TALES FROM A FULL LIFE
Several hundred thousand people converge on Toronto. It is the weekend of Fan Expo Canada, and Richard Dean Anderson is among the celebrity guests who have come to mingle with their fans at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. For three days, he poses for photos with fans, answers questions in a Question & Answer panel, and signs countless autographs, staying each day until the building is closing and the lights are dimmed, to ensure that each fan who has waited in line receives a moment of his time.
The weather has been spectacular throughout the weekend, but as the convention draws to a close, and Richard has an opportunity to enjoy the city on his own, the day dawns dreary and rainy. Fortunately, Toronto provides a perfect alternative for inclement weather. PATH is an extraordinary network of underground walkways and stores that extends like a web of shopping malls for more than 18 miles beneath the heart of downtown. "I love this!" he exclaims as he descends the stairs and the subterranean retail mecca opens up before him. "I wish I had known about this sooner!" Despite the presence of numerous Starbucks, the initial plan to search for morning coffee is abandoned. "Do you mind if we walk?" he asks.
Richard is an avid shopper. "Sometimes I drive my brothers and my mom crazy," he admits. For hours he roams the corridors, at each intersection choosing a new direction at random and declaring, "We have nothing to lose!" He delights in examining window displays, popping into any store that catches his fancy, trying out merchandise, and of course making purchases. There is a new hat to represent Canada, and a satchel that is immediately put to use carrying the presents that he has bought to go home with him. Finally it is time for that coffee and a bite to eat, and he settles himself at a table in one of the many food courts, ready for a chat.
Certainly this delight in random exploration and the sense of discovery isn't new. What was he like as a child?
"When we were all young-young, I was maybe eight or nine," he recalls, "I had three younger brothers. I would test them to see if they would do what I would do. And I kind of would do anything, for better or worse," he admits with a grin. "Our garage was right next to a little short wood fence, and from there it was just our neighbor's backyard. In the winter, the drifts off our garage would get so enormous that it was like you could be jumping onto a mattress, except if anything was hiding underneath, you'd get skewered by it. And that was the case one time. I foolishly jumped off the garage roof into the snow, and one of my brothers landed on a tricycle handlebar. He didn't do any permanent damage, but it sure made him kind of gun-shy about jumping off things. And of following me!
"I wasn't mean or anything like that," he hastens to add. "I was just kind of... ornery, is that the word?"
He just wanted to see what would happen?
"Yes! Thank you!" he laughs.
"But I came to recognize the tone in my mother's voice. Whenever she said my entire name, 'Richard Dean Anderson,' it was usually followed by, 'You get your sweet ass in here right now!' echoing through the neighborhood. I remember what first made me sensitive to that. We had made a diving board on the side of a picnic table, but somebody had to stand on one end. You see it coming, right? You know what's next?" he asks, as he describes using his weight to hold the board in place as the others took turns jumping off the other end. "We'd all take our chances and get a little spring off the end of it. And of course I played 'Lucy' and just stepped off the board. I think it was Jeff who went down, and broke the board, and he went wailing inside. That's when I first heard my entire name, spoken by my mother, at volume.
"We were always bleeding or breaking something. We had these big beams in the basement that you could scale on from beneath. I was leading the way, of course, and Jeff followed me. We had our piano in the basement, with a piano bench, and of course he slipped and fell, and he caught the edge of the piano bench right in his cheek. Again, it was one of those, 'Richard Dean Anderson, you get your sweet ass back up here!' But to this day it created the most elegant dimple you'd ever want to see. The trick was to match it throughout life, which, I think, was a natural occurrence for him. He lucked out, because when he smiles he has big dimples. Thanks to me!
"But it was that kind of stuff that was my normal mode of behavior," he continues. "We built tree forts. We had a place called 'The Woods'," he draws quotes in the air, "and it had a big pond in the middle of it. There was another contingent from a different neighborhood across the canyon. It could have been like two gangs, but we didn't know any better, and we were from Minnesota, so we didn't know how to make a gang. Instead we would share things and see who could make the best tree fort, and our side actually won. The one that was built had three stories to it. I had nothing to do with it except to use it in the summer. A guy named Steve Carlson was the big brother of one of my brother's friends, and he did most of the construction with one of his high school buddies.
"It was just a beautiful structure. I mean, it was made with piecemeal pieces of wood and stuff like that, but it felt safe enough. Once you got inside, through the bottom floor, you felt safe enough, like you weren't going to fall off the tree. You had hatches that would go to the second floor, and then there was one to the third, which was kind of open-air once you got up that high. In retrospect, that was probably the most dangerous thing about my childhood," he laughs. "Eventually, the woods started to be cut into by construction, and they would pile waste dirt and debris right on the edge of the woods where our tree forts were. The dirt got piled up next to us, and we were able to jump from the tree fort onto it. Foolishly!" he admits, and then adds, "Just one broken ankle. Not me, not me! And a dislocated shoulder. Not me, not me!"
