Frontier. January-March, 2000
By Jenny Wake
For a fun-loving, freewheeling, daredevil kind of guy, Richard Dean Anderson works hard.
Up at 5.30am, by 6.10 he's changing nappies, and by 6.30 he's off to the "Stargate SG-1" set for a twelve-plus hour stint as executive producer and lead actor. From production responsibilities to the less glamorous chores of parenthood, it's work he clearly relishes.
Who wouldn't enjoy playing "SG-1"'s Colonel Jack O'Neill? He's arrogant, willful and armed with a withering sarcasm. He gets to explore far-flung corners of the galaxy. He harbours dark secrets in his heart-of-gold. And every week he puts his life on the line for his team, kids, and humankind.
"Do I like Jack? Yeah," says Anderson. "He has that kind of humour I like: subtle, ironic, wry, sarcastic, irreverent. He really doesn't take himself all that seriously, which I feel is an extremely admirable trait. I'd hang with him."
When MGM asked Anderson to consider starring in a television series based on the hit movie "Stargate," he quickly recognised "the potential for an evolution of story and character and concept. The franchise had all the potential in the world of limitless possibilities."
Its premise centres on an ancient "stargate" which has fallen into the hands of the US military, providing a shortcut to a myriad of inhabited, terra-formed planets. O'Neill heads SG-1, a small team of scientists and warriors, who blunder their way around the galaxy in search of allies, new technologies, and a means of protecting Earth from the snaky Goa'uld.
1976-1981 GENERAL HOSPITAL
Three seasons down the track, the Colonel's character is still evolving.
"I'm having a lot of fun of late with O'Neill," says Anderson. "I've played him and kind of rewritten... or embellished the writing of him with a certain density that is fun to play. I'm not going to call him a dunce, but he's got a certain thickness to him." O'Neill is a smart thinker in action, decisive in a crisis, but he's impatient with scientific theory: "Highly conceived theories about things confuse him - he kind of has to bottom-line it. But out of nowhere will come an indication that he may have had a seed of education somewhere and just dumbs down for the rest of the world."
In the second season episode "The Fifth Race", O'Neill unwittingly downloads 'all the knowledge of the Ancients' into his brain. It would likely drive a lesser mind mad, but O'Neill uses it to seek out the omniscient Asgard race for an antidote, impressing the Asgard and giving Anderson fuel for further exploration of his character.
"Part of his sarcasm might be based in the fact that he's really extremely intelligent, and not just a wise ass. The notion would be that he's a wise ass because he's defensive about his ineptness intellectually. Well, the fact is that he's just arrogant and indifferent and possibly above it all. This is not etched in stone. But I'm having fun playing with the notions of there being an intellectual thread to him, whereas, what is obvious is that he's a little thicker than the average Joe."
"Stargate SG-1"'s writers readily accommodate Anderson's views. In third season's "Fair Game", O'Neill encounters the awe-inspiring Asgard again, and Anderson argued for a chummier rapport with them this time: "Rather than being all blown away by the fact that this little Roswell Gray-esque character is talking to me, just buy into it! O'Neill kind of shakes his head and gets used to the idea that he's been transported through space to be talking with this little gray creature."
Not that O'Neill tends to get overwrought when faced with aliens, even when they're megalomaniacal snakes looking to commandeer his body: "We're dealing with a guy who's been through a lot. He's just cynical enough not to be horrified by something. He's more confused and incensed that something like this could happen!"
As one of "Stargate SG-1"'s four executive producers, Anderson keeps tabs on script development and production every step of the way. "The key word in all this is going to be collaboration," he says of the producing team. "The best idea wins, is our philosophy."
Fellow executive producers Jonathan Glassner and Brad Wright head the scripting department, but, at any one time, Anderson is likely to be tweaking four or five scripts for upcoming episodes. "I ask na´ve questions about stories, about what's happening in this dimension, this parallel universe. How does this work? I'm doing my job as an actor in asking those questions, and maybe seeding some ideas for them to develop. But also, as one of the partners, I have to have a broad spectrum of understanding of what the hell's going on," he laughs.
