RETURN TO STARGATE
Richard Dean Anderson comes home to SG-1 & Atlantis
The story behind Richard Dean Anderson's five-episode return to the Stargate Universe - comprising two episodes of Stargate SG-1 and three of Stargate Atlantis - apparently went a little something like this: Executive producers Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper phoned Anderson (who had bid adieu to the Vancouver-based mothership show after Season Eight in order to spend more time at home in LA with his young daughter, Wylie) to gauge his interest in reprising his role as General Jack O'Neill for SG-1's 200th episode, "200," only to have Anderson reply, "Just one?"
The actor chuckles at that particular take on the story and then, as is his wont, puts his own good-natured, slightly convoluted spin on it. "Not quite 'Just one?'" he says. "I had actually spoken to Brad about how O'Neill was ultimately going to go away or disappear, but I hadn't watched closely enough to know what they had really been doing with O'Neill, other than have him go off to Washington to sit behind a desk. Suddenly, I'm going back up there [to Vancouver], and I show up in Atlantis.
"The 200th Stargate SG-1 is just a standalone episode. There's no connection to anything else. It's a bunch of vignettes of, I don't know, quirky behavior. But the Atlantis episodes do answer some questions about where O'Neill has been; he's dealing with some directive down there. Prior to that, I had been wondering what they were going to do with O'Neill. And then, when they called about the 200th episode, I said, 'If you want to consider tying off some loose ends or dealing with the question of where I've been, I'll make myself available for more episodes, if you're amenable.' Robert asked me, 'Are you serious?' And I said, 'Yeah, of course.'
"So, we came to a mutual understanding that this was a good opportunity," Anderson continues. "I had wanted to go back for a while, because I missed the people. I made the admission once I got up to Vancouver that I missed many aspects of shooting the show, parts of the whole process, but primarily it was the people, the Stargate family, if you will. I missed the community.
"I was over at Atlantis first, and that was with some familiar faces, because I've worked up in Canada off and on now for 20 years, and there are just so many people that I've gotten to know. Anyway, most of the people I was very familiar with, but it wasn't the old team [from Stargate SG-1]. I did my first Atlantis and first SG-1 at the same time, going from one soundstage to the other. That put me a little off balance. It took me a couple of days to adjust, but once the rhythm got going, it was like being home."
More on all that later. The reason Anderson once and for all departed Stargate, after steadily having pulled back on his involvement for several years, is actually the very same reason that he chose to return to the fold: Wylie. "I know it was the best decision I've ever made in my life," Anderson explains of his exit. "The selfish side of it is that I needed to rest a little bit and get a little more fit and healthier. My back has been a problem for decades. But I was also able to spend time with Wylie. The unselfish thing was that I got to be with her and be an integral part of her life, and from the personal side of things, where I was and where she was, it was necessary that I be with her. I only agreed to go back to Stargate after a conversation that Wylie and I had. She took the lead and said, 'Dad, if you want to go back to work, it's OK. I'm OK now.'
"We had talked before about how much she missed me. I had heard it from other sources, too, that she had been very vocal about how much she missed me during those years. But she initiated this conversation, and she told me that it was fine if I wanted to go back to work. My comment was, 'Well, what about me? What if I miss you too much?' She put her hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said, 'Dad, you'll be OK.' It was the most mature moment I've ever seen out of a seven-year-old. It was just elegant. I laughed. We both laughed, with tears in our eyes, about this moment of realizing that we were so connected and so OK. She was much healthier for the experience, and so was our relationship, and hence the decision to return was made even easier by my daughter."
Much had changed in the Stargate Universe since Anderson headed back to the U.S. after his brief SG-1 appearances in the early ninth season episodes "Avalon" and "Origin." Amanda Tapping, Michael Shanks and Christopher Judge are still with SG-1, but newcomers include Ben Browder as Mitchell, Claudia Black as Vala and Beau Bridges as General Landry. Anderson helped launch Atlantis in 2004 by guest-starring in the pilot, but there had been a couple of cast changes on the spin-off, too. Truth be told, however, Anderson didn't keep tabs on either show during his time away.
"I was pretty inundated with real life, I guess we'll call it," he notes. "Not only that, I had lost track of the airing schedule and what was what. I was never really up to date on episodes, airdates and all of that, even when I was helping to produce the show. Thank God for people like Kate Ritter, who put together the Stargate Lexicon [Stargate SG-1: The Ultimate Visual Guide]. It's a brilliant piece of research and development, because she includes every detail of virtually everything that has happened on the show, and it absolutely baffles me, because I'll read things and not even know they had occurred. But that isn't anything new. People who know me understand how space cadety I can get. But the short answer is no, I really hadn't been keeping tabs on SG-1. So I was in the dark going back, but really, the 200th episode is just a romp of vignettes."
