October 1, 2004
By Anna Sokol
Photo courtesy of US Air Force
Such was my dilemma covering Richard Dean Anderson. I was an ardent fan of MacGyver, a somewhat confused fan of Legend and an absolute fanatic about Stargate. This was going to be a dream assignment. My colleagues are either too old (MacGyver) or too young (who’s Richard Dean Anderson?) to truly appreciate my excitement. Awe, their loss!
For some strange reason, I assumed that the awards ceremony was going to be held in California. The initial press release simply mentioned that he was being honored by the Air Force... that’s it. It wasn’t until a more detailed release was distributed that I saw in addition to the ceremony, he was also going to visit Walter Reed Hospital and the Pentagon. Oooh baby... Richard Dean Anderson was coming to Washington!
Logistics deemed that my best bet to see him would be at the Pentagon and at the awards dinner. After a couple of phone calls and emails, I was set.
This assignment was always going to be for our internet news outlet. I had also placed a call to our national morning show to see if there might be interest for their broadcast. They were going to get back to me. It appears that Jimmy Smits was also in town and being considered. Silly fools!
Tuesday, September 14th finally arrived. I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend my day off. With my cameras all loaded and materials in hand, I left early to make my way to the Pentagon. Access and security has been a nightmare since the events of 9/11. Richard was supposed to have an 11am photo opportunity in the briefing room of the Pentagon. That’s the same location that Rumsfeld or some Joint Chief of Staff addresses the media. My camera crew was already in place and waiting when I arrived. Now, the hard part. You learn early in this profession that everything is always “hurry up and wait”. The waiting can be extremely nerve-racking especially if it’s someone or something that you’re excited about. So, there we sat, 11am came and went, no Richard Dean Anderson... 11:30am, still no Richard Dean Anderson... I was probably the only person in the room that was ready to jump out of my skin. Knowing that the regularly scheduled briefing time was rapidly approaching, nervousness started creeping in... something was wrong. The announcement was made that the photo op was being cancelled. My heart sank. Richard was running behind schedule because he extended his visit with the injured soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital. How could I be angry with that? Okay then... time to regroup. I went home and chilled until it was time to drive back into the city for the Air Force dinner.
As previously arranged, I was to await Richard’s arrival at the entrance to the cocktail party. Excited, more than nervous, thoughts of seeing him arriving in full dress military uniform started to race through my mind, as well as clichés such as “no, but I play one on TV”. Somewhere in there, I decided to look up just in time to spot General John Jumper rounding the corner with his VIP guest in tow. Resplendent in, as I later learned, a custom made tuxedo, was the tall, sun-tanned, sexy and larger than life handsome star that I had been assigned to cover. Not often has my breath been taken away with a simple smile. In my head, the mantra of... ”no gushing, no fawning Anna, you’re on assignment” was rattling around.
Richard stopped quickly to pick up a drink and say a few hellos, at which point I joined his small entourage and we entered into the cocktail party. There was an instant twitter of hushed voices. Some were driven by the sight of General Jumper, but most of the prominent tones echoed at the sight of Richard Dean Anderson. “Look, it’s MacGyver” or “Oh wow, it’s Colonel O’Neill” or “I remember him from General Hospital” and the ever frequent “Ooh, I have to have my picture taken with him” was all that was heard. It was quite apparent that no one remembered Legend, so I decided to keep my mouth shut. The more he was recognized, the louder the buzz. It was truly a sight to behold. Exuding much warmth and charisma, he shook every hand presented and posed for every picture requested. I followed around like the ultimate groupie, taking picture after picture as he dazzled all who gathered. I caught myself continually grinning from ear to ear. He seemed to have that affect on everyone. An older-ish woman was fanning herself after having her picture taken... I couldn’t help myself from chiming in that what she was experiencing was called ‘the vapors’. She and her husband obviously seemed to appreciate the thought by laughing for quite some time. I patiently waited for my audience with the hunky star. (Oh God, there I go again... ooohhmmmm, must repeat mantra). He agreed beforehand to an interview and keeping with the golden rule... once again it was time to “hurry up and wait”.
