The Real Origin Story
“The Real Origin of MacGyver” is Lee Zlotoff’s own recollections of how the MacGyver character was created.
Part 1 – The Beginning
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 whe
ther 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….
Part 2 – The Bomb in the Hourglass….
So, after the usual haggling between my agent and the studio’s business affairs department, the deal for me to write their ‘Hourglass’ pilot was finally made and it was time for me to head over to Paramount TV to meet with the studio execs and the producers to find out what exactly was ‘Hourglass’. (Since all I’d been able to glean so far was that is was supposed to be a ‘single-lead, action/adventure show’ – “single-lead” meaning one hero instead of an ensemble cast or ‘a team’.)
Now ‘meetings’ in Hollywood are a lot like dating; there’s usually a round of ‘pre-meeting’ calls between the agents, producers and execs to stroke everyone about how excited we all are to be meeting, followed by the meeting itself of course, and then another round of ‘post-meeting’ calls to determine how the meeting really went, and was everyone pleased with the outcome or just pretending that they were. I mean, nobody likes to blow it on the first date, right? And since we already had a deal in place, all involved were eager to see things got off on the right foot.
For my part, I was mostly just there to look excited and listen—not a stretch really—since this was my very first pilot and by now I was truly curious, and figured I could find a way to have fun writing an action/adventure piece, no matter what it turned out to be.
Soon enough then I’m in a conference room with Henry Winkler—by then a huge star thanks to playing ‘The Fonz’ on “Happy Days”—and his producing partner, the highly regarded director, John Rich, along with the studio execs, Grant Rosenberg and Tony Jonas. (No doubt there were some junior execs and assistants there as well—there are always ‘seconds’ in these meetings to take notes and ‘learn’—but, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you who they were—and hereby offer my apologies to them for the haze of memory that eventually haunts us all.)
But what was immediately clear in the meeting was how psyched ABC was about this project: “Everyone at the network loved it, and bought our pitch right there in the room!” (In the TV biz, that’s a big deal; usually the network likes to put on a poker face and say they’ll get back to you with their decision). So now I’m genuinely excited. Wow. They bought it in the room. This is awesome. And I can tell everyone at the table smells a hit here. Enough with the suspense; ‘Hourglass’—lay it on me!
“So the reason we call it ‘Hourglass’”, they continue, “Is because every episode happens in exactly one hour!— Get it? We have a real ticking clock. One hour of TV time is one hour of actual time! It’s a totally new concept. Great, huh?
Now my mind is already starting to race a little—and not in a good way—as I smile and nod, trying to wrap my head around this before I come back with the most obvious question…”Oh, so you want to do a serial, is that it? Each episode is one hour of a larger continuing story?” (A concept by the way that nearly two decades later was employed to enormous success on the show “24”)
“Oh, no”, they casually reply, “The network doesn’t want a serial. Each show has to be a ‘stand alone’ episode: a single story from start to finish—all in one hour. And get this; it’s never been done before! How cool is that?”
And that’s when the bomb went off in my head—because I knew at that instant there was a very good reason it had never been done before, which was …it wouldn’t work!
This brilliant concept that everyone—including the network—was in love with was doomed before it could even get off the ground! And, apparently at the moment, I was the only one who got that! (Now you’re probably asking yourself exactly how I knew—with only a few years of TV writing to my credit—that this pretty puppy simply would not hunt—which I’ll get to in a minute. But we’re still in a meeting with some very heavy hitters, remember?)
Since it’s generally considered bad form to throw up all over your partner on the first date, I’m doing my best not to look horrified– considering I’ve already signed on to be the writer here— and desperately searching for anything that might give me a way to spin this. So I try backing away from the dynamite I’ve just found in my lunch box and go for another tact by asking, “And the main character in this?— What’s he all about?”
“Well, we like to think of him as the court of last resort”, they say, “You know, when nobody else can handle the mission, they call him.”
“Anything else you can tell me about him?”, I press gently, already feeling my fingers slip off the edge of the cliff into the abyss looming beneath me—
“Not really. We sorta thought we’d leave all the rest of that up to you. You know, not to tie you down with too many details or get in the way of your creative process.”
