Starlog. July, 1995
By Ian Spelling
Richard Dean Anderson is the dime novelist
who straps on a six-gun to become his own Western hero.
"Our show takes place in 1876. My character is Ernest Pratt, a dime novelist out of that era. He's essentially 180 degrees from what MacGyver was," explains Richard Dean Anderson, the former star of the long-running MacGyver, of his latest character, the central figure in Legend, UPN's new science-fiction-tinged action-adventure series. "Pratt is a womanizing, drinking, smoking, gambling wretch of a man. He just wants to be left alone to make what measly money he can from his dime novels, which is what they sell for, so that he can spend it in his local bars and go about like at that level.
"What Pratt has done to garner this lifestyle is create a fairly successful series of novels called 'Legend.' The novel's main character is named Nicodemus Legend. Pratt gets drawn, by a number of events, into assuming the persona, the aura and the personality of the hero he has created. Consequently, you have this ink-stained wretch of a man having to assume the role of a very heroic character. He's very reluctant to start doing these daring sorts of rescues and battling the bad guys."
The reason Pratt must assume the mantle of the heroic Legend has much to do with the presence of Janos Bartok (John de Lancie, Q of Star Trek: The Next Generation), a brilliant, eccentric scientist of European descent who also happens to be an avid reader of the "Legend" novels. Bartok knows full well that there's a writer behind the books, which are written in lively first-person style, but he's so fascinated by the possibilities and the fantasies Pratt has pored into the "Legend" novels that he makes the contraptions in the books into a reality; thus the existence in 1876 of a remote-controlled steam carriage, a hot air balloon and a quadrovelocipede, the first all-terrain vehicle. In the pilot, "Birth of a Legend", Pratt hears that a warrant has been issued for Nicodemus Legend's arrest, an interesting scenario when one considers that Legend is a fictional character.
Upon arriving in Sheridan, Colorado to clear his alter-ego's name, Pratt meets Bartok, who has assumed Legend's name and persona in an effort to help his fellow townsmen stop an unwanted land takeover. Bartok, with the help of his assistant, Huitzilpochtli Ramos (Mark Adair Rios), tries to convince a reluctant Pratt to take up his creation's persona from him in order to help fight any antagonists who dare to show up in Sheridan. After the first successful outing, Pratt, using Legend's inventions (most of which come directly from Pratt's own drink-enhanced imagination) and Bartok's scientific know-how, finally agrees to stick around.
"Bartok is an interesting guy. He makes Thomas Edison look like a neophyte. He sees the great possibilities for good to be done by Legend, for helping people and for the discovery of invention. We've based Bartok, not so loosely, on a real-life person, Nikola Tesla. We've taken Tesla's persona and his sort of adversarial relationship with Thomas Edison, and," notes Anderson, "John de Lancie plays it brilliantly. I knew he was our guy the minute I met him. He had actually done an episode of MacGyver years and years ago, which we both hardly remembered. There was a rumor after our first weeks of doing Legend that John and I were not getting along, that it just wasn't a comfortable situation. It was the strangest rumor I had ever heard, because John and I hit it off immediately. We both share a sardonic sense of humor, but he has a different personality all together, which I love. I work real big and then I pare it down. John starts very small and works his way up, so we meet somewhere in the middle. It's working impeccably well, John's one of the most intelligent men I know.
"Anyway, Pratt and Bartok develop this ying-yang, love-hate, sandpaper-on-wood type of relationship, Over time it will be a matter of Bartok keeping Pratt in line and Pratt trying to get away with being Pratt, sneaking his drinks, having his little cronies around. But Bartok will stay on top of him. So, we've taken that basic story, Bartok's inventions and the use of electricity and magnetism, and we've tapped into our own imaginations, and turned it into Legend. We're shooting the show out here in Mescal, about 45 minutes from Tucson, Arizona. We're on a freestanding, period Western set in the middle of nowhere. It's a little piece of history. Tons of movies were made here. It goes back to cinematographer William Fraker, who designed the place, actually. He designed it so that the Sun would rise on one side of the street and set on the other, so you could use it almost all day long."
Though Pratt assumes the Legend persona -- reining in a bank robber who'll surrender only to Nicodemus Legend in "Mr. Pratt Goes to Sheridan," and kidnapping President Ulysses S. Grant to save him from an assassination attempt in "Legend on His President's Secret Service" -- Anderson argues that he's not enacting a dual role. "I don't look at it that way," he insists. I'm always playing Pratt. I'm always the writer. Part of the humor and part of Pratt's quirky behavioral aspects come when he has to assume this role. He has to assume a different posture, a different attitude. There's a slight voice change and there's supposed to be an attitude change when he's dealing with the outside world. But, ultimately, he's still Pratt. So, sometimes he's a fish out of water. It's an all-encompassing character and, while I like playing both parts of the character, I see them both as parts of Pratt.
"I've been told by not only my agent but by a bunch of other people that, at this point in my career, it takes a bit of courage just to be misbehaving, to be taking this much of a chance with this character. Usually, at this juncture, actors tend to play it safe. I've just never been of that mind. After seven years of MacGyver, and then doing what I could to stretch out a little bit -- I did five TV movies, playing increasingly darker characters -- it was just time to do something that, one, I would want to watch and, two, that was a character that I would want to play for a while. This takes place in the West, and I love Westerns. I play a fish out of water, a guy with a sardonic, cynical, wry sense of humor and I'm just having a ball doing it. I couldn't have helped design a better character for myself.
