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An Otherworldly Encounter with Richard Dean Anderson

The cast of Stargate SG-1

After years of starring as TV's intrepid hero MacGyver - a man who needed only rubber bands and paper clips to save the day - it seemed the universe had unfolded according to a master plan when Richard Dean Anderson was cast last summer as the lead in "Stargate SG-1." Anderson seems the perfect choice to star as retired military hero Colonel Jack O'Neill; the role returned him to Vancouver, where he spent seven years working on "MacGyver", and "Stargate" offered the actor a comeback on prime-time TV, where he has enjoyed his greatest successes.

Fans of the movie "Stargate," on which the series is based, will find Anderson's O'Neill a more amicable character than the dour-and-sour caricature of a military man played on the big screen by Kurt Russell. Now approaching the end of its first season on TV, "Stargate SG-1" has attracted a loyal audience. Its future is certain, as two seasons of the series were confirmed at its outset, even before the words "Quiet on the set" were first shouted to signal the start of filming, and it's been reported that seasons three and four were recently ordered.

As shooting began on this season's final episode, I had the opportunity to spend a day on the set. The atmosphere was, to say the least, tense and strained, which isn't surprising as most of the cast and crew had been working outrageously long hours for months. Still, I was not prepared when my visit started with a publicist advising me, "We can't guarantee Rick will talk to you. They've been really busy and he's really tired. And we had a TV crew on set yesterday."

What am I - paparazzi? I just want to talk to the guy to write something about his series. I thought that was the deal. Interesting story for me... publicity for him... get it? I decided to hang around in the hope that Anderson would make time for a chat.

For those who haven't seen the series, much of its action takes place in the secret military installation that houses the stargate, an ancient portal with hieroglyphic codes that can be programmed for space travel. Stargate travelers don't get beamed up, they get whooshed through from Earth to far-flung planets. O'Neill's fellow space explorers are an alien called Teal'c (Christopher Judge), scientist Dr. Daniel Jackson (UBC grad Michael Shanks) and military officer Captain Samantha Carter (Toronto native Amanda Tapping).

On this day, cast and crew were shooting a scene in which the members of SG-1 are debating whether or not they'll go through the gate on a highly dangerous mission. As Tapping headed to the observation room above the Stargate, where the scene is set, she stopped for a quick introduction and hello.

"It's the first day of shooting the last episode," she said cheerily. "So you might find the atmosphere a little strange." No kidding.

In between takes, I spoke with Christopher Judge, whose warm and ebullient personality seems the polar opposite of his alter ego, the silent and stoic extra-terrestrial being Teal'c. "It's not that Teal'c is monosyllabic, it's just that he says what needs to be said and only that," he explained. "It's hard because, in a scene that touches me as a human being, I have to stay in character and at least convey something to the audience. The hardest scenes are the ones in the boardroom where all this conversation is going on, and I rarely have a line. I'm usually reacting to three or four pages of dialogue without saying anything. I'm ready to be able to laugh and joke again..."

Richard in Stargate SG-1

Richard Dean Anderson leads the SG-1 team through the final frontier.

Richard in Stargate SG-1

Stargate travelers don't get beamed up, they get whooshed through from Earth to far-flung planets.

During the next shooting break, the publicist let me know that Rick was ready to talk. In an area that doubled as a hospital room, Anderson and I pulled up a gurney. Knowing that he's quizzed up the ying-yang about space travel and aliens, I decided to start at the beginning. Anderson was born January 23, 1950, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is the eldest of four sons born to Stuart and Jocelyn Anderson, a teacher and artist respectively. We're all shaped by the environment in which we're raised and Anderson's personality no doubt was influenced by his formative surroundings - he grew up in a creative family, he competed with three younger brothers and the late 1960s were turbulent and confusing times for anyone coming of age.

"At 17, I was on the verge of becoming a juvenile delinquent," he recalled. Rather than falling into trouble, the spirited young man embarked on a 5,641-mile bicycle trip that took him from his home in Minnesota through Canada's Yukon and into Alaska. "I was not an experienced cyclist. It truly did change me. I became more reflective and conscientious."

Following his return, Anderson studied drama. Still, becoming an actor was "a matter of elimination more than anything. I never felt like I was making a conscious effort to find a path. I was never worried about what I was going to do next. Now I am. But then I was bouncing through life making decisions based on what I wanted at the time and who I met along the way."

Anderson's earliest goal was to be a professional hockey player. He has a love of hockey so profound that he must certainly qualify for Canadian citizenship. His dream was cut short when he suffered two broken arms. During our conversation, Anderson was friendly and at ease. He seemed happy to recall his youth, even appreciative of the break in routine.

When he was called back to the set, I spent the next hour milling about, observing Anderson in conference with the director. As he sat waiting for his next cue, his voice suddenly pierced the air with anger. At first I thought it was a joke, that he was putting someone on, but as he shouted, "You know how that sets me off!" I realized I was witnessing a genuine, unbridled temper tantrum. Where did the nice man go?

Things got worse when shooting began on the next scene. It became apparent that someone had screwed up. A plan had been changed and the right people weren't informed. Production came to a grinding halt, which meant Anderson now had time to finish our chat. Yikes. I was no longer sure that was a good thing. I opted for the compassionate approach: "You look tired. Are you sure you want to continue?" Truth is, I was nervous as hell and worried I'd "set him off."

"Yeah, sure. I'm a little distracted, but I'm here," he responded with half a smile. Anderson is, if nothing else, a professional. He obviously doesn't suffer fools well, and his pragmatic nature likely influences his somewhat surprising feelings about his series. "I've never been a huge fan of science fiction," he said. "But I'm a massive fan of science fact. Astronomy, the possibilities of space... I have a massive curiosity about those things, but quite skeptical about things I can't see and prove. We seem to be telling stories about alien beings based on conjecture or the idea of what an alien might be."

As for lending his personality to the role of O'Neill, Anderson commented, "Before signing on, I made sure they were receptive to my input. I try to bring a wry wit, a slightly irreverent, cynical sense of humor, some sarcasm - things that just make life a lot easier."

For the sake of stability, Anderson no longer keeps a home in Los Angeles, as he did when working on "MacGyver." He has settled into Vancouver with his dog, Zoe, and one of his brothers. On life in Vancouver, he said, "Despite what some dickheads at CFOX keep saying, I love Vancouver. I love it up here. And please feel free to quote me [on that]."

Done. And on that note, the interview came to its logical conclusion.

McMillan, Alison. "On the Set of Stargate SG-1." TV Week. March 28, 1998: p. 76-77.