As Jack O'Neill, actor Richard Dean Anderson jumped headlong into Stargate SG-1 with much of the legendary enthusiasm for which he is famed. Thomasina Gibson asks what possessed him.
I'd always liked being able to say 'I'll try anything once' and had never done any science fiction in my life, so it would have been hypocritical if I hadn't taken up the opportunity when it arose," laughs Richard Dean Anderson. Settling onto his chair, nestled behind the monitor being used by Stargate visual effects supervisor James Tichenor, on a set high in the hills above Vancouver BC, the actor who plays Colonel Jack O'Neill in the series is relaxed and happy to explain why he got involved in Stargate SG-1 in the first place.
"A colleague and friend called John Symes was the President of MGM Worldwide Television and had acquired the rights to the Stargate movie. He sold the idea as a series to Showtime who commissioned the show for an initial two-year period. John called me and said, 'I want you to do this', so I watched the movie several times, did my research and saw the potential of the movie as a great starting block for a series. I saw that it had some terrific characters, all the elements necessary to sustain interest for an extended period and felt that to expand on that we would only be limited by our imaginations. It looked like a nice playground for a foray into the SF business."
And, judging by the fact that the show is just about to begin a third season on Sky One this month, the ever-fickle TV audiences certainly seem to agree that Stargate SG-1 is a worthwhile foray into SF. The show has reached mega cult status in a relatively short time. Steadily rising ratings and a dedicated fan base convinced Showtime to extend their two-year pick-up to four and the show has been sold into syndication to more than 30 countries worldwide.
Anderson believes that part of the reason for the show's success lies in its flexibility. "Because creatively we're constantly in an explorative position. It's constantly like, 'What can we do next?' There are certain elements arising from the base of the movie which we follow but we try to bolster those by adding our own components as we go along."
As we chat, Anderson and co are a couple of episodes into their third year, and the actor is delighted that the development of the SG-1 team and their relationships with each other is explored in greater detail. "The first season was really about introducing the characters and highlighting the kinds of situations in which they might find themselves. Season two looked at how the individuals might react in those situations. Now we really get to know what makes them tick.
"One of my favourite episodes, which was shown back in the first season is 'Cold Lazarus'," he explains. "It dealt with the issue of O'Neill's son's death, which in turn left the way open for me to progress in any direction."
Anderson feels that this episode "cleaned up the residue" left over from the movie and allowed him, as an actor, to "go forward". Anderson reveals that this freedom comes to the fore in this year's stories.
"Without giving too much away, it's safe to say that each member of the SG-1 team and their associates confronts a series of personal issues which allows us to look deeper into our characters and what makes them do the things they do."
In the season opener, "Into the Fire", O'Neill's inherent bravery and sense of humour prevails when he's confronted with a serious dose of girl power in the form of Hathor the Horrible. Held captive as Hathor decides which of the group will host the next Goa'uld symbiont, O'Neill quips as she considers his body, "Oh, the grey doesn't bother you?"
Adamant that the humour prevalent in previous seasons will continue in the current one, Anderson insists there is no specific message hidden within the stories; the executive producers - of which he is one - are content to let the show evolve in its own way.
"I've always tried to shy away from standing on any soap-box or doing any moral plays or anything of that ilk, although Jonathan and Brad (the writers) might have their own ideas about that and may be working to some kind of future game plan. Certainly I've tried to make O'Neill as human and as fallible as the next guy."
One of the most revealing situations occurs in "Point of View" when O'Neill has to face certain truths regarding his relationship with Captain - soon to be Major - Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping). Leaning forward and affecting a loud theatrical whisper, he confides, "We get married, you know. There are photographs to prove it."
Immediately confessing that it happens in an alternate universe, the actor maintains that that scenario highlights the emotional dilemma O'Neill must face because it forces him to consider the possibility of less-than-professional feelings toward a colleague. Well aware that the audience has, for some time, craved some sort of romantic entanglement between O'Neill and Carter, he's reluctant to confirm any such development, but hints that the seed has been sown. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens," he shrugs.
Anderson also protests innocence of any knowledge of the possibility that Dr. Janet Fraiser (Teryl Rothery) could pique O'Neill's interest. It might appear that to the Colonel she is merely yet another scientist, but her fiery and determined personality could ignite a few sparks in the coming months. Definitely a case of "watch this space".
Whatever happened to egotistical stars bitching about their co-stars in salacious gossip columns? Spending time on set with the cast and crew of Stargate SG-1, it soon becomes apparent that the oft-claimed camaraderie supposedly enjoyed by every production crew currently working in the US at the moment really does seem to exist on this show. The cast members are happy to share each other's trailers - usually depending on whose TV set has the best reception for sports coverage. Anderson recalls a recent fancy dress party hosted by visual effects supremo John Gajdecki and himself where the actor dressed as an androgynous being, part human female and part Goa'uld male.
"Mercifully I've managed to contain all photographic evidence of the event," he smiles. "New family commitments means I don't have that much of a social life right now, but we do tend to spend time together off set and try to make the long, long hours we spend together at work as enjoyable as possible."
As if to illustrate the point, various ribald comments are yelled as Anderson is called back to position for the next scene.
"You see how in awe they are of me?" he grins in resignation, as "Get your butt over here!" is barked across the set.
An uninformed onlooker would never guess from the on-set banter that Anderson was the star of the series, let alone one of its executive producers. Never one to do anything by half when he can throw himself in there 200%, Anderson decided to tackle the dual roles of leading actor and that of executive producer of Stargate SG-1, a challenge he had successfully undertaken on previous projects. Working with business partner Michael Greenburg (another executive producer on SG-1), Anderson formed the Gekko Film Corporation which made the acclaimed (by Patty and Selma of The Simpsons, at least) MacGyver films together.
