Richard Dean Anderson has had a major role in the story of Stargate since the start of the TV show. Steven Eramo embarks on his TV Zone mission, starting with the man in charge...
It's been a busy week for Stargate SG-1's leading man Richard Dean Anderson. As Colonel Jack O'Neill, he spent the first three days trying to ease tensions between the Jaffa and the Tok'ra in the episode Allegiance. This morning, O'Neill and the SG-1 team travelled to the planet Pangar to talk with its people about a miracle drug in "The Cure". Behind the scenes, Anderson's time is taken up with everything from phone calls to talking with the show's publicist about an upcoming TV appearance. He takes it all in his stride, though, especially since he knows that in one more day he'll be with his daughter Wylie.
"She remains my reason for living," says Anderson. "I'm still commuting every weekend to see Wylie because she's down in California and I'm up here in Vancouver. Coming back into her life essentially after a week's separation is absolutely glorious. She'll horizontal in her leap to grab onto my shoulders and neck. It's the whole kissing, smothering thing, which I just love. Wylie and I have a sweet, gentle understanding of our rhythms. She's three-and-a-half -- she'll be four in August -- and this is the time when her personality is just exploding. So it's become imperative to me that I not only be a part of that and help it along but also be there to observe it. She's genuinely funny, and the scary part is I think she knows it. She's even cracking jokes. She'll be ready for Reno if not Vegas soon," he laughs.
One of the things we do when we're together is put on puppet shows. When I was in Chile I bought her 20 of these little hand puppets. I brought them back and she found them totally fascinating, so we take turns doing characters. We'll play off each other in many respects and it's fun to watch her. You can see her mind working and, of course, she has a child's impulses and spontaneity. I've been accused of having some child-like qualities myself," smiles Anderson, "and I think Wylie actually recognizes them in me. So it's a romp. She and I are about the three R's -- romping, reading and real cool stuff."
Back in February, the actor returned to the Stargate SG-1 studios in Vancouver for one more romp -- at least on the small screen -- as Colonel Jack O'Neill in the show's sixth and final season. However, unlike past years, this one had a few differences, the biggest being that the programme now had a new home on the Sci-Fi Channel. Also, Michael Shanks had left the series and Corin Nemec had come on board as the newest member of the SG-1 team, Jonas Quinn. Besides having all these changes to think about, Anderson also had a personal issue to deal with.
"I'd injured my knee and I had to have surgery about three weeks before filming began," recalls the actor. "I wasn't sure whether or not it was going to be in good enough shape for me to come back to work. So I was concerned about that and a bit distracted by my own little ambulatory world.
"When it comes to how I was feeling about the show itself, first off, I was OK with the change of network thing, and second, I wasn't worried about a new character coming in. This was the fate of the series and the reconfiguring of our cast was born of a natural evolution for people. Michael Shanks wanted to move on. He'd expressed some concern about being here and about being, I guess, under-utilized to a certain degree, and there's some validity to that, I suppose. So after he expressed those feelings we heeded the signs and wheels were put into motion.
"It's not like Brad Wright sits around in his office twiddling his thumbs. He's busy working and can't do things overnight. To make a decision to change or alter the course of a show takes some time and thought. Mike moved on, we made the adjustment. Obviously, Corin Nemec coming in was the result of that. We needed to be able to fill a gap. That's not just business, it's also a fact of life. People move on. You can miss them, you can grieve, all that stuff, but just make sure you take forward steps as well."
Having already played the part of O'Neill for five seasons did Anderson make any conscious effort to change his performance this year? "I can't honestly say that I've made any massive adjustments," notes the actor. "I mean, there's a natural growth, hopefully, and an evolution of character that seems to be fairly organic. That's such a pompous word to use but it's the only thing that comes to mind. It remains to be seen at this juncture exactly where O'Neill is headed and what he's going to end up doing with his life. For now, he remains this smart-ass, glib, irreverent military guy who loves The Simpsons. The writers have thankfully written to that affection. As far as larger matters go, especially personality, O'Neill hasn't changed too much, yet. There's still a dozen or so scripts left and then, if all goes well, a feature film, so we'll see what happens."