At the time of this interview, Anderson had wrapped production on four of his five episodes: "200" for SG-1, and "The Real World" and the two-part "The Return" for Atlantis. "200" and "The Real World" are both slated to air on August 18, while airdates were not yet locked in for "The Return." The fifth episode, a second SG-1 that will likely air as the 14th show of the season, remains to be written.
"In the 200th episode, Martin Lloyd [Willie Garson] comes back, and he wants to make a movie based on his failed TV series about the SG-1 program," Anderson reveals of the show, a sequel of sorts to SG-1's 100th episode "Wormhole X-Treme!" and "Point of No Return," the latter from Season Four. "So he has a script and comes to the SG-1 people for notes and input, although you find out that he really does not want input. He just wants a pat on the head and someone to say, 'Good job.' He wants acceptance. The technique of the episode is that we're reading the script throughout and then, of course, fading in and out of the action as he has written it. That creates extremely absurd situations.
"I don't want to give too much away, but there are allusions to some old fairy tales that have been ripped off. The writers spoof Stargate, Star Trek, The Wizard of Oz and Ben Browder's old show, Farscape. During the reading of it, I realized what they were doing: They were taking off on absolutely everyone. No one dodged a bullet. Everybody got it, especially the writers, who really gave it to themselves. I guess that's a testament to everyone's security about where we are and what we are as a show, because it's a study in skewing. For me, it was lighter and fun. I didn't have much interaction with everybody, but I would much rather go back and start with something like that than a saving-the-universe situation.
"In 'The Real World,' I'm back as Jack, but only in Dr. Weir's [Torri Higginson] coma-state fantasies and dreams," he discloses. "The director [Paul Ziller] didn't know how to direct me, and I didn't know what to do. I didn't understand how I should behave in her head, and Torri didn't have the slightest idea. So I was confused, and it will probably show, but hopefully not too badly. In the two-parter, I'm on a mission. I stay behind in Atlantis after it has been evacuated. I don't know the logistics of it, but Woolsey [Robert Picardo] and I are left behind or stay behind and, of course, the replicators start showing up.
"So we're left out there, and the Atlantis team has to come and save us. And by the time they get to us, we're so many light years away that it takes them two episodes to get to us. Those are the shows in a nutshell. I've been working with Robert on the two-parter, and he's very funny. The director, Brad Turner, is phenomenal. He does 24 and a variety of other series. But Robert and I have been having a ball together. My last scene, which I shot last night, is in a water tank. I swam through a sunken set, since part of Atlantis is being submerged underwater."
Assuming that the writers don't kill off O'Neill - "It wouldn't be too much of a comedy if there's a death in it," Anderson grins, "although we could find a way" - the actor is open to reprising the character next season on both SG-1 and Atlantis, not to mention a possible Stargate feature. "I've given it a little thought, but that's all it has been," he says, referring to Seasons 11 and Four of SG-1 and Atlantis respectively. "Robert and Brad called last week, and to my discredit, I ended up going there and doing a day's work without seeing them. But it would almost have to be posed to me that the desire is there - that they want that - before I would seriously consider it.
"I'm not going to be presumptuous and assume they want me back. I think, from the way these episodes went and the way this felt, I would be amenable to it. Realistically, I don't believe I could return full-time. I don't think at this time in my life as a father that I could do that. And at this point, given where they are and the new people they've brought in, I don't think they need me fulltime. But on a limited basis? I would consider it."
And the film? "I don't want to be snobbish about it, but doesn't it depend on the script?" Anderson replies. "Isn't that what every actor is supposed to say? But in theory, of course I would be interested in a film. Ab-solutely! My God, I've been pushing Brad to do something like that for eight years, saying that he should be writing something bigger."
Though he has kept a low profile during his time away from Stargate, Anderson has not been inactive. He has been renovating his home, devoting time and energy to environmental causes and serving on the board of trustees for both the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and is scheduled to appear with Tapping at Avalon, a convention set for November in London, with proceeds going to charities of Anderson and Tapping's choice. He also returned to TV for two amusing projects: a "priceless" Mastercard commercial that found him back in MacGyver action mode, and the "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bangalore" episode of The Simpsons, in which the MacGyver-obsessed Patty and Selma - angry after Anderson reveals he only did MacGyver for the paycheck - kidnap him from a sold-out Stargate convention in order to enjoy their own, private MacGyver convention. Anderson voiced himself in the episode.
