Like many aspects of the “MacGyver” series, Dana Elcar’s recurring guest role as Peter Thornton, director of field operations for the nebulous Phoenix Foundation, seems meant to be. Elcar competed for a similar role during casting for the pilot but didn’t get it. though he did appear in the pilot, it wasn’t until the tenth episode that the relationship between Peter Thornton and MacGyver began to form. That relationship has provided one of the few anchors in MacGyver’s hectic, globe-trotting life. It has also given Elcar a chance to grow with his character.
“One of the reasons I like doing this role is because it has a broad spectrum,” Elcar explains. “It calls for reactions to things all over the world and in all kinds of different situations. The groundwork between Thornton and MacGyver is so sound because their basic respect for humanity and each other is so great. Thornton has responsibility to the world: to seek out the right approach and live life as best he can. That’s one of the things I really like because that’s the way I feel.”
In his role of Peter Thornton, Elcar hires MacGyver on a “free-lance” basis for the Phoenix Foundation’s disparate clientele â€“ everybody from Boy Scouts to foreign governments. The nonviolent approach MacGyver takes in executing his assignments was central to Elcar’s decision to accept the role as MacGyver’s boss. “I can’t tell you how important the nonviolent character of the show is,” Elcar says. “Even if there is a certain amount of violence on it that is in the world, it is not gratuitous. And that is a very important element to our standing audience. And it’s important to me. I’m grateful not only to be in a show, but to have a show that my family can watch. I feel good about that.”
“MacGyver” is Elcar’s third TV series. He spent three years starring as Col. Lard on “Black Sheep Squadron” with Robert Conrad, and a year as the captain opposite Robert Blake on “Baretta.” Those co-starring roles make up a small portion of his nearly 400 episodic television appearances. But TV work is only a part of Elcar’s career. After his sophomore year at the University of Michigan, he spent 12 years working on and off- Broadway before landing a part in the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV production, “Elizabeth & Essex.”
The move west was permanent and successful. Elcar has appeared in more than 40 films, including “The Sting” and the 1984 Steve Martin starrer, “All of Me.” Elcar has produced shows for the Los Angeles Theatre Center and directed episodes of “The Rockford Files,” “Black Sheep Squadron” and “MacGyver.” Elcar has also appeared in productions for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and South Coast Repertory Theatre, and directed Ron Hutchinson’s “Rat in the Skull” for the Mark Taper Forum’s Taper Too in Los Angeles. In 1985, Elcar and his partner William Lucking founded the Santa Paula Theatre Center.
During “MacGyver’s” five-year run, Elcar has appeared in about 17 out of each season’s 22 episodes. With only 12 weeks off each year, it’s been difficult for him to work in other mediums. But he’s not complaining.
For Elcar, each one offers its own unique challenges. “To work on stage in front of a live audience is an incredible, rich experience because every night is different,” Elcar explains. “Working on features has its own timing. The amount of time you have to build a character and get what you need on film is different. And a series is another wonderful medium. It gives you a long time to get to know the character and to bump up against so many unusual situations. I do miss doing features but I appreciate the good elements of a series. You have to overcome the regularity and the danger of reproducing what you’ve done before, and that’s a healthy challenge.”
There have been a few other recurring characters during “MacGyver’s” five seasons: Bruce McGill has returned on several episodes as Jack Dalton, an old buddy of MacGyver’s; Teri Hatcher has appeared as Penny Parker, an old friend and house guest; and Michael DesBarres has portrayed the murderous Murdoc, an assassin and master of disguise. But only Peter Thornton has remained a constant part of MacGyver’s life. For Elcar, the ongoing relationship between his character and MacGyver has made the show’s five-year climb a personal growth process.
“Peter Thornton has certainly matured and developed as a human being,” Elcar says. “With every show we do that deals with a social element or a different scenario in life, you can’t help having a profound reaction and growing from it. It’s one of the wonderful things about being an actor. In a lot of jobs in life, the repetition is much more leveling. The variety is not there. But for an actor you’re called upon to meet different situations. The maturing of the character is in a sense, my maturity. They work together, and I feel a better person for it.” -K.M.
By Kevin McKelvey, The Hollywood Reporter. March 5, 1990: p.S-1 to S-24.