“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 fertile.”
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 breakthrough star.
“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 television star.”
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 â€“ 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.