MacGyver Television School of Gadgetry

Did you know that if you’re ever locked in a nuclear disposal chamber, with only minutes before radioactive slush turns you into an atomic Dorito, you can use the screwdriver on your Swiss army knife to short-circuit the timer from inside the unit, causing the door to be released? And in case of a nuclear meltdown, you can climb to the roof of the reactor and unblock the works with your wrench. If you don’t have a wrench, you can disassemble an automatic pistol and use the frame to loosen the main bolt.

Viewers who watch MacGyver are regularly given useful tips on how to extricate themselves from hopeless situations like these. Using simple Yankee ingenuity, they learn how to turn ordinary household junk into deadly weapons. And vice versa. The show, which has Henry Winkler (Fonzie of Happy Days) among its executive producers, is now being shown on ABC on Wednesdays from 8 to 9 p.m. In the fall, it will air on Monday nights at 8.

The notion that we can stop the Russians by using supplies available at any tag sale might prove enlightening if not hilarious to – say – the Defense Department. “Okay, okay,” says Richard Dean Anderson, who stars as MacGyver. “It’s obvious that our tongue is deeply ensconced in our cheek.”

According to the actor, the show’s writers borrow heavily from the real Richard Dean Anderson in creating their hero. “They have allowed me to bring as much of my personality into it as I can,” he says. “We’re trying all kinds of parallels now. Not just having MacGyver be from Minnesota. There are elements of irreverence that I bring to MacGyver. He ducks when people are shooting at him. He’s no dummy. He’ll save somebody, but he’ll save his own ass, too. There’s none of this here-stand-behind-me stuff. Recently he faced a martial-arts expert and he got the living daylights beat out of him. But at the fatal moment, he looks up at the guy who’s about to skewer him and says, ‘Give up?'”

The eponymous MacGyver who cooks up these prodigies of seat-of-the-pants derring-do is not your usual TV hero. He’s afraid of heights. He hates guns. He ducks when people are shooting at him. The A-Team could lick him easily in a fair fight. But just give MacGyver a rubber band and a bunch of paper clips and he turns into Mr. Invincible. Using a handful of the sort of detritus that people clean out of their desk drawers every six months, he can manufacture a slingshot or an UZI.

“MacGyver’s a non-violent character,” says his living prototype. “We’re not talking about a guy who’s got his shirt unbuttoned to his navel; we’re talking about a regular guy from Minnesota who happens to have a flair for physics and science.”

For viewers whose main challenge in real life is sorting out rush-hour traffic, the action in adventure films can be difficult to follow. Without a play-by-play color analysis, many are reduced to staring at the flying fists and the swooping rocket ships, waiting to see who’s standing up once the smoke clears. To help the lay viewer grasp exactly how to turn a wrecked bicycle into a bomb, MacGyver explains the proceedings in a series of voice overs. These scoutmasterish narratives break into the dramatic continuity, and Anderson admits he has a problem with them. “It’s a sore point for me having to do the voice-overs,” he says. “The feeling is that it’s necessary to have them, but it drives me up the wall because they explain what’s going on almost too literally. You don’t need to do that to an audience.”

Viewers might get the idea that if only they’d watch MacGyver long enough they will be ready to join the Foreign Legion or at least Outward Bound. But instructions for deadly weapons, though authentic, are purposely kept incomplete. The tricks are checked out by a panel of experts, which include scientists from Caltech. The producers of MacGyver actually ran a contest, asking people to send in so-called “MacGyverisms,” those clever Heloise’s Hints for soldiers of fortune. “We got enough responses to keep us in scripts until the millennium,” says Anderson. “We’ve already used a couple of them. In one episode, I picked a lock with the inside of a light bulb filament. Somebody sent that in.”

With MacGyver renewed for next season, Anderson is sitting pretty, but it was not always thus. For months, the program teetered on the brink of cancellation. The production staff had to live with the tension of facing sudden death on a day-to-day basis. Anderson dealt with this gruesome possibility with his characteristic stoicism. “I know it’s a transient business,” he says, “and I’ve never become extremely attached to anything. My attitude going in was that I was going to have fun at all costs. So far, it’s been a ball. In the past, when it’s stopped being a ball I left.”

Anderson is referring to his five-year stint as Dr. Jeff Webber on General Hospital. During the last two years, the romance between Luke and Laura held center stage. “I have too much creative energy to be wasting away on a back-burner story,” says Anderson, “so I got real antsy, unhappy and nervous, and it became obvious to me that it was time to move on. The character is very popular, so they sent him away to Carson City, Nevada. I don’t know what he’s doing now. They still keep referring to him. Anytime anybody on the show needs a vacation they ‘go visit Jeff.'”

For Anderson, starring in his own TV show is not the fulfillment of a boyhood dream. Acting is strictly a fallback occupation. “My heroes when I was growing up were hockey players,” he says. “I always wanted to be a professional hockey player, so I never gave acting a second thought until I broke both arms and found out that I couldn’t play hockey anymore.”

These days, Anderson still shoves a puck around with a group of hockey buddies and sometimes appears in exhibition games for charity. Besides playing hockey, he also skis and scuba dives. Anderson claims he has mellowed. Time was, he used to jump out of planes and race motorcycles, and he still has a Harley Davidson in the garage of his West Hollywood bachelor digs.

Anderson is currently steady dating actress Sela Ward, with whom he costarred in Emerald Point, N.A.S., but his roommate is an Australian shepherd dog named Whiskey.

“One of the reasons I love MacGyver so much is that it’s outdoors,” Anderson says. “We’re outside all the time. Growing up, I was given so much freedom that I essentially educated myself on the road. I left home when I was about 15, hopping freights and hitchhiking everywhere. I could have been a great juvenile delinquent. I was kind of one of those kids who had all this energy floating around. When I was 17 years old, I took a three-month bicycle trip up through Canada, Alaska the Yukon and the Northwest Territory, camping out all the way.”

Anderson comes from a tradition of hardy outdoorsmen. He was born on the coldest day of 1950 in northern Minnesota. “That’s where they make below-zero weather. The brutal winters create a pretty tough stock. People up there know how to weather environmental change and hardship. There is an attitude about survival — the idea that I can get through anything. In Minnesota, I was taught how to drive on an iced lake. Learning how to do all that stuff makes it so much easier to endure more profound things.”

That pioneer ethic, he explains, is why he headed west to outdoorsy California, instead of East to indoorsy New York. “Not that Californians are so great at endurance and self-reliance,” he chuckles. “Most of the people in Los Angeles come here because of the nice weather and the comforts of home. I mean, if it even so much as rains in Los Angeles, people cancel weddings, dates, everything.”

Anne Eaton. Newsday. July 6, 1986.

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