His mischievous nature was curbed at school, however. Thinking back, he doesn't recall getting into trouble in the classroom. "I think in my earlier years I was too afraid of getting in trouble in school because my father was a teacher, and I just knew that it wouldn't fly very well in the 'discussion' that would take place in the evening. It was all about not being Stu Anderson's kid and misbehaving like that or being destructive. I wasn't that way. There were instances, but they were all maybe a group thing that I might have been a part of. I don't remember any pranks or anything like that that I may have pulled. There may have been some, but I just don't remember."
Like most young boys growing up in Minnesota, Richard dreamed of a career in professional hockey, though injuries and fate would eventually intervene. But as a child he also had his initial experiences with the stage. He has told the story from his childhood about accompanying his father and watching him work as he directed high school plays. During a particular rehearsal, a plate of Twinkies sat in for a birthday cake, and he recalls thinking that any job that allowed you to eat free Twinkies had definite potential.
"But also, before that, there's the story about when my interest was piqued, initially," he recalls. "I remember an experience somewhere in early grade school that alerted me to the great potential that could be realized by misbehaving on stage. I was at Lake Owasso Elementary School, in Roseville, Minnesota, and our classroom, for some reason, had to put on part of an assembly. We had to do a play, it was probably created by a teacher in our classroom, but it had dialogue that everybody had to memorize. I dictated the role of the Thorndike-Barnhart Junior Dictionary," he announces proudly.
"I played the dictionary, and I wore a mortarboard, and they had created a book-looking kind of thing that my arms stuck out of. It was actually quite well done. It was all a solid box, but the pages were painted so it looked like a dictionary. I wore big horn-rimmed glasses, and I might have had a little moustache, too, but that escapes me. Anyway, I was ostensibly a Thorndike-Barnhart Junior Dictionary. One of my best friends at the time was a guy named Paul Samuels, and he played the character of Tim. Tim's journey took him through the world of books, and along his journey he meets 'Thorny.' He comes through this maze of leaflets and things, and he comes up to me, and our first exchange is..." He pauses for a moment. "I've got to remember this because it was my first experience with laughter from an audience," he explains, as he searches his memory. Then, with a smile, he continues. "I said, 'Upon my word, Tim, where 'ya going?' You know, I'm the dictionary, so I'm making a joke, 'upon my word,' which I wasn't really clear about at the time, but it got laughter like nobody's business! Once I 'got' it, Paul and I made kind of a bit about it. Not on stage, we didn't improvise anything, but it sure perked my ears up to the potential of behavior modification in order to garner laughter.
"That was my first clear memory of all that, of the launch pad. In church, too, I played one of the Three Wise Men during that usual pageantry at Christmas at Advent Lutheran Church. And I was pretty good! I didn't have to do anything but sing as I walked. And I kept stepping on the guy's robe in front of me, Paul Newman was his name, actually, and the guy behind me kept stepping on mine. It was just nothing but a comedy of errors, things being pulled off the back of us, with no rehearsal, ever, and fake beards. And who knew what myrrh was, or frankincense, or any of that stuff? And then having to sing 'We Three Kings,' and I didn't know the lyrics to save my life. I was a follower as far as lyrics went.
"Neither of those experiences really sowed the seed or convinced me that this is something that I should pursue or something I should do for anything other than a laugh or a lark," he admits. "The real one was at Columbia Heights High School, watching my dad directing a rehearsal that had Twinkies as a birthday cake in a scene. But that's getting over-told. I think we all know that one."
Another frequently told story has to do with the end of his hockey ambitions. Although his love for ice hockey remains to this day, a serious injury in high school made him reconsider a career in the sport, and he retells the cringe-worthy details.
"I had broken two arms in a matter of three weeks when I was in high school. I had a cast on my left arm, and I was playing a game at Capitol View Junior High School. Mind you, this was an outdoor rink, it was in the dead of winter in Minnesota, and it was our job also to create the rink. So we had big fire hoses, and we were on a rotation, two guys had to stay overnight on a school night, and go out every hour and a half or so and hose it down and get that layer thicker and thicker. So the quality of ice wasn't at its highest grade. I was skating forward at a bit of speed, and in one of my strokes, the blade of my skate went into a really deep crack. It stopped the blade, which forced me forward. Again, I had a cast on my left arm, and the split second thought that I had was, well, if I fall on this arm, it's really going to screw things up, so I'd better twist and get this arm out of the way. In that split second, this arm, of course, got caught underneath the rotating torso, and it snapped. You've seen the scars, right?" he asks, holding up his right arm to point out the scars at his elbow. "It snapped at the elbow, and when I finally stopped, I was sitting up and kind of still spinning on the ice. I stopped, and I looked down, and I couldn't see my forearm. It was straight backwards, and just stuck there. So I just swung it up, with bones grinding. And I had a white jersey on at the time, and it just started pools of red blood. It was just a mess." The arm required surgery, and traction, and eventually healed, although full range of motion was slower to return.