Richard and ‘the gaggle’ were moved to a more contained and quiet location so that Jack Geise, a representative from the Air Force Association (AFA) could attempt to extract a ‘sound bite’. As if he was a magician using slight of hand, Richard managed to take the microphone out of Geise’s hand and started conducting the interview. He laughed as he said “See, it’s the producer in me... I’m taking control already.” He handed the microphone back to the slightly flustered man and the interview began. My turn was coming next. I usually have a camera crew with me because I work for television. Our internet news service is fairly new and only requires a couple of photographs and an accompanying story. For this venue, in addition to my cameras, I would usually carry a tape recorder... guess what was still sitting in my office?! I knew that my time with Richard was limited and therefore I wasn’t too worried. I only had a couple of questions and a reasonably good memory. Plus, in my business, we deal in what are called ‘sound bites’ and therefore, anything that was said leading into or after the ‘sound bite’ is less critical. I walked over with hand extended and introduced myself (breath gone again... he smiled). We were interrupted three times before I could even get to my first question, so Richard instinctively moved us over to a quiet cubby area. As much as it was quiet and more personal, I honestly believe it was also a welcomed opportunity for him to have a short breather from all of the hoopla.
Earlier in the day, Richard visited the injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I began by asking him about his visit. “It was overwhelming and inspiring” he said, “it’s something that will remain with me forever. I wish I had thought about going sooner.” I asked if he was recognized and if it was more as MacGyver or as O’Neill? He chuckled and said “a little of both... that was a little scary.” I mentioned that I had spent the morning waiting for him at the Pentagon for his photo opportunity. “You did?” he uttered, “I stayed longer at Walter Reed.” Again, how could you be angry at someone who would do something like that? I continued my questioning by asking if this was his first visit to the Pentagon (it was) and if he went to the section that was rebuilt after the tragedy of 9/11? His facial expression suddenly changed to that of a kid who was describing an arcade. “There’s something like 17 miles” he recalled, “I saw the medal room, memorial hall, and the trophy area”. He also mentioned that the tour guide provided, spewed facts at such a rapid pace that it made his head spin. “He wouldn’t shut up” Richard said laughing. He also had the opportunity to hang out with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To use one of Richard’s favorite words, a very ‘heady’ group.
We were just getting comfortable when Doug Thar, his handler, yelled to wrap it up. I almost couldn’t contain myself when Richard looked quickly at Doug and then back at me and said, “Don’t listen to him, I like talking to you.” (ooohhhhmmm... mantra time again). I was about to ask another question when Doug physically appeared. To my amazement, Richard put his hand on Doug’s shoulder and pushed him, saying “go away”. Smiling and laughing, I mentioned that we probably should wrap things up, but that I did have a couple of Stargate questions to ask. Quickly, I asked if there would be a season 9... he thought for a moment and answered, “I don’t think so.” My last question concerned those horrible silver and black flight suits that they wore when flying the hybrid fighters. I wanted to know what compelled them to make them look so alien. Richard looked at me and said “You’ve done your homework.” I had to smile and finally give myself away by telling him that I was a fan as well. He laughed and said that when he first saw the suits, all he could utter was “you’ve got to be kidding me?” Well, that seemed to sum things up as far as I was concerned. Now, I know what you’re thinking... of all of the things that I could have asked him about Stargate, why did I choose that stupid question? Well, to be honest, I felt that I needed to remain professional. As a fan, I too, have a million questions, but I needed to ask something that was short, sweet and not too ‘fan-ish’. And, I truly wanted to know the answer. SG-1 didn’t strike me as a group that would actually agree to wear something like that. We chatted some more until Doug had to physically pull Richard out of our cubby hole. I thanked him for his kindness and for taking the time to speak with me. He arched his eyebrow and asked, “Are you going to remember everything?” At which point I told him not to worry, I would be writing the article shortly. He smiled (okay Anna, breathe... it’s almost over... oohhmmm) and as he was leaving said, “Just make me sound smart”. I bid him adieu and wished him good luck. Making him sound smart would not be difficult for he’s an extremely articulate speaker. Oh yeah, for those who are wondering... yes, I did pose with him for some personal pictures... sheesh! While he was being led away to the ballroom for the dinner, I again thanked his handler, Doug Thar, who honored me on his own, with a kiss on the cheek.
I had a few minutes to refocus before proceeding to the ballroom to yet again, “hurry up and wait”. I ran into the camera crew and Jack Geise of the AFA who told me that Richard’s award would be presented before the dinner without his prior knowledge. This was going to make the whole evening even more special.
There was an obvious din in the ballroom when I arrived. It took quite a number of “please take your seats” before the crowd finally settled down. I’ve been to many such functions and haven’t seen anything like this before. This was a pumped group.
The evening began with AFA Chairman of the Board, John Politi making a few introductions of various notables who were attending (including the Secretary of the Air Force). After a customary prayer, General John Jumper was introduced and took the stage. In a former life, I worked for a very high profile Army 4-Star. Most Generals are stoic in their demeanor, not General Jumper... he’s one of the most charismatic and jovial Generals I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and obviously quite popular with his troops.
