Even off-screen, MacGyver’s Richard Dean Anderson solves problems with a dramatic flourish.
What with the hot lights and the crush of Hollywood extras dressed as Bengali peasants, it’s blistering in the ancient New York Central coach car as it chugs along a spur of track in Indian Dunes, Cal., an hour northeast of Los Angeles.
RDA on TV Guide Cover page.As the sharply creased mountains, green from the heavy spring rains, whiz by, something comes over Richard Dean Anderson. The former General Hospital heartthrob and current star of MacGyver rouses himself from the inertia of what he says has been, for him, an uncharacteristically grumpy day.
“You wanna check out the engine?” he asks, and before the reporter is finished nodding “yes”, he’s following Anderson through the bar car, which the prop people have filled with dusty baskets, brass incense burners, and posters of the Hindu gods Krishna and Ganesha.
Anderson leads the way up a metal ladder and onto the roof of a boxcar.
“These things sway like crazy, so keep yourself low,” he calls into the wind as the branch of a pine tree nearly knocks him off the rumbling train. We descend another metal ladder, swing through empty space, then edge along a narrow platform before dropping down into the engine compartment of the 1939 diesel locomotive.
The engineer shakes Anderson’s hand and lets him take over. Grinning like a maniacal Cub Scout, the 36-year-old actor blows the whistle and throws the throttle wide open. We pick up speed. Suddenly, the engine cuts off, and the train — boxcars, Bengali bandits, shooting schedule and all — dies not far from the Sacramento freeway. “Wouldn’t you know it?” says the crew’s electrician. “MacGyver broke it.”
“I love to play,” says Anderson, taking in the spring sun outside his trailer during a shooting break. Rangy, with the fluid economy of motion of a good athlete, he eases himself off the bench, which is red with a white cross painted on it. Returning with a fresh bowl of water for his dog, Whiskey, he explains about the bench.
“It’s my Swiss army bench,” he says, deadpan as all get out. “I was at the MacGyver Christmas party, but since we were a new show, nothing much was happening. So a buddy and I went over to the Cheers party, where considerably more was happening.”
He raises his eyebrows ruefully when he gets to the upshot, which was that he found himself at evening’s end locked out of his house. MacGyver, the TV character, would have ingeniously used his trusty Swiss army knife to get into the house, but Richard Dean Anderson, cheerful grown-up boy, threw a garden bench through a plate-glass window, then tried to figure out an ingenious way to disarm the burglar alarm. His partying buddy sent him the Swiss army bench as a memento.
“I like the MacGyver character and the nonviolent vein of the show,” Anderson says. “The philosophy corresponds to my own beliefs — I don’t think the NRA and I would get along real well.”
Cooked up by former Fonz Henry Winkler and John Rich, MacGyver is about a free-floating American operative who each week gets wounded and/or captured by foreign agents with bad attitudes and even worse generic Eastern European accents. He triumphs by quick-wittedly improvising Rube Goldberg devices in the proverbial nick of time: a giant slingshot fashioned from bedsprings, rockets from butane cooking tanks. If he has to, he’ll whang an adversary’s lights out with a shovel or cold-cock him with his spy satchel, but he’s basically a pacifist with an ironic brand of patriotism. Near the end of its first season, MacGyver was ranked a respectable 31st overall, coming in second in its time slot most weeks, and sometimes even first.
Not only do MacGyver’s viewers get a smattering of geopolitics from watching the show, they get an eyeful of chemistry and physics. Wearing a leather bomber jacket and scuffed desert boots, MacGyver is Indiana Jones meets Mr. Wizard, as he carefully explains the scientific principles behind his plausible, if somewhat exaggerated, gadgetry.
“We have consultants at Cal Tech who help us with the technical stuff,” Anderson says as be kibitzes with the electricians trying to start the stalled train. The men are talking circuits and amperes and bypass mechanisms, and Anderson is right in there, although he doesn’t relinquish the driver’s seat. It’s one of the few star’s prerogatives he assumes.