It was also during high school that Richard completed a 5,641-mile bicycle trip from his home in Minneapolis, westward through Canada, including a stop at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and into Alaska before returning home. Although he began the two-and-a-half month trip with three friends, he completed much of it on his own, and he credits the adventure at age 17 with giving him not only independence, but also direction and insight. He returned home a more grounded young man, and after completing high school, he made the decision to enter college.
He enrolled at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, and the college experience became an opportunity to explore his interests. He chuckles as he talks about registering for classes. "I always did this, even my freshman year. You're supposed to take all the required things, the things that you have to take to work towards a degree. Well, I never did that. I ended up taking things like Philosophy of Film and these philosophy courses which I was just a space cadet in. I had no business being at these higher level classes with these thinking people," he laughs.
After completing his freshman year, Richard took one quarter off and did some travelling. "I was wandering a little bit aimlessly. I was in California for a little bit, and then New York, and then back to Minneapolis," he explains. It was then that a professor he had known at St. Cloud contacted him. "He was a former professor of mine at St. Cloud, and he had gone down to Ohio University. He was a student teacher, working towards his master's, I think, and he called me up and said, 'Get on down here and take a look at this school. You might like it.' So I went down to Ohio University, and took a look at it. It was really nice, and calm, with lots of trees and red brick buildings, and it was just what I needed at the time, because I was starting to get a little fried." So he made the decision to enroll at Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio, but once again, circumstances intervened.
Richard grew up during the Vietnam War, and like all young men at the time, at age 18 he had received a draft number. He has always been very supportive of the military, and is proud of his father's service in the Army Air Corps during World War II. However, it was not his choice to go to Vietnam. Enrollment in college had delayed the decision, since college students were granted 2-S status, a temporary student deferment. "But the Draft Board, they didn't miss a beat," he smiles ruefully. "I had skipped that one quarter, and even though I was registered to go to school in Ohio, as soon as my name came up as not being deferred by anything, I got the call.
"I was in Athens, Ohio at the time, and I got the notice to go through the physical and the tests to see what my eligibility was. I got on the bus, with about a dozen or two other guys that were in the same situation. It picked us up in Athens, and they drove us 70 miles to Columbus. And I knew nobody. It was one of those, leaning on the window of the bus, going through the countryside of Ohio, hearing the music, the 'Lonely Man'," he laughs, as if painting an image for a movie. "We got to Columbus, and went to the Draft Board, and just started taking the tests, forms, and poking, and prodding and all the stuff that 'Alice's Restaurant' refers to. Then at the very end, you sit down with a guy who determined, in my mind, whether I lived or died, because if he had checked the other box, I probably would have gone to Vietnam. And I know myself well enough to know that it probably wouldn't have turned out very well for me, one way or the other.
"I sat down with this official, and he started going through all the things that I had checked that raised questions about whether I was fit for service. One of them was that I had really bad balance and that I had a crooked toe on one of my feet. And mind you, I had to show him to justify this as a reason. He took one look and he said, 'I don't THINK so. You're FINE'." He laughs at the memory, then adds, "But I found out that I was color blind. I didn't even know. I took the color blind test, going through the polka-dot book, and at the end he said, 'Do you know you're color blind?' I said, 'No, I didn't. Why, does that matter?' And he said, 'Yeah, it might'." The final issue was the shattered right elbow he had sustained in the hockey accident in high school. "All I had from my doctor in Minnesota was a little note that described exactly what had transpired, and what kind of surgery he had performed on it, and that I have a pin in my arm. I took this measly little note and gave it to the Draft Board doctor, and I showed him that I still didn't have full extension of my arms, especially the messy one. And I think that was taken into consideration."
The final determination of the Draft Board didn't come right away, and in the meantime, the school year had ended. "I was going to start the following year at Ohio University, but in the interim I had taken my tests and school was out. I hitchhiked up to Detroit, and I was coming up to what turned out to be Toronto. I had met this girl in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, when I was on my bicycle trip, and she lived in Toronto. She was a graphic artist. On my bike trip, of course, I was 17 years old, and she was a woman, and she kind of took me under her 'wing'," he says with a wink. "All very sweet and innocent. But I had continued on my bicycle trip, and now I'm in Ohio, and my draft deferment was in question. I could have been drafted at any minute. So I decided to go visit this gal, and I came up to Toronto. I spent two weeks here at her apartment, and then, after two weeks, I decided to make some money and contribute to the situation that I was in."