Glassner and Wright also handle the post-production phase, but Anderson and partner Michael Greenburg fine-tune. "If there are some glaring inconsistencies in story, in matching, basically in the telling of the story, if there's a better way to do it, we will give that note," says Anderson. "And it's generally addressed. Jonathan and Brad are very open to our input."
Anderson and Greenburg oversee production on set. As Greenburg puts it: "Directors come and go... we have like eight different directors over 22 shows, and the directors of photography alternate, so Rick and I are like the constant. We're making sure the vision gets executed the way that all of us want it to."
"One of my pet peeves is education," Anderson says. He's certain that cast and crew work best when they're well informed. And in good humour - which perhaps partway explains why he's apt to break into song or a bout of foot wrestling with his fellow actors between takes.
"I like the energy to be light and as positive as possible," he says. "Because it's a grind. If you've got some arrogant, snotty-nosed, quote-unquote star that comes flying onto the set and just rails on everybody for whatever reason, that doesn't work, I mean that's not fun! Who wants to go to work with that kind of energy?"
The executive producer role doesn't leave Anderson with much time to hang out or take naps between scenes. So why does he do it? "For creative input," he says. "To be able to affect what is finally seen.
"I like that part of it. It's part of why I've been in the business as long as I have. Because I'm not that great an actor, and know it." Just his opinion, of course - belied by the world-wide success and enduring popularity of his MacGyver character, and by recognitions such as the Saturn Award he picked up in 1999 as best actor in a TV series for his work on "Stargate SG-1."
"I have a very pragmatic attitude about the quality of my acting. The quantity of it obviously I have no problems, there's plenty of it around. But that alone hasn't kept me in the business. The machinations of production have kept my interest, so I've been executive producing about the last five projects I've been involved with."
Anderson was born and raised in Minnesota, one of the coldest, snowiest states in the USA. He loves skiing, ice hockey and retreating to the solitude of a back woods cabin. His father is a former English teacher and jazz musician, his mother an artist. He has three younger brothers and almost always owns a dog - currently Zoe, his third Australian Shepherd.
He has blown out a knee skiing at 100 kph, skydived, raced (and crashed) cars and been smacked in the face by a killer whale. The latter, he admits, was entirely his fault - he should never have flinched back when the beast leapt for the mackerel between his teeth.
He hints at a tendency towards juvenile delinquency. Dreams of becoming a professional hockey player were frustrated by injuries. At 17 he bicycled from Minnesota to Alaska, thousands of kilometres, which would be a tough haul even without the majestic Rocky Mountains in the middle. He fought forest fires in British Columbia, worked at a Marineland, juggled and mimed in a renaissance cabaret.
In 1976 he broke into television via "General Hospital" as Jeff Webber, a heartthrob doctor battling such everyday crises as marriage infidelities, drug abuse, a stolen baby son and a bullet in his head. Anderson endured a five-year tour of duty on the soap and could no doubt have served out his career in daytime television, if not for a certain restlessness of spirit.
From 1981-85 he guested on such shows as "The Love Boat," "$25,000 Pyramid," and "Battle of the Network Stars." He starred in the pilot for a sitcom, a spin-off from "The Facts of Life," but it failed to materialise into a series. He headed an ensemble cast as a singing and dancing rancher in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," and played a naval lieutenant pilot in "Emerald Point N.A.S.," but neither series survived their first seasons. He starred as a soldier blinded in Vietnam in "Ordinary Heroes," a film intended as a feature but eventually screened as a television movie.
In 1985, Anderson landed the title role in "MacGyver" and his fortunes changed. "MacGyver" was a huge success. As the sweet-hearted troubleshooter who shunned guns in favour of thinking his way out of danger, Anderson was suddenly regarded, the world over, as a wholesome role model. Kids switched on to science and ordinary folk who had never repaired so much as a leaky tap took to "macgyvering" broken appliances and flat tyres with duct tape, chewing gum or springs from ballpoint pens.
Anderson's seven-year stint as gentle action hero MacGyver earned him some standing in the industry. He formed a production company, Gekko Film Corp, with "MacGyver" producer Michael Greenburg and, when the series wrapped in 1992, he scored a production deal with Paramount to make television movies and develop a new series.
