Richard Dean Anderson jumps nimbly in & out of interstellar adventure.
Science fiction has been very very good to Richard Dean Anderson.
Considering that he's no SF fan and that he harbored serious concerns about assuming a role previously played by Kurt Russell, Anderson has few complaints so far about his experiences as the star of Stargate SG-1, now in its second season - and already renewed for another two years - on Showtime and in syndication.
"I have such a discriminating eye for quality that I'll probably never be completely satisfied, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how the first year turned out," says Anderson, who had essayed for seven years the heroic MacGyver, as well as eccentric pulp fiction writer Ernest Pratt for a single season on the late, lamented Legend. "I can say I was surprised, primarily because I was skeptical going into the show, seeing as how I wasn't really an SF aficionado. I liked the Star Wars franchise, but I was more an Indiana Jones-oriented guy. But I did Stargate under the guise of, 'I have to try virtually everything once and some things one too many times.'
"In the case of Stargate, the SF genre was someting I had never tried before. The whole concept, not to mention the potential of Stargate as a series, was phenomenal. Then Showtime gave us a two-year commitment out of the gate - that was almost unprecedented. It did give us a chance to create stories, though, knowing we had at least 44 episodes. In the middle of that, we got another two-year pick-up, so we have at least 88 episodes [in which] to tell our stories. We can create arc stories. We can create a bible and introduce recurring characters. I'm having a lot of fun so far, and we're still molding it. We found our legs during the first season after figuring out what the parameters would be technically and conceptually. We're still learning and, hopefully, we'll always be pushing the parameters."
The Stargate series - based, of course, on the Roland Emmerich-Dean Devlin film - kicked off in 1997 with solid reviews and good ratings for Showtime. And now with Stargate also a hit in syndication, just about anyone can catch the show. Anderson heads the cast as Colonel Jack O'Neill, leader of the SG-1 team that travels from planet to planet via a space portal, a stargate, to explore worlds and protect Earth from the dreaded Goa'ulds. Michael Shanks co-stars as Professor Daniel Jackson, along with Amanda Tapping as Dr. Samantha Carter, Don S. Davis as General Hammond and Christopher Judge as Teal'c, a disaffected Jaffa.
Anderson is stunned by the number of people he runs into who are either devotees of the series or are just now discovering it. "That's a strange phenomenon," he says, laughing, "but we'll take it. I never know what to say about specific episodes, because if I talk in the past tense about a particular episode, it may be something that many people haven't seen yet, and I don't want to ruin anything for anyone. That gets a little complicated, but it's a problem I can deal with."
Although a co-executive producer of the series, Anderson jokes that he could barely rattle off the titles of more than two or three Stargate episodes. He tends to think of the shows more by their respective production numbers. Fed a few storyline details, however, the actor does offer up his opinion of several hours from the first two seasons. In "Brief Candle," the SG-1 team travels to Argos, which is inhabited by beings who live a full lifetime in a mere 100 days. When O'Neill begins to age at an alarming rate, the SG-1 members must race against the clock to save him.
"That was some of the most fun I've ever had as an actor, because of the aging and makeup elements," Anderson notes. "The makeup was brilliant. Editorially, though, I think that show suffered a little bit. The episode ran about 17 minutes too long and it had to be cut down."
In "Tin Man," the SG-1 crew is knocked unconscious by an elaborate electrical trap. Upon awakening, they encounter Harlan (Jay Brazeau), who informs them that he has not only healed their assorted injuries, but made each of them better as a whole. As it turns out, he has implanted their consciousnesses in robot versions of themselves. "That show had a Brazil-like feeling to it, but it wasn't nearly as ornate," Anderson opines. "We had a little round guy who manipulated us, and I though Brazeau did a good job. Conceptually, I really liked the idea.
I keep speaking of concept, and forgive me for being maybe a little too highbrow about it, but I really like where we can go with Stargate. 'Tin Man' created [duplicates] of all the SG-1 members, and they're all still out there somewhere. We can tap into that. We have another way to go as actors."
Season one ended with "Within the Serpent's Grasp," in which the SG-1 team defy orders and use the Stargate to thwart an impending Goa'uld invasion of Earth. Complications arise, however, as they wind up on a Goa'uld ship and are unable to get off via the Stargate. "That show incorporated all the elements of what Stargate is supposed to be about," the actor raves. "We used the Stargate. We're out in space. We have the bad guys all around us. You had the cliffhanger aspect that kept you wondering whether or not we would blow up Earth. I was very pleased with it."
Year two kicked off with "The Serpent's Lair". Of course, it featured the SG-1 team preventing the Goa'uld from annihilating Earth. A dozen episodes later, Showtime aired "The Fifth Race," an episode that featured O'Neill becoming a receptacle for the knowledge of the Ancients. The sheer volume of information, however, threatens to overload O'Neill's mind.
"I had a ball doing that," says Anderson, who had to utter alien dialogue and play scenes opposite alien creatures. "Even though my conversations with the aliens weren't quite as deep as I would have liked, just the idea of talking to superior beings, the overseers of Thor's people, was great. These people were telling O'Neill that human beings have the potential to be the Fifth Race, to survive and contribute to the universe. That was fun to do."
All that said, does Anderson consider O'Neill as well-rounded as either MacGyver or Pratt? "You know what?" he replies. "When I was approached about Stargate, I had to make it clear that that the work had to be fun. At this point in my life, if the work is not going to be fun, I'm not going to bother doing it. Legend was the most fun I've ever had as an actor in a series. There was so much to it, so much room to play with that character.