He pauses to make reference to the extensive areas of downtown Toronto currently under construction, which had left many convention goers maneuvering around detours during the past weekend. "I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a bit of construction around Toronto? Well, even back then, this was... the turn of the decade. I can't remember!" he laughs, struggling to pinpoint the year. "Maybe 1970? Yes, it would have been 1970, because I was in San Francisco prior to that in '69." Suddenly, he grins, enjoying the trip down Memory Lane. "Oh, wow, this is fun! This is kind of neat!
"Anyway, I had been in Toronto for two weeks, and I decided to go out and apply for a job. I went into this construction office trailer, and the second I walked in I was descended upon by two policemen. They had been watching, or somebody in the office had told them something, but they assessed the situation, that I was an American applying for a job in Canada. They came into this office and asked to see my work visa. And I didn't even know such a thing existed back then. I was just this free-style idiot in a foreign land. They didn't take me to jail or any such thing, but they drove me back to this girl's apartment, who wasn't home, and I got all my stuff. Then they drove me out to whatever that highway is that goes to Detroit, and they dropped me off at the top of an on-ramp overpass, and they sat there and waited until I got a ride out of the country.
"I love Canada," he hastens to add, "and virtually anything about it. I always felt safe and comfortable with whatever was happening to me in Canada, but at the time I felt kind of betrayed, suddenly being thrust into the clutches of the draft situation in the United States. Anyway, it took me two rides to get to Detroit. One guy drove me around the city on the freeway system to where I was free to go in any direction. I told him I was trying to go to Joliet, south of Chicago. I had friends in Joliet. I was very lucky. I got all the way there in one day, dragged myself off the streets and to their house at 10:00 at night. It was just one of those emotionally exhausting, where-am-I, what's-going-to-happen kind of things. I was never really worried, but it could have gone either way."
He pauses again, searching his memory. "God, I want to remember all this so much! I hitchhiked from Joliet on up to Minneapolis. I wasn't living at home, so I got to this house that these hippie friends of mine owned. There are so many details that are distracting me about this, but anyway, I finally received my draft card. It said 1-Y, which was a legitimate deferment [qualified for military service only in time of national emergency]. Ultimately, I got the card that said 1-Y, and a 4-F, [exemption from military service due to medical reasons]. I might still have them, actually, somewhere in storage, the 1-Y and the 4-F draft cards. I could have stayed in Toronto if I had received them a few days sooner. But it was just as well, in retrospect, that I got out of there," he smiles, perhaps imagining an alternate future in Canadian construction.
When the new semester began, Richard returned to Ohio University, where he remained for about two more years, and where he began to pursue his interest in acting and filmmaking in earnest. "I got into a film course that was run by a guy who was really sympathetic toward my leanings to film and filmmaking. He urged me to sign up for his course, which was a senior four or five credit film course. I did, and I had to scrape together some money to buy a camera. I went in a camera shop and got this regular-8 film camera. Do you know what regular-8 is?" he asks, trying to describe the cinematic technology of the early '70s.
"It was 8mm ultimately, but regular-8 was stock that would come in these tins, and it would be 16mm when you got it. You would put the 16mm spool into this camera, feed it through, wind it up, take your shots, and then once you'd shot 25 feet worth of film, you would take it out, flip it over, and shoot on the other side of the film. Then when you'd get it developed, they would split it down the middle and tack it together. And then you had your regular-8mm, no sound, piece of film. Well, that's the type of camera I had. I didn't know what was available. The technology, obviously, was non-existent. And have you seen an old edit machine? There's a plate, and you've got these two handles that come down and you GLUE it together. Well, that's how I had to make my films. Mind you, everybody else was kind of in the same boat, but they all had Super-8. Rich kids, I guess!
"I started doing really weird things, a little bit on the coattails of a guy that I met socially in the school. I listened to a lot of what he was saying and doing, and so I ended up following his lead in some respects. One time I took a whole roll of film, and took a cloth that was soaked in bleach, and just pulled the film right through it, and all the emollients dissolved. In parts where I really squeezed it, it would go clear, and if I lightened up, you'd be left with blue, because I guess that's the deepest on the spectrum of light. So you'd have streaks, and if you just ran that through, it was kind of psychedelic, you know? This was actually for my thesis film, and once I got the hang of things, I'd hang it up and I'd take cans of spray paint and just do little shots that would leave little spray bubbles on the celluloid. I also used glass paint, I'd secure it and I would paint different colors and create. My poor film just went through torture!
"I would double expose everything, at LEAST double expose it, which means flip, flip, flip, flip, so there were images on the leftover parts of the film that would still record. And I would shoot just regular film, and take pictures of people or animals or big sunflowers in the field, all this kind of hippie-dippy stuff, and I would take THAT and strip it a little bit, so the double exposures would still be there, and that bleached process created an eerie sort of depth-y weird thing. It was just SO much fun to do, but just pathetically loose and unstructured. Mind you, it was the '60s-'70s transition!" he laughs.