For a time, he turned to un-MacGyverish roles that were progressively darker: a cop tempted into crime in "In the Eyes of a Stranger;" a sleazy psychopath in "Through the Eyes of a Killer;" and a murderous wife-beater in "Beyond Betrayal." In "Past the Bleachers" he returned to gentler form as a teacher struggling to come to terms with the death of his only child. And in the ratings-winning miniseries, "Pandora s Clock," he again played the good guy as an airline pilot defying CIA treachery, a doomsday virus and a broken wing to bring his passengers to safety.
His favourite project to date is the 1995 series "Legend," a quirky comedy adventure with a satirical edge. Set in America's old west, it's about a seedy writer who desires nothing more than to drown himself in whisky, women and poker, but is forced instead to act as the gallant hero of his novels.
"I could not have designed a character that was more fun than that for me," says Anderson. "It allowed me to tap into some absurd sense of humour that I have. It's a little sick and twisted and debauched, and that was the character. It was so much fun to be able to just let it fly on camera."
It still smarts that "Legend" ran for only 12 episodes. The series was screened in the US on UPN, a 'fledgling' network in its first year on air. Struggling to find its own identity and some sort of audience, UPN wiped all but one show from its schedule within months of the network's debut. "Legend" was axed just as it was hitting its stride.
"I don't want to sit here with sour grapes, but it was sad to me that it was never ever really allowed to realise its potential. It was just kind of odd enough, you know? If we had gone on, I figure it would have been something very, very unique - could have been, if only... wiping a tear from his cheek... he said, wistfully."
Anderson and Greenburg have looked at reviving "Legend" in a two-hour TV movie format, but the project is currently "on a major league hold. The idea keeps surfacing, only because I miss it so much. But I'm committed here right now, and any off season that I have I'm now spending with child, being dad. We'll see."
Anderson admits he wasn't a great fan of science fiction before he signed up for "Stargate SG-1." His viewing tastes tend towards the skewed comedy of "The Simpsons" and Monty Python. As an actor, his preferred genre is action adventure: "Like the 'Indiana Jones' trilogy, that franchise, is probably my favourite, because of character, story, adventure, visual, all elements. And they're a romp, they're fun! So something like 'Star Wars' which had the same sort of... I don't want to say 'tongue in cheek' because they treated it in a serious manner, but do some pretty absurd things, and have some very funny characters - that sort of approach I appreciate and like. But the action adventure aspect of science fiction is what I enjoy, what the adventure is out there."
He flinches at a question about his acting process: "Oyee!" He just does the job - he'd rather not think about how he does it.
"My process is pretty simple. I don't have any great tricks I've studied. I have a tendency not to get too terribly deep or ethereal unless... " He suddenly remembers the emotional journey of the young soldier blinded in "Ordinary Heroes": "I had to really structure things properly, because it was all done out of sequence. Also because more was being asked of me emotionally than I had ever delved into. So I studied, I hired someone to help me find the process. Turned out okay."
Despite the action orientation of many of Anderson's roles, there's a strong internal or emotional base to much of his work. "'Past the Bleachers' was a movie I did where I played a baseball little league coach, and it was nothing but emotion: dealing with the death of a child, and the haunting, or the ghosts, that came along with that.
"There wasn't a lot of momentum into the emotional foray for MacGyver. It was an action adventure show. With Jack O'Neill, once in a while we reference the death of his young son, so there's a back-story there from which I can draw. I'm being afforded more opportunity to have some human emotional responses to situations on this show.
"MacGyver became more just an extension of where I was in the 80s: this youngish vagabond soul, just kind of bouncing through life and being a reluctant hero. That's MacGyver - but I had the energy, and I guess the impulses, of a younger man.
"I may give things a little more thought now. I may be more apt to think something out to its end - especially as a producer, where I have to kind of keep track of all aspects of story and character, through-line and such. So it forces me into a deeper thought process. But for the most part, I still work the same."
