He’s solitary, introspective, athletic, sensitive, socially conscious and apolitical. At times, he’s a maverick. And most of the time he’s just a big kid. “He’s between 2½ and 8 years old most of the time,” makeup artist Jan Newman says, chuckling. “He stood on the edge of that gravel pit the other day, and pushed his bike off just to see how far it would go.” Is he MacGyver or Richard Dean Anderson? Right now, it’s hard to tell.
Dressed in MacGyver’s uniform of dungarees and green bomber jacket, Anderson rubs sleep from his eyes as he steps out of his motor home. He’s been napping while the crew breaks for lunch. The cold air seems to help him focus. Behind him, snow-covered mountains rise abruptly from the valley floor where “MacGyver” is shooting exteriors for an upcoming episode entitled, “The Treasure of Manco.” Normally, the surrounding pristine wilderness serves as a watershed for the city of Vancouver. But this week, it will double for the wilds of Peru.
“I just had to rest for a couple of minutes. My vacation exhausted me,” Anderson says while settling into a chair inside the location mess tent. He is just back from Christmas hiatus, where he took 11 plane rides shuttling between Vancouver, Hawaii and his family’s home in Minnesota. “I love pleasure, but I seem to go in the other direction sometimes,” Anderson says, smiling.
After five years of appearing in virtually every scene of the series’ 100 episodes, it’s a wonder Anderson can smile at all. But everything about the show seems a tailor-made fit for him. “The nature of this show feeds right into my need to work,” Anderson explains. “I’m not a workaholic, mind you. I love to play and relax. But ‘MacGyver’ affords me the opportunity of having a very strong work and creative outlet.”
Anderson came to the “MacGyver” series in the roundabout way most actors make it to the big leagues. After breaking both arms as a teenage hockey fanatic, Anderson’s dream of becoming a professional hockey player melted. A 6,000-mile bike trek across Canada and a brief stint studying theater in college convinced Anderson that Los Angeles might hold more promise than his native Minnesota. There, he climbed the ladder of success one rung at a time, first working as street mime and juggler and later directing and starring opposite killer whales at Marineland. In 1976, Anderson landed the role of Dr. Jeff Webber on ABC-TV’s “General Hospital.” He stood on that rung for five years. Two short-lived primetime series for CBS followed: “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Emerald Point, N.A.S.”
“I was kind of a vagabond, maverick, misbehavin’ fool back then,” Anderson recalls. “It was fun at the time but I fell out of favor with the idea of being part of a big ensemble because I had too much creative energy.” He was on the verge of signing a two-feature production deal when Henry Winkler called and offered him “MacGyver.” The unique nature of the series’ title character intrigued Anderson. “The typical TV hero is wielding a .357 Magnum and shooting bad guys as a solution to problems,” he explains. ” ‘MacGyver’ presented an alternative approach. He never appeared to be a superhero. He was always a kind of human guy who happens to have a certain attitude about life and about solving problems. It was different: This guy used his head instead of a gun.”
When the producers made the decision to change the show’s backdrop from Los Angeles to Vancouver, they also knew that MacGyver had to move beyond the bang and bash typical of other action-adventure series. Given the character’s established sensitivity, the obvious tack was to take on socially relevant topics within the show’s framework.
“There’s just so much that you can do of what we call ‘run-and-jump’ episodes,” Anderson says. “We realized about a year and a half ago that we’re in a position – not to preach – but to raise awareness by how this character would deal with such matters.”
The resulting shows have addressed such issues as the plight of the black rhino, the massacre at Tiananmen Square and the clear-cutting of forests in the Pacific Northwest. Angry letters from special-interest groups have proved that the episodes have had an impact. “What they were asking was for us to entertain the kids and not get so uppity about these topics, which of course, riled us even more,” Anderson says with obvious pleasure. “This caused us to realize that what we were doing was very good and very important.”
Though Anderson is clearly proud of the contemporary subjects “MacGyver” has tackled, his favorite episode to date took the show to another place in time. Anderson’s character falls asleep while watching a western and dreams of living in a snowy town in the Old West. “Occasionally, the writers and producers will throw me a bone like a hockey episode,” Anderson says wryly. “But when this came out, it was a little boy’s dream come true: to be a cowboy in the 1860s and ride horses – without a gun, mind you. I told the producers immediately that I wanted that to be a recurring dream. I was in heaven.”
When trying to explain why the show has reached the magical number of 100 episodes, Anderson points to everybody but himself for the answer. “After five years, what I’m beset with here is the finest, most talented group of people I’ve ever come in contact with,” he says. “The fact that we’re approaching 100 episodes alone is a tribute to the tenacity and perseverance of this crew. We’ve weathered some hard times, not the least of which has been a time slot that hasn’t been real kind to the ratings. But ABC has been patient, especially in the last year. I don’t want to harp on our past relationship with the network, but now it’s phenomenal.”
Anderson turns 40 this year and has had little time for a personal life. Though he keeps an apartment in Los Angeles, he prefers to live in a hotel during the show’s nine-month production period. In the off-season, he travels extensively. Anderson still plays hockey whenever he can with L.A.’s Celebrity All Star Team, a group he helped found that has raised more than $1 million for charity. But in the past three season hiatuses, Anderson has had to curtail his playing due to back and foot surgeries.
His Gekko Prods. banner (in partnership with his best friend and supervising producer Michael Greenburg) has two projects in development. One involving G. Gordon Liddy has gotten nibbles from the networks, but there’s been little time to pursue them. So how long can he go on?
I’m real tired, but I’m not tired of doing the show,” Anderson says convincingly. “If you’re around for a while, you’ll realize how exhausting it is: the locations, the schedule we’re under, the kind of production quality we demand from ourselves. You get a little run down, but I can’t think of a better thing to be doing than this show, especially in a television motif. It affords me every opportunity to act, to be as physical as I like to be, and it’s creative. I love it.” -K.M.
By Kevin McKelvey, The Hollywood Reporter. March 5, 1990: p.S-1 to S-24.