"I had to have a copy made, so it could go through a projector. When you looked at my spool of finished film, it was just...thick! I could see things chipping off and all this stuff. I would take it to the camera shop in town, because they weren't about to do it with any of the developing on campus, but this guy was willing to develop my film. And it came out fairly well, actually! It was supposed to be a sound-synchronized, 200-foot film, but regular-8 doesn't have a strip for sound, so for my presentation I had this big reel-to-reel, and I had some music recorded, but not synched up at all. I got it as close to the beginning as I could and then just turned both on at the same time in the classroom!"
Perhaps he was just a little bit ahead of his time, given the film experimentation of the time period. He continues, "You know, the whole thing was crap, mind you, but at the time, and given that I was a freshman among seniors, that was kind of what was going on in a more intellectual, structured, and technologically controlled way. There were spottings of that kind of film exploration. Of course I can't name any of the filmmakers at the time, but there was a lot of experimentation going on, and I, out of sheer ignorance, ended up presenting this film that everybody thought was just the bee's knees! Stunned silence, and the teacher was very dramatic, he didn't flip on the lights for a minute or so. I was so embarrassed! I was just sweating to death about the whole thing and thinking, here comes the laugh. But they were all just beside themselves with compliments, and so impressed. I became friends with the instructor, and I think he kind of knew that I was bullshitting through it, but he gave me an A in the course. And I swear to God, I think I might still have that film somewhere. I hope to God I do! I've got two massive storage bins that MIGHT have that stuff around, and if there's a box or a trunk that might have all that stuff, it will have all my other little film-ettes.
"I did a lot of animation, too. I animated my stove in my kitchen up in St. Cloud. The door would go down, and it would talk. The burners were up, and I could shoot at an angle so they looked kind of like eyes. This thing took forever! But I would turn those burners a little so they would spin a little bit, and turn the gas on, and cans of peas and tomato sauce were going across the front of it. It was just weird, weird, stoned out stuff! But if I find any of that stuff, it'll all be together, and I'd love to see that stuff again.
"I worked a lot with Plexiglas and liquid paint. I'd get a big syringe, heat up these sheets of Plexiglas so they were kind of wobbly and soft enough to get a needle into with the glass paint. I'd inject it under the surface of this stuff, and I'd have to really push it out, but it created these amazing patterns and bubbles. I used a lot of dark red and orange together and created these kind of fire images when light was shown through them. They were just so interesting by themselves, but out of those I also created filters. I'd cut them in circles at 58mm, or whatever the lens size was going to be, and I'd have to tape them on there, of course, because you couldn't get anything exact. There were enough clear spots and light yellow spots so you could see images through them, but basically you were seeing the objects in a very gelatinous type of environment. The images would all be affected that way. And I don't want to say it was born of drug use, because I couldn't take drugs and make that kind of film. You would snap, because it's SO tedious, just one little thing at a time. You know what animation's like. And I couldn't drink anything at the time because you had to be straight to make these things!"
In addition to the art of filmmaking, Richard also received training in the performing arts at Ohio University, including summer stock productions. When it is pointed out that a picture exists on his website of his performance in 'The Great White Hope,' he laughs in surprise. "Oh my God! I haven't thought of that since! That was a hilarious experience. I mean, I was tall, and skinny, and didn't have a muscle on me to save my life. I was healthier than I had ever been, but I didn't look like The Great White Hope, that's for sure!"
He also enrolled in the prestigious acting program offered through the University. "I auditioned for the Acting Studio. It was a very highly regarded two-year acting program that you had to audition for and fight for. Out of 3000 applications, maybe 15 got in, and I made it in one year. Dr. Robert Hobbs was the professor, and he was just a genius, one of those guys that just looked like a professor, with receding hair, and a goatee-ish kind of thing, and very loud, and very deep. He just seemed like he embodied everything there was about acting. So I listened to him very closely, for a while. And then, there was a moment with him..." He pauses as he struggles to remember the specific performance. It was a work of Shakespeare, he's certain, but he smiles in apology, "The mind is a terrible thing to waste. I'm sorry, folks, I just can't remember the play!
