MacGyver – The Real Origin Story

Once upon a TV show… Hard to believe that it’s been a generation since MacGyver first whipped open his Swiss Army knife on the cultural horizon. Harder still to believe that his name has joined the dictionary and become a global icon for resourcefulness and invention in the face of adversity. And, most surprising of all—at least for me— has been the persistent demand to BRING HIM BACK, PLEASE! So, finally bowing to popular demand, in this graphic novel series, and in other forms currently in the works, we’ve dug out the knife, duct tape and the leather satchel to turn MacGyver loose on a whole new world and set of adventures—which has been something of an adventure in itself. But more about all that later, promise…

And in the generation since his debut, as I’ve traveled the globe and met literally countless Mac fans, the one question that I’m inevitably asked is, “So where did the idea for MacGyver come from anyway?” Where indeed? Well, therein lays a tale my friends, no less fraught with surprising twists and turns than any of Mac’s missions. And, while in the past I would usually just smile and politely side-step the question, since MacGyver is now making his way back to the present—if not the future—I suppose it’s only fair that I come clean and, for the first time in print at least—tell the real story of how this amazing, enduring and beloved character came to be created.

Now, even as I reveal all this, it’s important to remember television is a collaborative medium with a slew of producers, studio and network executives, and others all piled atop the lone writer—in this case me—not to mention the directors, actors and hundreds of crew it takes to make a TV pilot much less an entire series. And no doubt they all have their version of this story—which could easily, and understandingly, differ from mine. But rest assured, soon enough I will invite them to share their tales as well so the record will be available for all to see.

But, as I alone bear the mantle of being the show’s ‘creator’, I can say with Mac—if not the Almighty—as my witness, this is how it happened…

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I suppose in some way it all started when I was in college at a small liberal arts school called St. John’s College where—believe it or not—I spent four years reading and discussing the great books of the western world; Plato, Homer, Aristotle, you name it. The greatest storytellers and thinkers that ever lived who inspired me to not only learn to think outside the box, but realize that the course of future world opinion was going to be formed as much by film and TV as by great books. So I decided it might be worth giving showbiz a try.

And after leaving school I made my way to New York where I eventually landed a job as a dialog-writer for a soap opera called “The Doctors” (to her dying day my loving grandmother was convinced that my regular credit on her TV screen meant that I had actually become a doctor. Bless you, Grandma)

But it was clear– after an invaluable year of learning to write dialog– that soap operas just weren’t my thing so, now expecting my first child, we decided to pack up and relocate to Los Angeles where, you know, the fruit grows on trees in your backyard. At least we wouldn’t starve I kept telling myself. And we didn’t, though for the next few years it was something of a struggle to feed the kids (yes, there was soon a second one…and eventually a third…and a fourth. Apparently, I really liked having kids. They were certainly a hellova motivation to keep writing.) So I hustled with whatever writing jobs I could find—when I wasn’t doing construction and home repairs to keep bread on the table– until I finally broke through into episodic drama writing as a staff writer. And, man, did I ever break through.

Because for nearly the next three years, as a staff writer or producer for a number of TV series, I discovered—as did my bosses– that I could crank out decent episodic scripts at a furious pace (which is the name of the game in series writing). And crank I did, practically starting a new script before the ink was even dry on the last one. But after writing like a machine possessed for all that time, I could tell that, despite the generous income and the titles I was amassing, I was fast approaching a case of serious burnout. So to avoid both a creative and emotional breakdown—and to spend some real quality time with my young family, since it seemed my kids were having trouble remembering what I looked like—I’d left the series I’d been writing for and took some time and space to go back and just write for myself again, crazy as that sounds. Perhaps not the most recommended of career choices but the writer in me was clearly in need of some breathing room and—as he’d been damn good to me so far—I wasn’t about to ignore him and wait until I hit the wall. I’d seen that happen to friends and colleagues and, trust me, it ain’t pretty. And here’s where the juicy part of this creation story really kicks in.

It was a dark and stormy night…Nah, it was actually a weekday afternoon at the office in Santa Monica I’d rented to ignore the siren’s call of the biz and just try writing for myself again (with a houseful of kids, writing at home was a non-starter, believe me.)

Now at first my agent, lawyer and business manager (all of whom got a piece of my income) were generally supportive of this unorthodox shift in direction: “Do what you need to, bro, we’re here whenever you want us.” But given how hard it can be to get a decent writing gig in La-La land, most writers do what they can to hold on to it with both hands, not jump off the carousel, so I could tell my reps were still a little nervous. And after doing my own thing and—as John Lennon put it—‘watching the wheels go round and round’ for the better part of a year, I could tell they were really beginning to sweat…”Are you sure you don’t want to just try writing for a paycheck again?”

So that afternoon when my agent Marty called, yet again, to say he had a great job for me, I felt I owed it to him to listen. “I got a pilot for you—and it’s already been sold to ABC, so you don’t have to pitch it or anything. It’s with Henry Winkler’s company at Paramount. All you have to do is write it.

Bing, bang: you’re in and out and it’s over before you know it. What do you say?” “What’s it called?” I asked. “It’s called HOURGLASS, I think.”

“Hourglass, huh? And what’s it about?” “Who cares what it’s about? It’s a job—Just tell me you’ll consider it and let me go make you a great deal, will ya, please?!” Now, I can’t tell you whether this was a moment of weakness or strength—sometimes it’s hard to tell with these things—but I said “Okay, sure. Go make the deal. I’ll give it a shot.” “Fantastic! Trust me, you won’t regret this!” And Marty hung up the phone fast before I could change my mind. Now I think Marty eventually spent some time in prison, but I’ll give him this, he was right about that job. I certainly don’t regret agreeing to take that assignment—at least not now anyway.

So it began; I’d just agreed to write something called ‘Hourglass’ without the slightest idea of what I was in for…And I was in for quite a ride….

NEXT TIME: The bomb in the Hourglass…

2 thoughts on “MacGyver – The Real Origin Story

  1. I know the series you left bec. of burnout: Remington Steele. 🙂 Your episodes were some of the best ones from the first two seasons. Red Holt Steele was my favorite episode. (Yes, I was noting writers even back then.)

    Glad Mac is back, at least in comic form for the moment!


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