THE RIGHT STUFF
Playing the Hero in an Anti-Hero Age -- A Half-Dozen Ways to Be a Hero at Once by Just Getting the Job Done Without Bluster
In "Pandora's Clock," the ABC-TV mini-series being broadcast tonight and tomorrow night at 9, Richard Dean Anderson plays James Holland, the pilot of a Boeing 747 jetliner. One of his passengers may - just may - be infected with a deadly strain of man-made virus. As the governments of the world try to defuse this bio-political time bomb, mostly by sending the jet lurching around the globe from one unsafe haven to another, Mr. Anderson's character does his best to cope.
And cope he does: with a slightly graying, jut-jawed stoic demeanor worthy of Yeager, Wayne or Stewart. In the course of the production's four hours, Mr. Anderson's character (1) effectively unravels the geopolitics behind the situation, deciding which international air traffic directions to obey and which to defy; (2) provides the needed leadership for several hundred frightened passengers, correctly identifying which ones need to be slugged, which ones need to be hugged, and which can be brought up to the cockpit to help him, and (3) outwits a mercenary terrorist pilot whose sole aim is to shoot down the airliner, creating an international incident and an epidemic with one heat-seeking missile.
Holland also finds the time to tame an officious and ultimately flappable company pilot examiner (played by Richard Lawson, of "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd"); ride out a prostate cancer scare (he gets the good news from his doctor just before takeoff), and romance an attractive State Department official in business class ("Fraiser"'s Jane Leeves).
"How are you holding up?" another character asks Holland at one crucial point.
"That's my job - holding up," Holland says matter-of-factly. It's about this time that the viewer spots light at the end of the fictional tunnel.
It's about this time, too, that something else becomes apparent: if there is such a thing as post-feminist on-screen manliness, Mr. Anderson is its personification. With nary a hint of panic, bluster, painful introspection or compensatory macho, Mr. Anderson - as in most of the roles he's undertaken in the last 15 years or so - simply gets the job done.
"All the angst in the world isn't going to divert this guy," Mr. Anderson says, discussing his role in "Pandora's Clock" in a Brentwood coffee bar recently. "He's got his own demons, but when his work presents an extraordinary situation he doesn't look inside or to someone else. He just sees what he needs to do and does it."
Citing the views of the show's producer, David Israel, Mr. Anderson adds: "His background, as David filled me in on it, was that Holland was ex-military, with a lot of the discipline and training but with a certain resentment for the regimentation. So there's an attitude to this whole thing. What helps him through the ordeal is that he doesn't go by the book right down the line. He obeys to a certain extent. But when the proverbial push comes to shove, when his back is against the wall, he takes the bull by the horns and - I've got all the clichés in, haven't I?"
Mr. Anderson laughs, and a nearby latte-sipping patron turns to look at him with a small start of recognition.
The actor is best known, of course, as MacGyver, the lead character of the ABC adventure series of that name, which ran from 1985 to 1992. Every week, playing an unarmed and violence-abhorring secret agent who used makeshift weapons fabricated from materials like coat hangars and hair spray, Mr. Anderson worked his way out of trouble to the cheers of a smallish but extremely loyal audience. Reruns of the series are shown daily on the USA cable network and on over-the-air networks around the globe.
"There have been a lot of descriptions of MacGyver," Mr. Anderson says, "but one of the most used was that he's a man's man that the women like, too."
Indeed, John J. Nance, the writer from whose novel this mini-series is adapted, says Mr. Anderson did a fine job portraying "one of the many quiet, competent pilots I've flown with who just want to be left alone to do what they do best."
Although Mr. Nance says he doesn't think he remotely resembles Captain Holland, he is an airline pilot, flying for Alaska Airlines. Mr. Anderson, on the other hand, who fits the profile effortlessly, has never had a pilot license.
Most of his pre- and post-MacGyver roles, in fact, have been fairly well circumscribed by what the actor describes as "the heroic stuff."
"I've been thinking about that," Mr. Anderson says, "and there is a certain quality I have that a lot of my family members and closer friends have commented on. It's that I'm very good in emergency situations. With no time to think, I react very well and quickly and somewhat wisely.
"Given time to think about something, I'm a mess. I get confused. I try to avoid it. I get disoriented."
In this vein, Mr. Anderson - who has not been married but has been linked romantically to the skater Katerina Witt and the actresses Sela Ward and Marlee Matlin - enjoys auto racing and downhill skiing. "But I'm very bad at skiing slowly. I get into all kinds of trouble."
Mr. Anderson says he likes the fast pace of television production, and has avoided longer film and stage productions. Born 46 years ago in Minneapolis, he attended a couple of colleges and fronted a rock band before landing a role in 1976 on the soap opera "General Hospital." After appearing in two short-lived CBS series, "Emerald Point N.A.S." and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," he won his signature role as MacGyver.
Since then he's widened his range a bit by playing a television-movie serial killer and an introspective coach or two. Last season he played an idiosyncratic western hero in the UPN series "Legend." It failed, leaving him a few free months to take on "Pandora's Clock."
"You know what?" he says easily of his make-believe captaincy, "I had fun. I get offered a lot of MacGyver-like stuff, and my agent tries to see that I'm not pigeonholed, and this thing was more heroic than maybe I really wanted to indulge at this point in my career, but it was very well written.
"When you come right down to it, I just couldn't avoid it."