The General didn’t waste any time before announcing that there was yet another special VIP in the audience. “Jack O’Neill and his team go through a Stargate to other worlds to fight evil and save Earth,” he stated enthusiastically. “Let’s see a bit of what he does.” The lights dimmed and the familiar theme from Stargate opened the video presentation that immediately went to the scene from “Prodigy”, where Colonel O’Neill first meets General Michael Ryan. Hoots and hollers could be heard from the audience. The video continued with rapid-fire clips of Colonel Jack O’Neill in action. The sequence closed with General Jumper, sitting in the Oval Office from a scene in “Lost City”, briefing President Hayes on defenses and the fight against Anubis. The audience went into a frenzy with thundering hurrahs that made it impossible to hear what was being said. The lights came up with the audience still cheering. General Jumper introduced Richard Dean Anderson and motioned him to come to the stage. Grinning again, from ear to ear, I made my way to the corner of the platform at the stage for some additional pictures. (Yeah! No more mantra needed... I was going to enjoy this as a fan!).
Looking around for some sort of cue, Richard positioned himself away from the podium, where General Jumper was beginning to sing his praises. Off to the side were two airmen, in full dress uniform; each holding a tray. In tandem, with a military cadence, they started moving towards the podium. The General lifted a carved statuette of a bald eagle which was, in effect, an overall representation of the Air Force, and presented it to Richard, who graciously accepted. The General quickly resumed speaking, “Colonel Jack O’Neill was recently promoted to the rank of Brigadier General... and it’s about time... since he saves the world nearly every week.” The excitement in the audience was growing as he continued, “In honor of that promotion, we are presenting Richard with a pair of honorary General’s stars.” The audience spontaneously erupted into a standing ovation.
Appearing genuinely surprised and extremely touched, Richard accepted the case containing the stars and moved towards the podium. With the crowd still on their feet, Richard motioned with his hands and in true Jack O’Neill fashion said, “Would you please sit down already?” I don’t know if his acceptance speech was prepared or ad-libbed, and I don’t believe that it really mattered, because you could see that he was speaking from his heart. He thanked everyone again and began to regale the audience with his version of General Ryan’s appearance on Stargate. He also spoke about asking General Ryan if there were real colonels in the Air Force like Jack O’Neill... and the answer of yes, there are, and also some that are worse, made the audience erupt once again.
With much humility and regard, Richard concluded his remarks and returned to his table. I wrapped things up, said my goodbyes to the camera crew, and left the ballroom to return to my car. Before reaching the exit of the hotel, the fire alarm sounded. As if Richard’s day wasn’t full and exciting enough, he, along with the roughly 3000 people from the dinner, and the remainder of the guests at the hotel, had to be evacuated. The parking lot became a sea of men and women in formal uniform milling about. General Jumper joked that it was probably his laundry that caught on fire. Once again, Richard was holding court for anyone who approached. An hour and a half later, the all clear was sounded and everyone was permitted back into the building. With the day’s events swirling around my head, I proceeded to my car to make my way to my office to write and file my story. This was truly an assignment that I will never forget... especially since the story was kicked because of breaking news. In my mind, nothing was more important than Richard Dean Anderson... not the hurricane and not the fact that planes couldn’t land at LAX. I am extremely grateful for alternative internet outlets.
As Jack O’Neill, saving the world every week on Stargate SG-1 is exciting on its own, but I am most certain, with a day like he had today, Richard Dean Anderson will NEVER forget his visit to Washington.
Richard Dean Anderson will also not be forgotten by those whose lives he touched during his visit to Washington, DC. In an official statement from the Pentagon, a spokesperson commented:
"The Air Force was extremely honored to have Richard Dean Anderson visit the Pentagon on 14 September. During his visit he graciously took the time to sign autographs and have photos taken with anyone that asked, he was a true professional. We are very proud of his portrayal of Colonel, now Brigadier General, Jack O’Neill. Gen. O’Neill may at times be brash and irreverent, but there is no doubt of his patriotism and dedication to his job. We also congratulate Mr. Anderson on his promotion to 'Honorary Brigadier General - USAF.' "
The Walter Reed Medical Center released the following statement:
"It was very gracious of Richard Dean Anderson to visit service members who were wounded, injured or became ill during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. He was very generous with his time, and our patients and staff enjoyed receiving advice from the noted medical authority, 'Dr. Jeff Webber'. We thank Mr. Anderson and the many other celebrities who have visited our patients at Walter Reed. We’re grateful to all of them."
Article and photos (except where noted) © Anna Sokol 2004
Sokol, Anna. "Richard Dean Anderson - A Day of Honors." October 1, 2004.