The Stargate SG-1 proposal offered another opportunity for the duo to team up. "Mike and I have been friends and partners for a long time. We worked together on my past three movies and on a series and wanted to work together again, so joining forces on this project just made sense.
"Having a relatively good idea of what the overview should look like and being generally comfortable with the editing and fine-tuning, I don't find there's much of a problem combining the acting and producing. I like working with actors in any capacity and find I can bridge the gap and be the liaison between what's going on in one camp and helping out with the other. Plus I have too much creative/nervous energy to be restricted to just one function," he continues. "On a daily basis, I have to be responsible to production. After all, the show has to be made. But on the other hand I want to make sure the actors are fine with the material they have to work with and enjoy what they are being asked to do.
"Mike and I work basically in an editorial capacity, with Jonathan Glassner and Brad Wright, our fellow executive producers leading the writers of the show. As scripts come in, we'll get some notes on there and we'll go with the best idea. If any difficulties emerge and it all gets quiet then we get together, they listen to our notes and we'll work it out from there.
"I hate to sound like a living cliché but what we're doing is not brain surgery. However I do want it to be as good as possible, and I think that requires me to be objective sometimes and make some decisions based on my knowledge of what a budget is all about and what my responsibilities are in terms of the overall project. Most decisions are pretty logical though. It's not that difficult."
Listening to Anderson calmly dismissing any hint of a problem you'd be forgiven for thinking the man just breezed through life without a hazard in sight, but that's not quite the case. Having set his heart on becoming a professional hockey player, he literally had the feet swept from under him when he broke both his arms in separate accidents and had to abandon his teenage ambitions. Unsure of what to do next, he took off and hiked across Canada and North America, fought fires in British Columbia, taught whales in California, was a DJ in college and did some street theatre in LA. "It took a while for me to get there, but I finally decided that my future lay in performance arts."
He was cast as the woman-pleasing Dr. Jeff Webber in ABC's daytime soap General Hospital and has continued onwards and upwards ever since. Anderson became an international household name when the long-running MacGyver appeared on television screens across the globe. "Henry Winkler (the series' co-producer) says that I got the part as soon as I put on my glasses to read the script," he grins.
In the show, Anderson's character was an intellectual adventurer - not unlike Indiana Jones - and certainly not a million miles away from the actor's own exuberant personality. Name a dangerous, extreme, wild past time and this man has tried it. "I still love hockey and cycling," he admits, "but I'm really into extreme skiing, too. I have to temper it down a little bit because I've had extensive knee surgery so I have to consider the tally on the old joints."
Anderson is also a dab hand with fast machines and owns a Harley Davidson and races an IROC-Z Camero. As if that wasn't enough he's also given to flinging himself out of aircraft for a lark. Predictably, Anderson's derring-do during a MacGyver shoot landed him with a serious back injury which needed some surgery and a long recuperation period. However all was not lost so far as the actor was concerned.
"Paramount had the rights to all the Monty Python videos and they sent me an entire box to watch whilst I was convalescing."
Launching into a mercifully brief chorus of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", he sighs, "I miss those guys, I really do."
But before you can congratulate him on his superb taste in comic genius, Anderson blows the lot by revealing another of his idols - Benny Hill. Yes, the running- around- like- an- idiot- with- a- knotted- hankie- on- his- head- chasing- half- clad- women- in- dubious- circumstances Benny Hill.
"I like him because he's such a clown in the purest sense. He appeals to my sense of humour, he's open, naughty and irreverent."
When not watching videos of the best (and worst) that British comedy has to offer, there is one activity which, if not actually slowing him down, is certainly keeping Anderson's feet firmly on the ground. And that's catching up with the new woman in his life. Her name is Wylie, she's almost a year old and has Dad wrapped firmly round her little finger.
"She's really beautiful," he boasts, "and I love being a Dad." Waxing lyrical about the joys of bathing babies, cleaning up after them, spending a fortune at Christmas, getting up in the middle of the night "and all that stuff", Anderson finally stops for breath and apologies. "I know, I'm doting. Just make me sound intelligent, please."
So, how much are you going to pay us not to mention Benny Hill?
We talk to Stargate SG-1's Don S. Davis
Don S. Davis, otherwise known as General X. Hammond, officer in charge of Stargate Command Headquarters, could demand your full attention by the timbre of his voice alone. Five minutes into a conversation and you're mesmerised by his deep, Southern drawl.
"A slow talker and a slow walker" is how Davis describes himself but that's just a part of the whole. Off set Davis is an accomplished writer, a painter and says one of the major influences in his life is his love of wood carving and sculpting. In Stargate SG-1, this quiet American brings a wealth of personal experience to the role. He was a Captain in the Army and was stationed in Korea for some time.
"I was a personnel administration officer so wound up dealing with field personnel on a daily basis and discovered that in the actual service people are just people. There are poets, artists and dreamers who happen to command men in a military context."
Whilst attempting to bring as much realism to the part as possible, Davis does admit that there are times when the picture portrayed in the show bears little resemblance to what really happens in a military situation. "The nature of drama means that you have to have little conflicts and quirks from time to time. Hammond certainly gets his fair share when trying to contain SG-1. Jack O'Neill is probably the most troublesome because of his rambunctious nature."
Davis feels General Hammond is happy to let this go once in a while because the character probably sees in his senior officer what the General feels he's lost by being desk-bound. "I don't get to go through the Gate very often," he sighs. "We do have real-life military technical advisors and as a two-star General, Hammond would not be allowed to leave the desk and pick up a gun."
But it's not all drudge and no play for General Hammond in Season Three. "I get to go into battle," grins Davis, "And I go flying in a death glider. Yahoo!"