TV Zone. August, 1999
By Steven Eramo
In the Eighties Richard Dean Anderson portrayed the brainy espionage agent MacGyver.
Now the actor is fighting interplanetary bad guys as the cocky but dependable Air Force Colonel Jack O'Neill.
Jack O'Neill is the leader of the SG-1 team, which travels via an ancient space portal, the Stargate, to other planets. They search for evidence of activity by the evil Goa'uld and make contact with the inhabitants of the places they visit, many of whom are descendants of people taken from Earth long ago.
Although he has played everything from a sexy Soap Opera surgeon to a crazed abusive husband, Stargate SG-1 marks Anderson's entry into the world of Science Fiction. "My credo is, 'I'll try anything once,' well, virtually, so I would have been a hypocrite if I had said, 'Nah, just forget about it,' " says Anderson. "It was high time that I gave Sci-Fi a shot and this show provided me with the perfect opportunity.
"I'm having a lot of fun with the dialogue and the whole concept and especially with my portrayal of O'Neill. I've been given a wide range to run with as far as polishing my character and bringing my sensibilities, sense of humour and relative intelligence to the part. An actor couldn't ask for any more freedom than I have on this show," notes the actor. "Also, as one of the executive producers I'm obligated to the franchise, so that kind of keeps me in check. In fact, and I've said this before, if you want to keep an actor in line make him a producer and he won't rush off to race cars and jump out of airplanes on the weekends. It's called responsibility! Everything is going great, and even though we're filming our third year right now we're still, I'd say, in the earliest stages of developing story lines and characters."
John Symes, President of MGM Worldwide Television Group, acquired all rights to the 1994 StarGate movie (starring Kurt Russell as Jack O'Neill) and sold it as a series deal to Showtime, initially for a two-year run which has now become four years. It was Symes who approached Anderson about playing the lead.
"John and I had worked together on MacGyver when he was over at Paramount Studios. He hired Jonathan Glassner and Brad Wright [the show's executive producers and writers] to develop the programme and called me and said, 'I want you to do this. Do your homework, as I know you will, and over-analyze it, as I'm sure you will,' which I did," he laughs. "I watched the movie a few times and saw it had the phenomenal potential to be a great series as it contained all the elements necessary to sustain interest over a long period of time. We were going to be limited only by our imaginations but, thankfully, we have very creative and prolific writers on our staff.
"However, before I accepted the part I had to make it clear to everyone that there was no way that I could portray Jack O'Neill as Kurt Russell had. Kurt did an outstanding job and he should have all the credit for the character's birth, but for me to take over the reins I had to turn the part into something that would be more fun than I think it was for Kurt. There was a certain wryness to O'Neill that I knew would be interesting to explore and a sarcastic edge as well as an irreverence for authority and, especially, for the bad guys.
"At first, my performance may have come across a little too flip for some people, so I fine-tuned things and now everyone seems OK with what I'm doing," continues Anderson. "O'Neill's sense of humour is often subtle while other times it is over-the-top, and essentially that's what you get when you deal with me. It's either a quiet throwaway or an overt, almost poke-in-the-ribs moment, and I felt it was important that I inject some levity into O'Neill's personality. Hopefully, even during the subtlest of times, the audience will notice the slight twinkle in my eye that I'm trying to let come through."
Back to Work
In Stargate SG-1's two-hour pilot Children of the Gods, O'Neill is called out of retirement after the Goa'uld attack the Stargate facility. His new commanding officer, General Hammond (Don S Davis), orders the colonel and Captain Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) to take SG-1 back to Abydos, where O'Neill first encountered the aliens, and destroy their Stargate. They are also to return with Doctor Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), who stayed behind during the original mission. O'Neill's team receives some unexpected help from Teal'c (Christopher Judge), a Jaffa guard and servant of the Goa'uld who ends up joining SG-1. Working on the episode proved to be quite an eye-opener.
"Because this was the launch of the whole franchise for Showtime we were essentially faced with making a mini-movie with special effects on a limited budget," recalls the actor. "So all the problems that are inherent in creating any television show were magnified, especially when it came to dealing with the early Spring weather in Vancouver [British Columbia], where we shoot the series. For me, though, the biggest thing was getting back in the groove. I'd been doing the odd mini-series and television movie, but because working on a series is such a grind you really have to be prepared mentally and physically, and that took some readjusting for me," he chuckles.
