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Richard Dean Anderson

MacGyver's on the phone! MacGyver's on the phone!

"It is not (MacGyver)," deadpans Richard Dean Anderson.

But you can't help identifying Anderson with his previous alter ego, one of the most enduring TV characters of the last 10 years. ABC's MacGyver, which ran for seven years starting in 1985 (and still appears in reruns on the USA Network), was legendary for the title character's ability to make all types of gadgets out of everyday household appliances. Described as "Indiana Jones meets Mr. Wizard," he had more ways of making a bomb than "Kato" Kaelin has of making himself a celebrity.

Now Anderson is trading in his Mr. Wizard training manual for a saddle. His new western adventure series, Legend, premieres at 7 p.m. Tuesday with a two-hour episode on WPWR-Ch. 50. It's the latest series to bow on the new UPN network.

Nevertheless, Anderson is strongly identified with the dashing Angus MacGyver. Does he think viewers will be able to separate his old character from his new one?

"Oh, God, yeah," says Anderson, 45, calling from location outside Tucson. Anderson's Ernest Pratt, a writer in 1870s San Francisco, is a drinking, smoking, womanizing, gambling, swearing . . .

"Well, he doesn't swear, actually," Anderson corrects. "He says 'heck' instead of 'hell.' I kind of brought that to the character. I sort of wanted to draw the line at drinking, smoking, womanizing and gambling."

Pratt is creator of the dashing fictional character Nicodemus Legend, an adventurer who rights wrongs in dime-store novels of the Old West. Through a set of circumstances in the pilot episode, the shiftless Pratt ends up helping people by becoming the do-gooder Legend, much to his consternation.

But even with Pratt's bushy mustache, you can't look at Anderson without seeing MacGyver.

Whenever an actor plays a character for a certain period of time, there's always the concern of being typecast. (Can anyone older than 30 say Adam West and not think of Batman?)

Partly to guard against that, Anderson played off-center or menacing characters in a few made-for-TV movies during and after MacGyver, including a wife-beating cop in CBS' Beyond Betrayal in 1993. So he isn't worried about not being able to attract viewers with a new character.

"The few TV movies that I did, I had some very nice things said about the obvious separation, the obvious ability as an actor" to submerge himself into another character, Anderson said.

Anderson is jumping back into the series grind for two reasons: He had a deal with Paramount that required another TV series, and the character of Pratt-Legend appealed to him. (Anderson says the idea of Legend is not related to the two MacGyver episodes where Mac dreamed he was in the Old West, complete with bushy mustache.)

"When I saw this script, saw the potential of it being developed into a franchise series situation that had a character that I could really have fun doing . . . that's what was imperative," says the Minneapolis native, who launched his career in 1976 on the daytime soap opera General Hospital.

"I'm just at a part in my career where I want to play, I want to misbehave, take some chances, risk all that I've built or established as the TV hero."

Anderson says he's having a ball playing Pratt and doesn't miss MacGyver. ("No, no. I mean . . . seven years, you know?")

"What you have [in Pratt] is a very reluctant hero," says Anderson. "What Pratt has to buy into is assuming the persona, the public perception of what Legend is. . . . You can only imagine what kind of joy that I have in playing this. Because you're playing against the role.

"I shouldn't be telling you this, but it's the first time in my life that I've actually been excited by my own work -- at least comfortable with my own work."

Anderson's also having a blast playing in a western. "I've missed my era somewhere along the line," he says.

Legend isn't a spoof or a campy takeoff of westerns, like last season's The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. on Fox.

"We're trying to play it as straight as possible," says Anderson, who is a Legend executive producer. "When you play an inordinate situation straight, it becomes funny. Or it can be, if it's done right and shot right and all the other elements fall in place."

Anderson is hoping one element of the show that will get people's attention is the fanciful inventions made by an eccentric scientist (played by John de Lancie), who gets Pratt to assume the persona of Legend. Those include a hang-glider-type getup and a crude all-terrain vehicle.

In Anderson's mind, the gadgets, as well as the overall production design, echo the work of a director famous for his offbeat visual style.

"I'm not trying to do anything based on anything I've ever seen, other than the tone of what Terry Gilliam brought to Brazil," says Anderson. "That sense of a romp. Kind of a tale with characters that are quirky."

Let's get back to John de Lancie of Legend, who also played Q, an all-powerful alien on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Because Q can pretty much do anything he wants, can't he make a little visit to the good ship Voyager, which is trapped 75 million light-years from home on UPN's Star Trek: Voyager?

Getting Q on the Voyager bridge might be possible because Michael Piller, executive producer of Legend, is also executive producer of Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Rick Berman, also an executive producer for Voyager, told De Lancie about the premise of Voyager and that characters from other Star Trek shows will be able to cross over to it -- "except you-know-who!" De Lancie said, referring to Q.

De Lancie said he has a heavy schedule with Legend, but added, "I'm sure one of these days I'll show up [on Voyager]."

Johnson, Allan. "Role Reversal: Richard Dean Anderson Goes West to Leave MacGyver Behind." The Chicago Tribune. April 18, 1995.