"Anyway, the set was in our arena theater at Ohio, which was brand new. They had built it while I was going to school there, so it was really new. The wooden set floor was raised a couple of feet, and in three spots on it there were these poles, maybe three inches in diameter. They ran all the way to the ceiling, which was way up because it went past the lighting. They were anchored, so we could swing on them. While there was merriment taking place, or dance, or battles, or whatever it might be, we could run and jump on them, and spin down, and release, and whatever it took. It was up to us to discover it during rehearsals. So, during one performance, I took a running start at one of these poles, and I just got it by my fingertips, and I got about halfway around, and there go my fingers. I went flying toward the audience, but fell short by about six inches, close to this guy's feet, and I landed flat on my ass. I realized that I had not passed out, but had gone somewhere in my head where it was just a whitewash. I didn't remember, and all of a sudden I was on the floor." He compares the experience to his later attempt at skydiving. "Of course now I know more about the trauma involved in traumatic situations, where you have a thing that's kind of like a white-out. It was like the first time I went skydiving. There was a moment where my first jump was out the door, and suddenly I'm under the canopy. In between there, who knows what happened? I was on a static line, of course, but you learn to stay aware when you're doing things like that. Well, not in this situation! I mean, I had never experienced anything like that!
"A couple weeks after the experience, I had asked to see Dr. Hobbs. He hadn't seen it, and I don't know why I'd asked to see him, but what I ended up telling him was that I think I had had an epiphany, or some kind of a religious experience as an actor. I don't know what happened, but I went flying off the stage, and it was all part of being in character... And he sat there and listened patiently, like the proper professor he is, and he took a moment, and he said, 'You know, Richard, you've got to start eating better'."
He gives a hearty laugh as he recalls his startled reaction to his professor's unexpected response. "Jeez! Uh... wha? I was kind of crushed, but still earnestly pleading for him to acknowledge that I had made a breakthrough as an actor. It was not even close to the case! But he took the opportunity to tell me that I needed to be more focused in what I was doing. In the end we remained friends, and I stayed in the program until I left to get on the road to New York. And the rest is history..."
Indeed, the road to New York eventually led to California and a handful of early gigs that included commercials, bit parts, a Renaissance cabaret, and co-starring opposite a killer whale before landing his first significant television role in 'General Hospital' and steady work as an actor for the next thirty years. The roles in his filmography read like a list of everything little boys grow up wanting to become: He has been in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, he's been a doctor, a policeman, a fireman, a cowboy, a pilot, an astronaut, a baseball coach, a character in a Western, and an action-adventure hero. Had he ever considered his career in that light?
"No, I never have!" he laughs in delight after listening to the list. "Oh my God, that's so wonderful what you just did! Thank you for that scrutiny! I guess I should be kind of proud of that little checklist. Every little boy's dream come true - every one of those!"
With so many childhood fantasies already fulfilled, as it were, is there any role or genre that he wishes he could have had the chance to play? He pauses thoughtfully.
"I like the choices that Matt Damon has made in his career. I like the secret spy type of movies. I love that kind of intrigue. That's the same kind of books that I am drawn to, about the clandestine world of espionage, and government, and those intrigue-y sorts of things. But Jason Bourne, what a phenomenal role he and Ludlum created.
"Another one of my favorite series is 'The Americans.' It's really well written. It explores this man and woman, and the KGB trained them both to be spies, then they paired them together and married them, and they were sent to the United States. So they've grown up in the American society, but still as spies, and they have this whole web of connections and intrigue and control, and orders coming from Russia through contacts, and all of that. I just love that kind of thing.
"The other type of show is 'The Newsroom.' It's Sorkin," he says, expressing his admiration for creator/writer/producer Aaron Sorkin, known for such dialogue-heavy projects as 'The West Wing' and 'The Social Network.' "It is BRILLIANTLY written. He is SO smart, and SO intelligent. I just don't get tired of that. It was critiqued by some guy who called it the worst television series ever produced, and I can kind of understand why he said that, because there's probably nowhere in the world that people exchange dialogue the way they exchange it in this newsroom. It's a valid complaint, if you don't like that stuff, but I LOVE it. It's intelligent, it's learned, it touches, it explores... and it's obviously got a very liberal slant," he grins, "which I also love. For one thing, I just love language, always have. I've grown to really respect the possibilities of the English language, especially, for communication and effect, and I think that's what Sorkin is able to do on an intellectual level. There's that kind of glib exchange that you get from every character there. And you have these moments where a dozen people are vying for attention in a scene, and Sorkin is the voice of each one of them. It's mind-freezing, it's just ASTOUNDING to watch!"
But watching is quite different from acting. Would the man who has joked about learning as few lines as possible, and who has built a reputation for ad libs want to tackle a role in a project that is so heavily dependent on specific dialogue? Richard considers thoughtfully. "I've always wondered about myself, whether I could actually do it. Do you remember John Spencer?" he asks, remembering the actor who portrayed White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry on Aaron Sorkin's series 'The West Wing.' "He introduced himself to me at a party in Los Angeles, and I was just all agog. I was so impressed with him, and especially by his work on 'The West Wing.' But he said, 'You know, you should come do an episode or get a storyline or something like that. We can talk to Aaron.' And I said, 'John, I really don't think I could handle it. You guys are so in a different echelon, a different level of acting, being able to make that kind of dialogue sound palpable and realistic. I don't know that I could really keep up with everybody.' And he said, 'Oh, no, no, no, of course you could do it. You get used to it.' He understood what I was saying, but he did admit it, he said, 'But yes, he does kind of write a mouthful.' Well, there you go! It just looks exhausting, intellectually and otherwise. I don't know that I could really handle all that stuff. I wish I could say right here and now that I could, and that was what I was looking for. But if I found out that I could, and got comfortable with the energy involved and found that energy in myself that could make that kind of dialogue and those ideas come out of my mouth credibly, I'd pursue it in a heartbeat. I mean, I'd love to fit in something like that, because it's the type of show that I am really drawn to as an audience member."