"Since then, it's all been a matter of making sure the film's transition from the big to the small screen was smooth and credible, especially because of the type of audience Showtime was targeting. I had no idea the movie had such a large cult following, and I was also bringing the MacGyver contingent with me, so together those two groups guaranteed the series a level of success. What truly surprised me, though, is how observant Sci-Fi fans are and, in particular, those who watch Stargate. I've been accused of over scrutinizing, which, I know, can sometimes be a pain in the butt to people around me. Subsequently, I love an audience that not only follows the basic credibility of a franchise or a concept but that also notices when something is out of line. The viewers definitely keep us on our creative toes."
One of the few personal facts revealed about O'Neill in the Stargate film is that he suffered a psychological trauma after his son Charlie accidentally shot himself with the colonel's gun. O'Neill never forgave himself and turned his back on his career, marriage and the world until he was recommisioned to lead SG-1. The programme deals with his guilt in the moving first-season episode Cold Lazarus in which a living blue crystal takes Charlie's form. Anderson gives a compelling performance in one of his favourite stories.
"The movie kind of left O'Neill floating in an emotionally unstable state. That's not to say we've solved that problem but in this episode he faced one of his demons, which was the death of his son," he says. "That was good because it tied off some emotional loose ends from the film and served as a springboard for me to leap into the series. We still hung on to the fact that he lost his son, but having O'Neill at least come to terms with it allowed me to move forward with the character.
"I enjoyed doing this episode because it had all the elements that make Stargate what it is. It had a great story with a sentimental edge and a concept that was born of the Stargate itself, so it was true to the franchise. Production-wise the special effects were somewhat arduous to deal with, however, at least they weren't the big, ornate effects that can sometimes overshadow what you're trying to say.
"Another episode I like is Brief Candle in which my character ages from 40-something to 100 years old," adds Anderson. "This story was over by 12 minutes and it got butchered in editing. We were kind of powerless to do anything about that and most of the material cut were the scenes with O'Neill adjusting to his aging, which provided me with a wonderful acting challenge. It's too bad that we were restricted creatively by time constraints because I don't feel the plot was fully realized but as an actor it was truly rewarding for me to do."
While all the other SG teams are made up entirely of military personnel, O'Neill's group includes a subordinate officer, a civilian scientist and an alien, which requires him to be a very different type of leader. He is slightly more relaxed and familiar with his teammates, which suits his personality, and considers them friends and equals. O'Neill's association with Hammond is just as unconventional, but, ultimately, he recognizes and respects the general's authority as SG-1 does his. Anderson considers O'Neill's relationships with the other male characters to be fairly straightforward, but hints that something deeper may eventually develop between the colonel and Captain Carter.
"Michael Shanks and I have a wonderful rapport as actors and the writers have noticed that, so they readily provide us with banter that is comfortable and fun for us to do. The relationship between Jackson and O'Neill is a lot like what Michael and I are all about. It's light-hearted and intelligent, although he's much smarter than me," laughs the actor.
Teal'c is Teal'c and everyone deals with him the way he has to be dealt with, pragmatically. There's not a heck of a lot of emotional give and take with him but that's going to be addressed this season and that's a positive thing for Chris Judge. He's a very capable actor and he wants to expand the parameters of his character so he can expose more facets of Teal'c's personality to the audience.
O'Neill's relationship with General Hammond is basically a father/son thing because he's so tolerant of the colonel's irreverence," explains Anderson. "Hammond realizes O'Neill is a potential live wire but he cuts him a lot of slack because he also knows that O'Neill is very good at what he does. So he allows the relative genius in O'Neill to come out while basically covering his ass.
"As for Carter and O'Neill, the writers constantly scan the Internet and they know the audience has a yearning to see some sexual attraction between these two characters, but at this time we believe that's too obvious a choice," explains Anderson. "We're not saying that things aren't going to go somewhere, what we are saying is that it would be a mistake to jump into this situation right now.
"We shot an episode back in the middle of April that's set in an alternate reality and our O'Neill has to relate to an alternate version of Carter. So we deal with that dichotomy and the emotional dilemma O'Neill must go through because he's never really thought of Carter in sexual terms. Obviously, we'll have to face it eventually but for now it's just a matter of laying the groundwork and dropping the breadcrumbs along the trail for the audience to find. Jonathan Glassner and Brad Wright both want to be cautious about approaching it but they pay attention to the viewers, and that's not a sales pitch. So we'll just have to be patient and see what happens."
Although he is kept busy in front of the cameras, Anderson finds time to further exercise his creative muscles as one of Stargate's executive producers. The actor shares this responsibility with Glassner and Wright as well as Michael Greenburg, his partner in their production company Gekko Film Corp which, in association with MGM and Glassner/Wright Double Secret Productions, produce the series.
