MacGyver – The Real Origin Story

Part 5 – Who You Gonna Call?

If you recall from the last installment, I had just managed to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of Henry Winkler and his alter ego, The Fonz, to be faced with concocting a suitable alternative to the ‘Hourglass’ concept that preserved the notion of a single-lead, action/adventure series.  Piece of cake, you’re thinking, right?

And I’d like to report that, having repaired to my office in Santa Monica, I cogitated for a brief period and—in a stunning epiphany—the concept of MacGyver in all his inimitable details simply sprang full-blown into my fertile mind.  That’s what I’d like to report, but no such luck I’m afraid because it took a good deal more than that for Mac to enter the world.

As I had yet to develop my soon-to-be-published ‘Yurika Method’ for solving nearly any creative problem, I paced my office, made copious notes on my computer, and generally pounded my head against the walls until I finally thought I had something that might fit the bill.  Alas, I can’t for the life of me remember what that was but it was obviously enough for the studio to arrange a meeting with the network so I could pitch it to them.

So Henry, John Rich, Grant, Tony and the rest of our merry entourage eventually headed over to the looming ABC Network tower of offices in Century City for me to present this new gem to the TV development executives.

Suffice it to say that, despite their abiding enthusiasm for this ‘arena’, the concept was met by a stony silence and a polite but irreversible ‘pass’.  Thanks, but no thanks.  I had stepped up to the plate and whiffed with an ignominious strike out.  Hey, it happens.  After all, Hollywood is practically a business of failure: most pitches don’t become scripts, most scripts don’t get made, most pilots don’t make it to series, and– even of those that do– most new series don’t last so much as a season let alone become hits.

Except that my strike out was soon to become a serious batting slump, as my next two attempts were equally unsuccessful, and my woe-filled trips to the network were becoming so frequent that their parking attendants knew me by name and were offering me snarky smiles as they returned my car as if to say ‘Better luck next time, chump.”

I was fast becoming as desperate as I was frustrated.  So seeking at least some understanding if not support for my plight, I rang up my agent Marty to perform the time-honored tradition of all TV writers which is, well, whining

‘Hey, what’s the deal here?” I moaned, “This was supposed to be a pre-sold concept that I only had to write, remember?  Now I’m cranking out ideas like a fricking vending machine!  Can’t you do something about this?”

To which Marty calmly replied, “Hey, what do you want from me? You’re the one that told them ‘Hourglass’ wouldn’t fly.  Am I right, or am I right?”

He was right, of course.  I had made my bed on this one and was now consigned to sleep in it—not that I was getting much sleep anywhere at the time.

So there I was, trapped in a deal that could have me churning out series concepts—for no additional compensation I might add– until the cows not only came home but were turned in MacDonald’s hamburgers– (more about that part in a moment).

Well, desperate times call for desperate measures.  And as my creative confidence was steadily sinking with each ‘no’ from the network, I reached back to the lessons from my college days where, when I reached an incomprehensible impasse in some great book, I would bring it up in seminar and hope that the group could knead it around enough that it eventually generated a meaningful insight or at least made some kind of sense.

So I put out an SOS to all my writing friends, gathered as many of them as I could wrangle into my office, offered them the inebriant of their choice (sometimes writers need such things to get the juices flowing, ‘cause if you think even Homer sang his way through the Iliad and the Odyssey without a jug or two of wine, think again), then I locked the door and announced “We’re not leaving this room until I have a kickass idea to write my way out of this predicament.”  There it was: the gauntlet had been thrown and the clock was definitely ticking.

Now it’s a funny thing about writing or other creative challenges, but when it’s not your problem, and the pressure’s not on you, it’s amazing how easily the ideas can start popping.

“So what have you got?” they asked me.  And after quickly outlining the basic premise of a single-lead action/adventure show, and running through all my previous failed attempts, I was forced to confess that I had nothing.

That of course was followed by a long beat of collective silence until somebody piped in with “Okay then, let’s go with that.”  “Go with what?” I replied, thinking it was a joke on my pathetic quandary.

“Go with nothing.  Your guy, whoever he is, don’t give him anything.  Like that’s his deal: he’s got nothing.”  He’s got nothing?

And then—BOOM—just like that—there it was– as we all fell silent– and that insane but brilliant germ of an idea started ricocheting around in our heads.  And the talk started spewing so fast there was no point or need to try and take notes—

Most action heroes have at least a fast car and a big gun—lose ‘em.  No flashy car and no gun.  James Bond has all those whiz bang toys handed to him by Q at the outset of each story, right?  Banish them. No high-tech toys.  Hell, even Indiana Jones has a fedora and a bullwhip.  Forget that.  This guy—our guy— HE’S GOT NOTHING!

Now, no matter how hard I rack my memory, I honestly can’t recall who it was that threw out that notion of nothing.  Fact is, I can only faintly remember who exactly of my writing friends were there except that I’m certain two of them were George Lee Marshall and Susan Baskin—both of whom went on to successful writing careers in Hollywood.  And though I’m sure there were others, please accept my sincere apologies if not my heartfelt thanks for your participation in that fateful encounter, whoever you were.