"There's not as much room to play with O'Neill, but I made it one of my strong requests that they allow the character to have some sense of humor. I wanted to bring my cynical, sarcastic edge to the character. I wanted to temper O'Neill. He's a military guy, so you can only temper him so much. But they said, 'OK, let's give it a shot,' and they've been happy with what I've done with him. Actually, I suggested a few other character ideas, things that will take him a little further out there, and I think you'll be seeing those come into play pretty soon."
Speaking of Legend, just what were Anderson's experiences with this vaunted fantasy Western? "I don't want to sound like I'm living in the past or get, 'Come on, Rick. Move on' kinds of comments, but I was so at home in the skin of Ernest Pratt that I really do miss the show. I long for the day when I can again portray that virtually over-the-top kind of character. I know that [co-creator/writer/producer] Michael Piller would love to do more, maybe a TV movie. I know that John de Lancie [who played scientist Janos Bartok] has said he would do it again, too. My partner, Michael Greenburg, and I have stayed in peripheral contact with Michael Piller. I have some lasting friends over at Paramount, who own the project, or at least the title, so we would have to work through them.
"I can't say that Legend is completely dead because the spirit of Ernest Pratt is in me. I would love to bring it to the screen, and we have talked about trying to get a two-hour TV movie together somehow before we all wither and die. The concept of that show was so ripe, so rich. It was just unfortunate that we landed at UPN. They didn't know what they wanted and, let's be honest, do they yet? It's my understanding that they haven't had a higher number in our time slot. I don't want to pick it apart because we may be able to bring Legend back in some way. I don't know what kind of an audience, really, would eat it up and come along for the adventure. But I would like to find out."
Anderson is still something of a special FX novice. Even after two seasons of Stargate, he considers himself a neophyte. "FX are still an evolving science and technology," he explains. "I can't keep up with it. It still fascinates me. I watch Nova and the science programs just to learn how that stuff is done. On the set, it's a matter of going to work and learning something new every day. Blue screen and green screen is pretty mundane, actually, but some other elements are kind of elaborate. And we try to push what we can, because Stargate is an opportunity to really use our imaginations. Again, you do have to keep in mind that Stargate is a TV show. We're dealing with episodic television budgets and not the multi-million dollar budgets of films. We have to be wise with how we spend our money, because we want it all to be on the screen."
Much like the TV versions of M*A*S*H and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stargate has accomplished the formidable task of expanding far beyond the film on which it was based, to the point of - in the minds of many fans - eclipsing its progenitor. "Very few people ask me about the film now," Anderson acknowledges. "That's good. We would be total shrubs if we hadn't evolved and grown from what was a very ripe idea. We're pretty satisfied with where we're going and what we're doing. It seemed to me to be virtually impossible to fail with the show, but it helps to have, as we do, extremely talented guys like Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner writing for us, and a cast as good as we've got playing the roles. We're a well-oiled machine."
Often on long-running shows, the stars like to capitalize on their comfortable surroundings and try their hands at directing. Anderson has helmed episodes of his earlier shows, but he's in no rush to call the shots on Stargate. "To be honest, I would have to do either the first episode of a season or the first episode we did after a mid-season hiatus," he explains. "That's just because of the prep that's necessary and the technical work involved. Really, what I do now is exhausting enough. I don't have the ego that says, 'I want to direct' or 'I need to direct.' We have excellent directors on Stargate. My directing at this point would be an indulgence and kind of unnecessary."
Hooking up with Stargate and so actively participating in the day-to-day work, both creative and technical, has given Anderson a new appreciation of SF. That little revelation catches Anderson himself by surprise. "I do appreciate SF more. That question has not been posed to me," he comments. "Having done Stargate for two seasons now, I pay more attention when I watch something that's of the genre. I pick things apart and envision what was involved technically to get a shot. I also look for how the stories in other shows hold together. I'm still not a regular watcher of SF, though. I couldn't even tell you what else is on. I've never been a Star Trek fan. But I do have a greater appreciation for SF in general because I know what's involved in the making of a show. So, I can be impressed."
While SF can impress him, nothing pleases Anderson more than spending time with his family, which includes his girlfriend, Apryl Prose, and their daughter Wylie Quinn Annarose, who turned one on August 2. Anderson, Prose and Wylie live together in Los Angeles, and Prose and Wylie join Anderson in a rented home in Vancouver when Stargate is in production. "There's not one aspect of being a father that I don't like, that I don't absolutely love," Anderson enthuses. "Changing pooped-in diapers, dealing with diaper rash, I love it all. I honestly and truly do. Wylie is an angel. She sleeps from 8:30 p.m. until 6:30 or 7 a.m. She travels like a dream. I can make her laugh. She's alert, smart and can communicate what she wants. She's gorgeous. She's already skiing with me, and she's fascinated by the swimming pool. For me, spiritually and emotionally, nothing has ever affected me like this. I'm glad I waited. I'm 49 now and was 48 when she was born, and I was really ready. I had gotten everything out of the way that I needed to get out of the way, and I was just ready for this adventure."
And, in conclusion, Anderson contemplates the idea of an unearthly adventure. In other words, would he step into a real Stargate, and if so, where would he want to go? "Part of me thinks I would just jump in there and go on a surprise journey somewhere," Richard Dean Anderson says. "But if I were to design a destination, I would like to know how things turn out in the world, how they turn out for my family, after I'm gone. If I could somehow cosmically protect the people I love, that would be wonderful. I would go through the portal in a second."