"Because I'm so involved in the filming of the series I'm not an integral part of the pre-production planning process," says the actor. "I seem to be fairly comfortable at editing or polishing scripts, although I don't write them. Jonathan, Brad, Robert Cooper, Tor Valenza, Heather Ash, who's our newest writer, are just some of the people who come up with the scripts themselves. So I work with my partner Michael in basically an editorial capacity.
"Of course, on any given day it's safe to say I'm in a liaison between the acting contingent and the production team, which is a good thing and sometimes not so good a thing. I have to be responsible to production - the show has to be made - on the other hand I also want to make sure the actors are fine with the script, costumes, make-up and anything else that affects their performance.
"In post-production Michael and I will sit in on the editing and make our suggestions, and after that we try to help with whatever else it takes to get the finished product done. That's about all I have time for. I have an 11-month-old child [Wylie Quinn Annarose], and I don't want to undermine any credibility I have as a working stiff, but, honestly, all I really want to do is be a dad for a while. Once Stargate has run its course I'm sure that's what I'll do, take a couple of years off and be dad."
The son of a Jazz bassist father and an artistic mother, Anderson was born 23 January, 1950 and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At 15, he hopped a freight train to California, hiked to Alaska and hitchhiked across the country "doing all those angry young man adventure things," he recalls. "When it comes right down to it I was basically a blind idiot, but thanks to my parents I came from a pretty good gene pool that gave me a semblance of intelligence. I didn't really know what I wanted to do but I did sense that I had this creative bug in me. Unfortunately, I didn't have the discipline, admittedly, to become either a musician or an artist like my parents. As a kid I was a jock and very competitive so I leaned towards sports and anything physical.
"I had always dreamt about becoming a professional hockey player but I had two broken arms by the time I was 16 and that pretty much dampened those dreams. In retrospect, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me because it forced me to really look around and assess my situation far earlier than a lot of people. I fought forest fires in Dawson Creek, British Columbia for a summer and from that experience thought I wanted to be a forest ranger or do something outdoors. It must have been the pine tar in my blood from growing up in Minnesota," jokes Anderson. "However, something eventually swayed me towards the Arts."
Anderson studied drama at St Cloud State University, Minnesota and Ohio University. In 1976 he headed to Los Angeles, and was quickly cast as Doctor Jeff Webber on the popular ABC Soap Opera General Hospital. His character soon became a daytime icon, helping the actor launch his career. He went on to star in two short-lived CBS television shows, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Emerald Point NAS before MacGyver.
"I'm going to start sounding corny but I don't care because I am corny," laughs the actor. "I just have to look at that series as a sweeping experience for me. I got the job on MacGyver on a day where I'd been out riding my Harley. I had the long hair, leather jacket, jeans, the whole nine yards, and was kind of on the verge of saying, 'Things just aren't clicking here.' Then Henry Winkler [series co-producer], John Rich and the people at Paramount and ABC created this show that I became a part of and that is now a global catchphrase. It completely altered the course of my future. I can't even wander into the realm of conjecture and guess what I might be doing now if MacGyver hadn't come along."
Law and Order
Although MacGyver made him an international star, Anderson's most beloved television project is the critically-acclaimed Legend, an offbeat Western series set in 1876. He played Ernest Pratt, a hard-drinking San Francisco dime novelist who assumed the identity of his literary creation Nicodemus Legend, the 'Knight of the Prairie'. With some prodding from Professor Janos Bartok (John de Lancie), who provided him with all types of futuristic gadgets, Pratt reluctantly helped maintain Law and Order on the range.
"I had so much fun being a part of the development process and certainly to a large extent creating the character," enthuses Anderson. "This project was brought to Michael [Greenburg] and me by Mike Piller when were under contract at Paramount. Mike had this script floating around so the studio execs partnered us and out of that came Legend. To this day I'm still sad about its early demise because I don't think UPN really gave it a chance to garner an audience. It had such potential and was one of our babies that I genuinely loved doing."
As he approaches his 50th birthday Anderson could not be happier with his life. He has a hit television programme, a loving partner, Apryl Prose, and a healthy and happy little girl. Not bad for someone who once considered himself a vagabond.
"I've been extremely fortunate to be able to perpetuate a livelihood or 'career' out of acting," says the actor. "However, I had a problem in that I was a workaholic. I was never quite sure why over the years I couldn't hold anything together and kept losing relationships until I realized I was working too much. I had my priorities in the wrong place. So what that's allowed me to do now is to really appreciate the fact that I have this beautiful baby and, at 49-years-old, a new life. That's the payoff for what we'll loosely call my career and I'm very grateful."
Eramo, Steven. "Richard Dean Anderson: Gate Crasher." TV Zone. August, 1999: p. 14-20.