In the Season Six opener "Redemption", Colonel O'Neill has a great deal on his plate, not the least of which is trying to stop Anubis from blowing up the Stargate and destroying Earth in the process. Besides that, he is still trying to deal with the loss of his friend Daniel Jackson and at the same time choose a replacement for him on the SG-1 team. Not surprisingly, the least likely candidate is Jonas Quinn. However, after Jonas helps figure out a way to stop Anubis, O'Neill reluctantly decides to give him a chance to prove if he has what it takes to be a part of SG-1.
"I think O'Neill feels that Jonas is directly responsible for the demise or at least the damaging of Daniel Jackson," says Anderson. "As a result, he harbours some resentment towards Jonas. It's tempered a little bit over time primarily because of the fact that he has to be around him. So O'Neill has finally come to the point of accepting Jonas but not entirely. It's like, 'You can be on our team but I'm going to be watching you, and, oh, by the way, don't expect me to show any overt signs of friendship towards you.'
"O'Neill is suspicious of aliens in general. The only exception is Teal'c. He has a wonderfully odd relationship with the Jaffa, who he sometimes forgets is an alien despite the gold patch emblazoned on his forehead. For some reason, though, he refuses to or isn't able to forget that Jonas is an alien. It doesn't help that the guy has become a walking computer. He's memorized everything since coming to the SGC. That immediately makes O'Neill leery because he has no aptitude or patience for that kind of thing. So he's always socially on-guard around Jonas and consequently deals with him in a somewhat brusque, professional way. I could be wrong, God knows I've been before, but I really don't think O'Neill is going to warm up to Jonas very much at all."
The Colonel is forced to set aside his distrust of aliens in the episode "Frozen". When O'Neill becomes gravely ill he agrees to serve as host to a Tok'ra symbiote but only long enough for it to heal him. In the following story, "Nightwalkers", he is convalescing on a Tok'ra base. O'Neill has no idea that his symbiote plans to use his body in order to finish the last mission he was on. The symbiote then abandons O'Neill and leaves him at the mercy of Baal in "Abyss". Anderson enjoyed not only pretending to roll around in the Goa'uld's gravity well prison cell but also working once again with Michael Shanks.
"There were some things I physically couldn't do or chose not to do in "Abyss" because of my knee injury," he says. "I wanted to be able to tumble down the sides of the walls and out onto the floor. Not to give away any secrets but one of the sets was built to move, so I could roll down and look like I was splattered up against a vertical wall. That was kind of cool. Besides those technical tricks of the trade, I had a great time working with Michael. First of all, I always had good moments with him. Michael is a very competent and capable actor. He's also flexible enough to deal with my irreverent spontaneity and inability to stick to the script. I was really glad to have him back in "Abyss". It was just the two of us doing a lot of talking in a jail cell that was the size of a kitchen. As intense and, perhaps, as convoluted as those scenes were to me, Michael helped make them a good experience."
Anderson was equally complimentary about the episode's director and Stargate SG-1 creative consultant Martin Wood. "He and I have been through a wonderful sociological arc," smiles the actor. "We both fancy ourselves relatively bright, although I think Martin is smarter than I. The two of us butted heads once early on and it was over an ethical scenario. From that point I think we both realized we had met in each other an intellectual equal, although, again, with the preface that he's smarter than I. I should say 'smarter than me,' so he'll get the message.
"I love working with Martin. First of all, he's someone who's up on technology and technique, and over time has created a [filming] style all his own. Conversely, he's remained flexible enough to make adjustments on the fly. A big part of the problem with directing episodic TV is that you're under not one but two guns. There's the time clock plus the financial responsibility, both of which are under the larger umbrella of being creative. You have to juggle a lot of things, and Martin knows how to do that quite well. He understands what the game is all about, as does Peter DeLuise. Peter has grown by leaps and bounds in this business. He started out as an actor, then became an actor's director and continues to flourish that way. Again, when I talk about flexibility in this genre, Peter knows how to do that very well. He also makes sure I get out early on Fridays so I can go see my daughter," laughs Anderson, "so I give him a lot of Tommy Bahama shirts."