"The commercial was on-the-nose MacGyver," Anderson raves. "I had so much fun because they let me slide down the rope. I did not have to do the landing, thankfully, because I don't have the knees or the back to do that stuff anymore. But everything else I got to do, and that was like the old days. I've been approached over the years to do a whole bunch of things that were MacGyver-oriented or laced with MacGyver-like innuendo, but they were right on the mark with this commercial. I wouldn't do anything that wasn't sending up the franchise or the character, but the commercial was tongue-in-cheek, obviously, so I made myself available for it. It was a blast to do and it came out great. I read some positive reviews and nice things were said about it, so I think everyone was very happy with it.
"The Simpsons... Oh, come on!" Anderson enthuses. "After that experience, I was in essence saying that my career was complete. I got to work with people who are virtually my heroes: the animators and cast of The Simpsons. It was SO much fun. Dan Castellaneta acted in an episode of Stargate ["Citizen Joe"], and we got to chatting at lunch a few times. He asked me, if there was a script, would I be interested in doing a Simpsons. I picked myself up off the ground and said, 'Absolutely. There's no bigger fan of the show.' He said, 'Well, that's good, because my wife [Deb Lacusta] and I have written a script, and we would like you to do it.' And everything fell into place after that. I was so humbled by the experience, because those people are wonderful to work with and so great at what they do. It gave me, on a professional level, a spark of good, positive energy, like 'The business can be this much fun again.'"
Lest anyone forget that show business is a business, there's Legend to consider. Anderson discussed the SF/Western series - in which he co-starred with Star Trek's John de Lancie - in STARLOG #216. UPN axed the show back in 1995, after just a handful of episodes aired. Anderson loved the project and hopes it will one day turn up on DVD, though he seriously doubts that will happen.
"I wish," he sighs. "Who knows if it's even in their archives? Hopefully, it has all been saved over there at Paramount. My former business partner, Mike Greenburg, sent me all the episodes he had. He could only find nine of them, and we shot 13. So I'm craving them myself. But, no, there has never been any talk about a DVD. I don't think anyone is interested in it, other than those of us who were involved in Legend and people with a keen eye for a fun romp, like STARLOG, and I thank you for that. But I don't even know what it would take to get something like that launched."
Michael Piller and Bill Dial co-created Legend. Piller was a veteran Star Trek writer and producer who went on to oversee The Dead Zone and Wildfire before he died in November 2005. "We were introduced, because Michael had written this script and I was presented with it," Anderson says. "At the time, I was working at Paramount, so my company and his company were thrown together. Out of the gate, I was excited about working with him. I knew how prolific and successful he was, but Legend was a step away from what he was known for. And because I took the character and kind of went 180 degrees with it, Michael and I initially didn't see eye to eye.
"It's not that we didn't get along; we just had different takes on it. He eventually apologized and thanked me for having done what I did, because it was much more fun to watch and certainly much more fun to play the way I had put it together. But after we got over that hump, it was smooth with him, because he was so prolific and talented. I was producing Legend on the front lines, and they [Piller and Dial] were back in LA doing the writing and such, so I didn't see much of them, but we spoke daily and I grew to really respect Michael."
Why Legend never really caught on, yet Stargate continues to thrive, is anyone's guess. Anderson, for one, can only marvel at the longevity of the show - or, rather, the still growing franchise. "I've never thought, 'There's this job and then the next,'" he says. "I've always taken one job at a time. I honestly didn't give a long Stargate run too much thought. I learned from Henry Winkler during our MacGyver days that whether we're picked up or not isn't up to us; everything is out of our hands.
"But it's amazing that we went into Stargate SG-1 with a two-season commitment from Showtime and then, about four episodes into shooting it, the network made another two-year commitment. So suddenly you're on the fourth episode and you already know that you've got four years ahead of you. I sensed then that Stargate might have the potential to have long legs, to go beyond four years, and also to find itself and become something special. And that's exactly what has happened.
"I've been in the business a long time - and I already was back then - and I've tried to never get too enthusiastic or overly optimistic about anything," Richard Dean Anderson observes. "But the cushion there was that Showtime showed its faith in the series so quickly. And Stargate is still creating history as we speak. It's beyond all of our wildest dreams."