"Before Legend came along, a whole slew of scripts came my way. The offers kept coming for more series work. But it all read as very typical television. Here's the cop. Here's the doctor. There's the detective. Between you, me and STARLOG's readers, I found that, in reassessing what interested me, all of that kind of bored me. I decided that what I wanted to be involved with had to do with action and adventure, as well as have elements of science, discovery, education and invention. Those things are intriguing to me. There's a fine line between entertainment and education, but we can allude to things. The inventions we present in this show will foreshadow things to come.
"Some of it will come across as science fiction, some of it as science fact. We have actual gadgetry and inventions of the day and we've allowed our imaginations to run a bit. That's where the special FX come in. In fact, when I first read the script, I thought if I could have any director in the world direct the pilot, it would be Terry Gilliam. I like the character; I like the genre; I like the scientific aspects; I like the humor, and all of that lets me have the freedom to play Pratt a bit broader than you might expect from me," he continues. "There's a physicality that's also involved in doing action-adventure, so I use that to play it a little lighter and to do some physical comedy. It's unavoidable that people are going to say it's MacGyver in the 19th century, but it's really not. Watch it and you'll see. Legend is not MacGyver."
To say the very least, Legend keeps Anderson very busy. He's not only the star of the series, appearing in nearly every scene, but he's also one of the show's executive producers, a title he takes very seriously. That means he's on the Arizona set roughly 16 hours a day, five days a week then in Los Angeles on weekends to supervise the editing process. He's no "executive producer in name only" type of guy. "I resist that image, to be honest. This job stresses me out, has me angst-ridden and totally exhausted. But it's an opportunity for me and my partner, Michael Greenburg, to really have control of a show and to have a vision of that show," he states. "In order to get it done the way I want to see it -- mind you, it's a collaborative effort with Michael [executive producer of Voyager, Deep Space Nine] Piller and Bill Dial -- I have to be a part of the decision-making process. That's why I refuse to just slap my name on it.
"Executive producer sounds real lofty, but the fact of the matter is I'm on the front line production team here. Greenburg is handling post-production in Los Angeles. Piller and Dial are running the writing staff. I have these massive responsibilities down here, making sure it all gets done and tracking all of the little things that I want to highlight. I want things to be happening on the periphery. I want little odd quirks of character and that takes riding right alongside everything that happens in pre- and post-production, behind and in front of the camera. It's not a responsibility I take lightly, because I want Legend to be as good as it can possibly be."
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Anderson's father was a speech and English teacher at a local high school. The elder Anderson also directed school plays, which his son eagerly watched. "I loved the rehearsals and, subsequently, the finished play. There was just something intriguing to me about the whole process," he remembers. "As a kid, it was a dream to make the lead. Later, I found that people were willing to pay me money to misbehave in front of a camera. I had no problem with that." By 1976, Anderson's career took off with a major role as Dr. Jeff Webber on the popular soap opera General Hospital, where he remained in practice for five years. Two series, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Emerald Point, N.A.S., preceded his seven-year run on MacGyver, the action-adventure series in which Anderson's inventive title character improvised scientific solutions to escape from a weekly schedule of seemingly deadly situations.
"When MacGyver debuted, it was unique to have a TV hero who tried to beat the bad guy without shooting him through the head with a .357 Magnum. Remember that The A-Team was on right around that period, too. We used intelligence, science, improvisation and common sense to solve problems. That was a very different concept. Initially, people were attracted to the action-adventure element as it was a very active show in the early years," notes the actor. "We had a younger audience that was attracted to that. Beyond that, I started getting letters from teachers, educators and parents who had come along for the ride. Kids looked at it and were stoked by this MacGyver guy and parents and educators recognized what we were trying to do. Later on, we knew we were in the position to sow the seeds for education and lay down morals here and there without being heavy-handed about it. So, we educated and entertained at the same time, and I'm quite proud of that. As for me, MacGyver was certainly the launching pad for the rest of my career. It was seven years of 'learn while you earn'."
Prior to beginning Legend, Anderson portrayed MacGyver again in two TV movies that aired in 1994. MacGyver: Lost Treasure of Atlantis scored well in the ratings, while the subsequent outing, MacGyver: Trail to Doomsday performed less admirably. "I was pretty much pleased with them. They were the first things that Michael Greenburg and I produced under our contract at Paramount. So, that was nice, to have control of them and do them the way we wanted to do them, back-to-back in London. It was quite an experience. There was a learning curve involved, but I think they came out OK. Doing more of them is up in the air. I don't know if ABC or Paramount want to do any more. In my mind, I've moved on. That's what you do in life; you learn, you grow and you move on. That's what I've done and that's where Legend comes in."
The United Paramount Network has committed to the Legend pilot and 11 subsequent episodes and has already ordered an additional six scripts, a good sign that the network is fully behind the show which debuted in mid-April. "I have high hopes for it. We all do. I hope it works. We're all working very hard. I have no other life right now. It's really kind of sick, not that I had much of a life prior to this," concludes Richard Dean Anderson, laughing a genuine laugh.
"We've been here since December 1994, but I love it and I'm having a ball. The machinery is working. We've passed the shakedown of the crew and the show's concept and now things are running smoothly. I would like for Legend to span the spectrum of an audience. I want the younger audience to be able to watch it and just have fun with the action, the inventiveness and the antics of Nicodemus Legend. And, hopefully, older audiences will realize that there's much more behind the eyes and words of Ernest Pratt than they had first thought. I would like to think our show has something for everybody. I guess we'll find out soon if I'm right, won't we?"
Spelling, Ian. "Legend of the West." Starlog. July, 1995: p.54-57.