While other actors analyse scripts and break dialogue down into emotional beats, Anderson prefers not to pre-plan exactly how he might play a scene. Having worked on each script during the writing phase, he has a feel for O'Neill's physical or emotional state and the pace or intensity a scene might require. From there, when the camera rolls, it's a matter of "what is an immediate reaction. I'm more of a 'reactionary' actor than a studied, deep thinker. I do kind of plot things out in my head on an emotional and physical level, but I keep a really loose parameter, to the point of maybe even improvising dialogue.
"I learn ideas, I don't learn words or dialogue. I learn the ideas of scenes and work from there. Working under, of course, the whole umbrella of knowing what the story is. I'm a vehicle that helps tell a story. I have always perceived myself as that, anyway."
"Stargate SG-1" boasts plenty of space battles, stunt work and award-winning visual effects, but Anderson insists it's story and character that are the nub of the show.
"I just read the most wonderful letter," he says. "It was thanking us for creating interesting characters that they could follow and care about in the telling of these incredible stories. As an actor now, that for me is the fun part. I like a great story with good characters, and if it happens to take place in outer space, great."
"SG-1"'s outer-space elements sometimes offer outlets for Anderson's more mischievous instincts. In the season one episode "Brief Candle", for instance, O'Neill is infested by "nanites" that cause him to age drastically over a few days, until he looks a hundred years old. "It was a pain in the arse to get into that make-up. It was a four-hour ordeal coming and going, and it was kinda brutal. But once I was in that thing, I was in it for the day. It was hard to get out of character. I was pinching butts and being cranky, but that was a lot of fun."
Halfway through "Stargate SG-1"'s second season, with not a nanite in sight, O'Neill's hair suddenly whitened at the temples. Fans in chat forums on the Internet mused as to whether the pressures of keeping Earth safe from Goa'uld domination might be getting too stressful for the Colonel, but Anderson says he's to blame for the rapid ageing:
"O'Neill went grey as the result of Richard Dean Anderson wanting to simplify his cosmetic life. It's easier to add the grey than to subtract it. I could blow some smoke and tell you that it adds maturity and credibility to the character, blah, blah... But the fact is, I have some grey hair (which, by the way, I'm very proud of) and I kind of like it. O'Neill will just have to live with it."
Anderson turns 50 on January 23, and couldn't be happier that his life has finally taken a family-oriented turn. "I love kids. I've always loved kids - worked with them in the inner city and various and sundry charities and groups, and I've always said that I want to have kids some day, but it was always just one of those, yeah, I'll have kids one day, attitudinal sort of things. Well, the reality became a possibility."
In 1996, Anderson met "the perfect woman for me", Apryl Prose, a friend of a friend, who turned out to share with him "a sense of humour, or a kind of a tilt, a certain attitude about the absurdity of life in general. So we meshed." In August '98, she gave birth to their daughter, Wylie Quinn Annarose.
He's an unabashedly doting dad, and claims to be a dab hand with nappies. "We have our 15 minutes in the morning bonding, where I change her, start to feed her, and have to hand her off to Apryl, then I come here. And do nothing but miss her all day long."
Filming for "Stargate SG-1"'s third season wrapped in October, and picks up again for season four in February, giving Anderson the winter months to devote to his daughter. "Hiatus is heavenly in this respect. I can spend time with her." This hiatus their plans include "biking a lot, swimming, exploring the nature paths of California. We'll all be skiing for the New Year. She's got her dad's thick blood: she likes the cold."
It won't be Wylie's first time on skis. "I've had her down a slope. She was four months old. I held her in my arms and we came down a slope in Squaw Valley. The look on her... we have it chronicled in pictures. She's just going, like..." (his face flies into an expression of open-mouthed rapture) "... wide-eyed, trying to eat the cold air.
"This little girl is absolutely fearless. She tries to crawl off tables, head firsts off of benches... she's just amazing. Of course, she doesn't know pain quite yet, because dad's been there to be very protective about it, knowing full well that, if she's got an ounce of my genetic makeup, she's going to be jumping out of airplanes soon enough."
What's the betting that, 20 years on and 70 years old, he'll be jumping with her?
Wake, Jenny. "Travelling Jack." Frontier, issue #18. January-March, 2000: p. 20-23.