In the meantime, the most important role he has played is that of father to his daughter Wylie. In interviews dating back to his twenties, he has shared his longing for fatherhood, and when Wylie was born in 1998, she became his absolute priority. After eight seasons of 'Stargate SG-1,' Richard left the series so that he could return to Los Angeles and be a permanent fixture in his daughter's life. His face still lights up as he talks about his experiences as a father, the lessons learned, and the lessons shared.
"A simplified comment about the whole experience is to make sure you're ready, and that you want a kid. I've said my whole life that I want kids, but then I reached a point in my life where I realized that it was important to me to make sure that I had enough money to support a family before I started one. I never wanted to have to scramble or wonder if I was going to be able to pay for college, or God forbid pay for food. That was always a fear of mine when considering a family or having kids.
"Having said that, my experience with Wylie, just the reality of her being in the world and in my life, was that it just puts everything else on hold. Everything else takes second position to the protection and the raising of a child. I couldn't have loved a sack of skin and bones and babbling drool and wonderful giggles and horrendous cries more. It was just the BEST experience of my life. There's that initial shock of, 'Oh my God it's moving!' But once she started to perceive her environment and people and other things, and she started acknowledging her senses and was basically on the road to communicating, that's when it became apparent in me that I had the biggest responsibility in my life now."
That road to communication has remained the key, he insists, as his tiny infant has grown into a young lady in her teens. He gives a knowing smile as he acknowledges that, just like every other dad whose daughter has entered her teens, he has experienced his share of 'you don't exist,' 'you don't know anything,' 'I know how to do it,' and 'it's none of your business.'
"You find that it's kind of a general commentary about girls in their tweens and teens, that things are happening in a girl's body and mind and heart. We've had some hardships, the two of us. But what became the priority was that she felt comfortable and safe enough to look in my eyes and tell me what she was feeling, or relate news of her life, which we established and have had going. I never let loose of the line, whether she responded or not. I would keep a line of dialogue, even if it was a monologue, open to her. I reassure her that, no matter what, she can always call me, come to me, she can say anything she needs to say. You don't have to tell me about the boys and the social thing if you don't want to, but if there are potential problems in those worlds for you, you have to know that you have the freedom to trust me, because I will never betray your trust in any way.
"And Wylie kind of fought her way through that, and I'm really proud of her, but I'm also kind of happy with myself, having hung in there and not being broken by it. You just have to take the perspective that it's not going to last, she's going to grow out of it. It can be potentially damaging if you retain those things and say, 'Do you remember when you said that to me?' Well, keep it in perspective. Keep it in a sack and lock it away, because there's always going to be some little seed of love that's always there to be acknowledged. It may happen just like that, where suddenly there are tears and you're holding babbling sweetness, where she says, 'I didn't mean any of that, Dad, and I love you so much and thank you for being there for me and staying with me.' That's the breakthrough. My advice to other fathers is look for it, look for the opening, and when it comes, your heart just melts. Again.
"I have to admit that getting her into a public school system now has really been one of the best things, I think, that I've been able to help her do. Wylie went to a private school for the first ten years of her education, and I'm really glad that she started out in that environment, because there was a certain discipline to it, and expectation. One of the reasons that we put her in the school was that it was so highly regarded and accredited. It's a K through 12 school that had everything that you could possibly want, including a developing theater department. But there came a point where it was so apparent that she was experiencing immense stress. Wylie's meticulous, and when she does work she wants to be neat, and precise, so she takes her time.
"And she needs the time, I think, especially in things like math, and history is the other one that she's not real keen on, which breaks my heart because I love it. I've tried to make her understand that one of the reasons it would be great if you developed a love for history is that, as an actress, which she wants to be, you have no idea how helpful knowing about what's happened in the world before you can be. You're aware of cultures, and development, and evolution, and all these things that don't sound very interesting right now, but believe me, some day you're going to wish that you knew something about the Middle East, because you're going to want to be able to add to the conversations down the road. You might want to write something, be it a play, a movie screen, or a letter to somebody, and if you can have some knowledge of world history in your coffer, you're going to be able to communicate that much better. That's tantamount to one of the most important things in life, to be able to communicate. I've done my best to lead her into at least a frame of mind where she can appreciate what's before her.