“I’m a good team player,” he says later. “On this show, I happen to be the team, but still…” With the train running again, Anderson breaks away to do a scene. While he’s chasing the fine character actor Alan Fudge down the aisle, the show’s stunt coordinator confirms Anderson’s assessment of himself.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” says Vince Deadrick Jr., a second-generation stuntman. “Ricky Dean’s about the nicest actor I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve been on more than 200 shows. He’s for real. He cares about the people he works with. About the only trouble I have with him is I’ve gotta constantly keep the ropes on him, or he’d be doing all his own stunts.”
Mike Kelley, an actor who’s had bit roles on MacGyver and other shows, and who is a gentle giant of a man, says the same thing. Kelley has just come off the ice of a Culver City skating rink, and is watching Anderson skate around with the rest of the aging hockey nuts who play for love on Monday evenings. Anderson, who as a kid growing up in Minnesota dreamed of being a star wing in the National Hockey League, wheels and swoops across the ice. His wrist shot has lost some of its snap during the few months that a couple of broken fingers in his shooting hand have kept him out of action, but he passes the puck with the instinctive radar of the unselfish player.
“Rick hustles,” says Kelley, “and he’s not afraid to throw his body in front of the goal to deflect the puck.”
Anderson’s livelihood depends, to some degree, on his handsome, brown-eyed mug, but he’s one of two men on the ice not wearing a helmet and face mask. The rest of the players are lawyers, truck drivers, writers and a guy who’s taken off the ice by a sheriff with a summons for stealing Christmas trees. “My teammate,” sighs Anderson happily.
The following night, Anderson is in the stands watching the Los Angeles Kings get whipped by the Calgary Flames. Paul Baxter, a Flames defenseman who became friendly with Anderson after the two played in a charity softball game, is taking the night off, and the two men talk hockey lore all night long.
“It’s definitely my lost dream,” Anderson says ruefully as he watches the action. His dream was iced in high school, when he broke first one arm, and then the other, playing hockey. “For therapy, I took up swimming, and then I figured I may as well go out for the team,” he remembers. “They needed a diver, and I volunteered, but then I split my head open on the edge of the diving board, so I had to give that up, too.”
He and Baxter fill each other in on their latest capers — “jocking around,” Anderson calls it. He’s just back from Park City, Utah, where he helped with the Special Olympics program and managed to find time to ski, broken fingers and all. The weekend before that, he was attending a celebrity polo match in Palm Springs in honor of Britain’s Prince Charles.
When the hockey game ends, a woman dressed in black leather and blood-red nails casts a critical eye on Anderson’s hair. She says she cuts the players’ hair, and asks who does his. A little embarrassed, Anderson makes up a name — Antonio at Rudolpho’s — and when the woman says, basically, that it stinks, he grins and replies, “Well, it’s supposed to look good on television.” That’s the Anderson contradiction: an attitude of “it’s only television” coupled with a fierce pride in his work. He’s a glamour boy who says that, given the long hours of a series, his social life consists of “coming home exhausted and throwing my sweaty socks into the corner.”
Home is an apartment in West Hollywood fronted by a crowded garage. A black 4×4 Toyota pickup (“My therapy vehicle,” says Anderson. “I do my best to trash it”) edges out a BMW (“my Yuppie wheels”) and a 1000 cc Harley-Davidson Sportster.
The apartment itself gives a new twist to the phrase “blendo decor.” Besides gym socks, the mix is skis, exercise equipment, new linen couches, an exquisite pine armoire and a table-top hockey game. The couches, and a few other civilizing touches, are the work of actress Sela Ward, Anderson’s former girl friend. An insider says that the two have “an on-again, off-again” relationship. But mostly the place has the look of someone who’s rousted out of bed at 4:30 most mornings for the long drive to MacGyver’s wilderness location.
The train sequence in Indian Dunes ends just after dark, and Anderson walks back to his trailer with Steve Blalock, his stunt double, who wears the same MacGyver uniform of dirty safari pants and olive-drab chamois shirt. Whiskey the dog comes wagging up to Blalock and sniffs quizzically. “You’re losing your sense of smell, girl,” Anderson says to her.
He throws a few rocks at a bottle across the tracks. He gives his dog another bowl of water and opens a beer for himself. It’s been a long hot day and Anderson is talked out.
“Stay in touch,” he says. Then he settles onto the Swiss army bench and watches the night fall over the mountains.
Robert Palm. TV Guide. 31 May, 1986.