGyverisms." It was a breakthrough concept and it needed a
"When we were trying to cast this thing, everybody that came in
were these macho-type heroes," John Rich remembers. "As my partner,
Henry Winkler, used to say, 'They all had big belt buckles.' But
then Anderson came in one day. He was certainly good-looking and
athletic. But when we asked him to read, he said, 'Do you mind if I
put on my glasses? I don't see that well.' " Says Winkler, "It was
that moment John and I looked at each other and knew that this was
the guy. Because he was not only talented, but vulnerable."
The show got off to a rocky start. The original hour-and-a-half
pilot moved too slowly, and, with the network's permission, Rich cut
the pilot down to one hour. "They began to see some potential in it
at that point," he recalls. "Prior to that, it was very iffy, maybe
a dead duck."
The cut-down version worked. "Testing on the presentation tape
showed that audiences embraced both the MacGyver character and
Richard Dean Anderson," says John Pike, president of Paramount's
Network Television Division. "While very few leading men are able to
carry action-adventure shows, Anderson had the potential to be a
For the next two years, Winkler, Rich and Downing, who had risen
from supervising to executive producer, placed MacGyver in one
high-concept, action-adventure episode after another. The series
began to find an audience despite ABC programming changes that
forced the show to jump from its original 8 p.m. time slot on
Sundays to Wednesdays at 8 p.m. (where it hit No. 10 in the ratings)
to Monday nights before or after football. But the final move cost
the show viewers. "On the West Coast, we were desperately damaged by
the time slot change because after football, it was
'time-approximate,' " Rich explains. That meant the show would begin
at whatever time the game concluded. "The miracle is that we were
able to survive at that terrible hour in the western and mountain
states," says Rich. (This year the show was given a definite 10 p.m.
air time in the West. Though it still is not getting 100% clearance,
the show consistently pulls a 20 to 21 share.)
The show's solid performance in what Anderson describes as
"historically kind-of-a-death slot" enticed the network to keep the
show alive - but only by ordering new episodes a half-season at a
time. Finally, in order to keep the show's quality up to the
standards it had set, the decision was made to move the production
from Los Angeles to Vancouver. According to Rich, the move was
initiated less for the favorable exchange rate and more for the
locations Vancouver had to offer. "We had done two years in L.A. and
we had simply run out of stories we could tell at Indian Dunes,"
Rich explains. "We weren't trying to run away from any obligations
down here. We're a thoroughly union shop, carefully manned in our
key departments by Americans."
The move to Vancouver was not without risk. There was no existing
facility large enough to house the "MacGyver" operation. Paramount
agreed to renovate an old bridge factory where the Golden Gate
Bridge had been fabricated. But Steve Downing, who would remain in
Vancouver to oversee the show, only had a skeleton crew to fill the
new Bridge Studio offices. Drawing on the administrative skills he
had gained as an L.A. deputy police chief, Downing began building
and training a crew from an already depleted Vancouver craft pool.
"MacGyver's" staff, now comprised of 11 Americans and 169 Canadians,
performs every production function except dubbing in Vancouver.
But fresh locations and a new crew weren't enough to keep
"MacGyver" thriving. The character still remained a mystery, both to
the writers and the audience. From the first year, MacGyver had
worked for a private research group called the Phoenix Foundation
headed by Peter Thornton (Dana Elcar). The relationship had grown
and provided a limitless number of action scenarios in which to
place the hero. But by year three, it was time to begin to see the
more human side of MacGyver. The writers began to ask questions: "We
know MacGyver hates guns, but why?"; "We know he's sensitive about
the environment, so how would he feel about clear-cutting?"; and
"How would he react to the poaching of black rhinos for their
horns?" The answers formed the framework for a series of episodes
that shed more light on MacGyver's character while taking definite
stands on contemporary and often controversial subjects.
Mounting these episodes is a logistical nightmare. In addition to
the series' eight days of principal photography, two days of
secondary photography and two days of insert work are required. But
quality is never sacrificed. Downing points to the black rhino
episode as a perfect example. In the episode, set in South Africa, a
poacher has cut the horns from a rhino with a chain saw. MacGyver
finds the dying animal in the bush and is forced to watch as the
animal is destroyed.
"We built a $40,000 rhinoceros model for a three-minute scene,"
Downing says. "It'll knock you on your ass. We did it because, in
order to tell the story right, we had to have the audience
understand what the plight of the rhino is." In fact, the scene was
so realistic and disturbing, the network was flooded with calls –
many viewers thought the rhino was real (including an official from
the Humane Society).
Much to the chagrin of the show's producers and star, "MacGyver"
has never been nominated for an Emmy in any category. But the
series' core audience continues to shower the show with accolades.
"This year our mail has at least doubled and probably tripled over
prior years," Downing says proudly. "It's parents who thank us for
their son's or daughter's renewed interest in school or others
thanking us for airing programming that has values that don't
exploit violence or sex."
And it's not only parents who are grateful. Educators across
America have used the "MacGyver" program as a learning tool,
starting "MacGyver Survivor" programs that teach children how to
solve problems creatively. In one letter, the director of a special
education school wrote to say that "MacGyver" was responsible for
changing the life of one student who had a history of fighting and
general troublemaking. "A few months ago his behavior changed
drastically," the educator wrote. "He had decided to model his life
after his hero MacGyver, because he solves problems without
violence. Needless to say, the school officials are thrilled."
Next year, "MacGyver" will begin its domestic syndication run
exclusively on USA Cable Network. But the show's popularity goes far
beyond U.S. borders. It is also seen in more than 70 foreign
countries. Henry Winkler feels that the show's international
strength comes from the universal appeal of the show's title
character. "I think it translates well internationally because of
Ricky Dean," Winkler says. "He has a personality on the screen that
translates across with a vulnerability. He is quiet when he has to
be. And his thoughtfulness is international because those are all
silent communications. You don't have to understand a particular
American idiom in order to go with MacGyver. You can actually watch
and understand his vulnerability and cleverness. And," Winkler adds,
"he's extraordinarily good-looking."
In spite of its difficult time slot, locations and production
requirements, the "MacGyver" series had made it. The reasons are
many: top production values; renewed support from ABC under ABC
Entertainment president Robert Iger; the continued backing of
Paramount; the tenacity of the crew and audience.
But how long can "MacGyver" go on? Though Winkler remains a vocal
cheerleader of the show, he had gone on to other projects. Rich
continues to supervise the dubbing from Los Angeles, but concedes
that the only reason he'll be returning to Vancouver in the near
future is to help celebrate the 100th episode. Talks are underway
regarding a sixth season, but Winkler and Rich agree that continuing
with the show depends a great deal on the men at the front lines:
Steve Downing, supervising producer Michael Greenburg and Richard
Dean Anderson. Downing and Greenburg say it depends on their star.
I've been working on this show for five years and from a creative
standpoint, it's probably time to move on," Downing admits. "But
when I think about moving on, the first thing that enters my mind is
that I owe it to Rick not to. Greenburg, Rick and myself are the
primary movers on this show. So, especially with the three of us,
there's a rapport and loyalty and recognition of what we've been
able to pull off. When I think about moving on to something else, I
think, 'Gee, who would be there with Rick?' It's not money, it's not
Paramount. It's this bond that has grown with us. An executive
producer and a supervising producer do not have a bond like that
with a star unless the star is a human being and a team player like
Rick." Greenburg agrees without hesitation: "No, I wouldn't leave
Rick, even if I had a better opportunity elsewhere. It would be like
walking out on your family."
By Kevin McKelvey. The Hollywood Reporter. March 5, 1990: p.S-1 to S-24.