Being the lead on a long-running TV series has its perks as well as challenges. Besides having to establish the tone on the set, an actor must also sustain his or her character over a long period of time and keep that character fresh and interesting. Anderson succeeded in doing both with MacGyver and Stargate SG-1.
"The challenge for me has always been to make sure that when I go to work I create a fun environment in which everyone can do his or her job," he says. "As an actor I come in as prepared as I can be and make sure my performance remains as true as possible to what the franchise is all about. MacGyver was an instant reflection of my curiosities and interests in real life. The writers started to pay attention to and tap into that. I was also able to do most of my stunts because I was capable of doing them and liked doing them. Whatever it was I was game for it. So that was always fun.
"When Stargate came around I didn't necessarily know if I wanted to get into episodic TV again because I knew what a grind it was," continues Anderson. "When I was working on MacGyver I lost touch with my family and friends. I was floundering around because I was so inundated with work. So I made sure when I came on board for Stargate it had an ensemble cast. I wanted to ensure that I wouldn't be carrying everything and blessedly it's worked out beautifully.
"As for O'Neill, when MGM approached me to be part of this project I had to first look at the Stargate feature film. Once I did, I called MGM and told them that I'd be interested if they were amenable to some alterations with the character. I knew there was no way I would be able to replicate what Kurt Russell had done in the movie. It was impossible for my hair to stand up like that. More importantly, Kurt's take on the O'Neill character or his creation of it was far too serious and stoic for me to be able to pull off week after week. I had to make MGM realize that there was a lighter side to this character that they were asking me to play.
"Happily, they did and I've since been able to bring some of what is, I guess, innately me to the role including a sense of humour, a denseness and a certain irreverence. The latter might be a bit of an anachronism when it comes to the military. However, I've researched it through General Ryan, who's a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I asked the general if he had colonels in the Air Force who were like O'Neill and he said, 'Yes, and worse'. I think I then said something like, 'Not better'. He reiterated, 'No, worse,' then patted me on the shoulder and said, 'You're doing a good job, son'. I couldn't ask for a better endorsement than that."
In between trips through the Stargate, Anderson has spent some of his time over the past couple of years working on a project very important to him. "I met a gentleman who's since become a friend, Eric Hertz. He owns and runs Earth River Expeditions. Eric asked me if I'd like to be part of a documentary film group that would chronicle the great rivers of the world. What we hope to do is educate and enlighten the outside world as to what could be lost if such places were developed by big business as well as suggest a number of alternatives that could take the place of such development. So far we've gone to rivers in British Columbia, Chile and Tibet. It's a work in progress. Everyone is busy so it's hard for all of us to get together. So right now we're compiling our own film library of footage taken of the rivers and interviews with people living along those waterways. Once it's finished we're hoping to be able to interest The Discovery Channel, PBS or even National Geographic in it. We'll have to wait and see, though, what happens with it."
Having worked almost constantly for the past 15 years, Anderson has some big decisions to make with the Stargate SG-1 series coming to an end in October. "It's going to be kind of a stepping off for me or moving on, I guess, is a more positive way of putting it," muses the actor. "I'm done after this year. I'm not pursuing work, at least not another TV series. I know, 'Never say never,' but I'm tired. It also comes from wanting and needing to be a dad. I want to really be available and there for my little girl, and that means being in California where she's growing up. So that's the transition I'll be making.
"Wylie's godfather, who's a very dear friend of mine, said to me recently, 'It's about time you think about enjoying what you've worked so hard to achieve'. I really want to explore and embrace that which is life because I love it so much. Come October when I take a step into the real world without the encumbrances of my addiction to work I hope it will be liberating and elating. Short of saying I'm retiring, because that's a crock. Everyone who really knows me knows that. However, I'm going to take at least a year to relax a little bit."
Anderson chuckles when asked what he's going to miss most about Colonel Jack O'Neill. "I won't miss Jack at all because I get to take him wherever I go. I think what I'm going to miss the most is just having the venue in which to play him. I'll no longer have a stage upon which Jack can stand and be Jack. Once Stargate is over and the character is gone he's going to be a lost soul, the poor little guy. And that means Richard Dean is going to have to deal with real life, which is even a scarier notion. I'm sure I'll be fine, though."