"But the pressure's off," he continues. Just last week, her school year began, and at tenth grade Wylie entered the public school system for the first time. There has been the initial adjustment, but she's been keeping in touch with her dad, even while he's been away in Toronto. "I've already gotten reports from Wylie about her high school, little snippets of impressions, and how she feels about it all. And she said it's been pretty good. She's getting along real well and she's relaxing into it much more than she did at the last year of her private school. She said the discipline is a lot looser, but it's not as heavy a workload for her now. So I think she'll be able to handle it, in a practical sense, and I think it'll be a happier experience for her."
As evening approaches, the shops begin to close, and the food court begins to empty out as the lights are slightly dimmed. One more question remains: What does the future look like for Richard Dean Anderson? He considered himself semi-retired when he left 'Stargate' to be a single dad, and he has done a few brief cameos, guest appearances, and commercials since then. But is he content to slip into full retirement, or is he considering a more active role in charity work, travel, new interests, or even a return to acting?
"My lawyer and business manager came out to my house two weeks ago to ask me the same questions!" he laughs. There is no clear answer for the moment, but he stresses that whatever the future holds, his daughter is still his top priority. "My plans are really that I must be around for Wylie at any given moment. I don't want her not to be able to reach me, and for me to be able to physically be there for her at any given time. So as far as my plans go, first, there's that element.
"And I want to really get healthy," he continues. The injuries of an active life have resulted in chronic pain in his feet, knees, and back, and a more recent heart issue required the insertion of stents to correct a blockage, all of which have contributed to a weight gain that he has been working to reverse.
"If I could just lose about 35 pounds, I'd be right exactly where I should be. But there's my heart, my feet kill me, my one knee is blowing out as we speak and is going to fail on me sometime soon, and then my back, which is a chronic pain in the ass." He repeats himself, laughing at the sound of the metaphor, "My back is a pain in the ass! My back is just brutally cruel. But it's better than the alternative, you know, and when I get back from this adventure, I'm seeing some specialists. I am going to go in and get the slate looked at to see how clean it needs to become before I can start something new. The things I miss are hiking and biking... The parts of your body that you need to put yourself through space and to keep yourself healthy have failed me!" He stops to consider, and then laughs. "No, it's not their fault. I have failed THEM, I guess! I don't want these problems to affect Wylie's quality of life. I don't want her worrying about it. So I'm taking care of it as best I can, as I age. It becomes more difficult to do so, but I'm not giving up!
"As far as this conversation fitting into my plans, I think I'd like to go back to work fairly soon. The situation would have to be right. I couldn't just take any job to be working." He confides that his health and his weight would impact that decision as well. "I've got to be able to do the job without worrying about anything cosmetically, too, because I've gotten a little self-conscious about it. And I'm just not aggressive with my agent at all, asking if it's pilot season, that kind of thing. Unless I can start working as a character actor, I'm not comfortable with being aggressive about taking a job."
Would he prefer the shorter commitment of a TV movie or feature film, or would he consider returning to series television if the right project came along? He expresses his interest in a series without hesitation. "Yeah! I'd love to do a feature, but I've had a great time in television, especially in the series world. I've been very fortunate to have had long running series under my belt. There's a certain degree of perceived success to all that. 'MacGyver' I had to carry. Dana didn't work all the time, let's put it that way. So I beat myself up doing 'MacGyver.' And pleasantly so, joyously so! It was a great experience. But then 'Stargate' was the perfect vehicle for me to be involved in at that time in my life and my career. 'Stargate' was exactly the right combination of personnel. The other three folks are so much fun to work with, and strong as actors, to be able to carry the series, ultimately, without me. I couldn't have carried the series by myself at that point in time. And then of course Wylie came along, and who wants to do anything but be with your kid?
"But, yeah, if a great series came along, I wouldn't even care if it's in the deepest dredges of the cable world, or even if it's on computer. What's the show that Kevin Spacey's doing right now?" he asks, referring to 'House of Cards,' the highly acclaimed online-only original web television series from Netflix. "What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that I don't have the kind of ego that would really put me in a position to care about whether it's online, or deep cable, or network television."
In the comedy realm, he's expressed his admiration for Seth MacFarlane, known for the animated 'Family Guy' and the feature film 'Ted.' A project along those lines would certainly appeal to him. "That would be nice. I love him. He's great," he smiles. Or, there is the one role missing from his every-little-boy's-dream-come-true list: a spy in the world of espionage. The right script could be the perfect opportunity. "I like jeopardy in plots," he agrees, "that kind of intrigue where it takes some figuring and anticipating and guesswork. Yeah, a show like that, I'd love to be a part of!"
Aaron Sorkin, are you listening?