But, as you can imagine, the room was suddenly abuzz with energy and ideas, and the black hole I’d been staring out for weeks if not months was suddenly transformed into a cornucopia of possibilities—

So if our guy’s got nothing how does he overcome the threat or the jeopardy?  He uses whatever he can find—and his genius is that he knows how to make something out of nothing.  But with no tools or anything?

It was around then of course I shoved my hand into my pocket and pulled out the SWISS ARMY KNIFE my father had given me when I was all of about twelve—my father being a quintessential jack-of-all-trades in his own right– telling me it was one of the best tools I’d ever have, and that I would be wise to keep it with me all the time…because, well, you just never know when you’ll need to FIX something.   And God knows, at that moment, my writing conundrum was in dire need of being fixed. (And I’ve kept that knife and followed that particular piece of advice to this day)

Perfect!—Our guy’s got nothing but an amazing mind of incredible know-how and a Swiss Army Knife—with which he can make whatever he needs, from whatever he’s got, to take on the threats or the bad guys.  What a concept!  This was ‘Hourglass’ on steroids!  And I knew it was a keeper because we’d just done the very essence of what this character was about: namely, we’d just made something out of nothing!

(I’m afraid I also don’t remember if it was in that meeting or sometime later when duct tape became a part of his repertoire—but this too was another of my Dad’s ‘must-haves’ so no surprise it found its way into that pouch as well).

Then all I was missing at that point was what to call this gun-less and minimalist hero.  Since we’d be referring to him throughout the session as “this guy” or “our guy”—and in keeping with our vibe of using what we already had—I suggested we just call him ‘Guy’.  But the room felt that was a tad too obvious and on the nose.  Point taken.

Now we were in the early 80s at the time, when the MacDonalds hamburger chain was literally exploding around the country—and their signs were still crowing with how many burgers they’d shuffled off their grills into the American gullet: “10 Million Sold”…”50 Million Sold”.  In fact, it had become such a phenomenon that anything that went viral or was suddenly popular was dubbed with a “Mac” before it.  For example, the daily paper USA Today, which had recently been launched to great success, was nicknamed MacNewspaper.  So, only too happy to jump on that bandwagon in the wild hope this character might one day achieve such popularity, I said “Okay then, why don’t we call him MacGuy?”  This drew a few interested nods from the group but the consensus was that it was still missing something, and that perhaps three syllables might be better than two.

Well, we were clearly on a roll so I certainly wasn’t inclined to argue.  And after chewing on it for another minute or two I took another shot. “Then how about MacGyver? That’s got a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”

And suddenly the room was all smiles: yeah, MacGyver sounds just right.  A good Scottish name which certainly fit as the Scots were known for being a scrappy, frugal lot that clung to their tough turf in regular resistance to being ruled by the high and mighty British.  Thus making our hero a proud and pure descendant of the sturdy, shrewd and indomitable clan MacGyver.

And I was suddenly more psyched and excited about this project than I had been since even agreeing to take the job.  Forget ‘Hourglass’, we had MACGYVER!

The rest, as they say, is history.  The network liked the pitch and I wrote the script in record time—weaving in all the elements of my experience on the project: hanging off a cliff, being trapped in an high-tech complex gone haywire, ticking clocks and bombs, you name it.  Next thing I know they’re making the pilot and we’re on the air.  And though I elected not to continue on the series as a writer, the show went on to run for a total of seven seasons, not just five, and became an international sensation that continues to air around the world even to this day nearly 30 years later!

And, while that may conclude the tale of how MacGyver got started, it’s far from the end of the story as—due to you– his literally billions of fans around the world—I now spend the better part of my creative energies ‘re-imagining’ this amazing character in forms that didn’t even exist at the time of his creation.  And even more excited to be doing it now than I was when he was born.

So, for those of you who are interested, you can continue following this whole unfolding saga on the new website macgyverglobal.com where another truly talented band of Mac freaks and I promise to keep you up on all the when, wheres and whyfores of a character that has not only changed our lives, but who may just yet help save us all from ourselves.  And wouldn’t that be something to see?

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4 thoughts on “MacGyver – The Real Origin Story

  1. Fantastic stuff! Thanks so much for sharing this story, and your many stories on television (and now comics!) over the years. Needless to say, I’m a big fan. MacGyver was a huge part of my childhood and I believe it is at least partially responsible for turning me into the resourceful renaissance man I fancy myself to be today.

    P.S. Instead of “Leave a Reply” maybe the call for comments should read “We all know how these things work, so when you see the text box, go for it.”

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  2. What a great story !

    I especially appreciated this assistance between writers. Is this common ?

    I think too this concept of the character who solves problems with what he has around him, goes beyond the context of the tv show…

    Somehow, it is the mark of a free spirit…

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  3. I see the comic book artist pictures Mac as a man with a 3-day stubble.
    RDA never sported p 3-day stubble throughout the series, not even when he was wounded and had to stay in bed for days in Afghanistan.

    I accept that Mac once in a while should have a 3-day stubble, but not throughout, that is not in line with his character.

    And if he wears a 3-day stubble and is bedridden again, he should then have a full beard.

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    • The stubble originated from having traveled half way around the world. Both Lee Zlotoff and Tony Lee agreed that the stubble made this new MacGyver a little edgier in a fun way so decided to keep it for this series.

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