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'MacGyver' ABC's Secret Hit : Richard Dean Anderson Explains How the Show--Like Its Main Character--Manages to Survive

February 25, 1990|SUSAN KING | Times Staff Writer

The series has survived insurmountable odds. It's overcome its share of obstacles, including numerous time slots and a two-hour delay on the West Coast during football season. The show doesn't rack up Emmys or critical acclaim, and it rarely cracks the Top 20 in the Nielsen ratings. Still, it's been a mainstay on network television for the past five seasons.

It's somewhat appropriate that this TV survivor is "MacGyver," ABC's action-adventure series about a man who finds a way out of seemingly impossible situations every Monday night at 8.

The nonviolent, quick-witted hero without a first name, played by the engaging Richard Dean Anderson, uses his ingenuity and scientific knowledge to solve problems and complete dangerous missions. MacGyver never uses guns, knives or brute force to extricate himself from sticky situations.

The unconventional MacGyver has captured the imaginations of children, parents and educators. Teachers in Oregon, Virginia and Florida have even created programs inspired by the series to teach creative thinking and problem solving in the classroom.

"We're in a position to sow the seeds for kids," Anderson, 40, said by phone from the series location in Vancouver. "We've gotten a lot more socially responsible.

"I think we've been able to draw a nice line between the educational aspect of what we do and the entertainment value. If you get strictly intellectual about it, you're going to lose that audience-their attention span wanders. I know mine does."

The series recently tackled such heady subjects as the freedom fighters in Beijing, the potential extinction of the black rhino in Africa, America's runaways problem and the gun-control issue.

Anderson, who appeared for five years as dashing Dr. Jeff Webber on the ABC soap, "General Hospital," spends 16 hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year working on "MacGyver." Yet he hasn't tired of the series.

"If it wasn't still fun, I wouldn't do it," he said. "The show is intellectually stimulating, and I get to dabble in all aspects of proddction. I do cosmetic editing on the script and help out everywhere I can. It keeps me interested." But the series has taken a physical toll on the active actor, who plays hockey, skis, races autos and sky-dives in his spare time. Anderson used to do all of his own stunts but not any more.

"I won't be jumping off of buildings again," he said laughing. "My back has been compressed and operated on, my feet have been surgically cut up and I have a knee that's just going wacky. So I do my own driving, and I ski and skate. I'm playing hockey again. Anything that immobilizes my feet I'm OK with."

Because "MacGyver" is filmed in Vancouver, the series is often ignored by ABC.

"For a long time, we had a hard time getting recognition from our own network," Anderson said. "You talk to John Rich, one of our executive producers, and he'll say we're the quiet hit. We're not making big inroads as ratings go (the series usually places within the top 50 shows every week), and part of that is we're victims of our own time slot.

"We're a show of great ratings potential. But because of 'Monday Night Football,' we never have full 100% clearance (during football season) to gauge the ratings." According to Steve Downing, the series' co-executive producer, it's taken five seasons for "MacGyver" to gain the respect of the network. He said former ABC President Brandon Stoddard never liked the series.

"We were basically ignored," Downing said. "When Cap Cities (the owners of ABC) came in and looked at the audience response, we started getting support and positive vibes. Last year, on (new president) Bob Eiger's first day on board, my phone rang, and he was on the phone saying, 'You are an important show on our schedule, and I intend to see you are handled as an important show.'

"A month later, he was in Vancouver. The prior four years I was on the show, I never met his predecessor. I never received a note from him! Because of the positive support, we are a better show this year."

The show's audience has remained loyal since it premiered in the fall of 1985, Anderson said. "We've got an audience that has maintained-no matter what they put up against us, like specials and movies. We're tough."

"MacGyver" moved from Los Angeles to Vancouver after the second season as an economy measure and to give the series an international flavor. Anderson, who maintains a house in Los Angeles, loves living away from the Hollywood limelight nine months out of the year. Though the bachelor made the tabloids when he dated such actresses as Marlee Matlin and Sela Ward, Anderson said he's a fairly reclusive person.

"I try to remain as private as possible and living in Vancouver facilitates that quite nicely."

Anderson usually turns down all acting offers during his three-month break from "MacGyver."

"We work so hard and the hours are so ludicrous that I start to get very unhealthy," he explained. "When I get sick, the show is shut down. It would take something so phenomenally special in the feature genre for me to sacrifice my relax and get healthy time. So for the most part, I spend nine months up here and three months on the road or three months having surgery-it's become kind of a hobby!

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