And there it was—I got nothing! My head’s in free fall, my arms and legs flailing in empty space like Wylie Coyote who’s just been snookered off the precipice by the Roadrunner—again. Worse still, they’re all looking at me, waiting for me to coo with excitement over their beautiful newborn, when I know for a fact it’s just a head of cabbage.
Nothing to do now but stare at all that dynamite and give it a poke in the hope maybe someone else will realize it’s a bomb. “So in this format of the ticking clock,” I ask, “What happens if our hero has to, you know, like go across town or something? Do we just see him travel for all the time it would really take to do that?
“Oh,” somebody jumps in, “He like knows all the bus schedules cold or something. And he could like hop from the back of one bus to another to do that really fast—or something like that, you know?”
I just nod again, realizing now I’ve got to get out of there, fast. Because if I poke that dynamite any harder by pursuing such questions, the bomb is definitely going to go off right then and there—which would not be a good thing at all. So I quickly swaddle this thing in as much bubble wrap as I can muster with the futile hope that maybe I can get it back to my office and figure out some way to disarm it.
“Wow, cool” I mutter, “This is really something, you know. I’m gonna have to give this all some serious thought. Can’t wait to get started, in fact. So if there’s nothing else?…” And I beat a hasty exit, and tried not to crush the steering wheel of my car on the drive home—though there might well have been a considerable amount of screaming and cursing; the mind tends to heal itself over time by forgetting such things.
Now to your question; how did I know with such complete certainty that this ‘Hourglass’ concept was such a non-starter? Well, that will require somewhat more space than I’ve got left in this issue. But I swear on my Swiss Army Knife that I will take you through it step by step in the next installment. Though since you’re already a Mac fan, I feel it’s only fair to give you the chance to work it out for yourself in the meantime if you like. And here’s a hint to get you started…
One of the most amazing—and effective—aspects of storytelling through film (or TV) is the ability to jump instantaneously across space and time. One second you’re in location A, the next second you cut to location B, C, D or whatever. And the new location can be simultaneous with the first or an hour, day, month, year or millennia later. So now imagine if you will, trying to tell a compelling and satisfying story in one hour without that ability. Can you hear the bomb starting to tick yet?
Part 3 – Write or Wrong?
In the last chapter, if you recall, I left you to ponder why the ‘Hourglass’ concept as it was pitched to me—one hour of TV time was one hour of actual time—was ultimately not going to fly as a TV series. And I promised in this installment to explain how I knew—even upon hearing it—that, no matter how cool it sounded in the room— I had a major problem on my hands. So here goes—but this may get a bit technical so just bear with me…
They told me they wanted a single-lead, action/adventure show of ‘stand alone’ episodes: that is, each show had to be a complete story in itself built around a single, main character and NOT a serial where the story carried over from episode to episode. (For example, NCIS, BONES or CASTLE, say, are ‘stand alone’ shows where the character stories may arc over a whole season but each show is a ‘case’ to be solved in that episode: whereas GREY’S ANATOMY and BOARDWALK EMPIRE are more ‘serials’ where the stories carry over from show to show and each episode is just a part of a larger story that arcs across an entire season, sort of like a soap opera. The networks’ desire for stand alone series vs. serials in prime time tended to move in cycles, but in the early 80s when I got this assignment, trust me, no one wanted a serial so there was no point in even exploring that option.)
So if each episode had to be confined to a single hour of actual time, that meant my main character—our hero—couldn’t really travel much at all since it takes, you know, time to go from place to place. He couldn’t for instance be in the U.S. in one scene and then be in China or Istanbul or even another city in the next scene. And even if I could cut away to, say, the disaster or problem he was going to solve—or some other characters (which I didn’t really have either because the show was to be built around our hero), it wasn’t going to be very interesting to just watch our guy travel, you know? In a show like this you want to see your hero doing things, not traveling to the scene.
That meant, in order to squeeze the most drama out of any story, it pretty much had to take place in one location. And our hero would have to arrive at that location at the start of the episode. In other words, since traveling for more than a few minutes was out, every show would have to end where it started. Needless to say, trying to generate decent action/adventure—on a typical TV budget— while confined to one location was going to take some doing.
To be clear then, under the proposed ‘Hourglass’ format I would have to completely forfeit the primary ability of film language to jump either space or time since the time had to be continuous. And that in turn meant the space—or location—had to be, more or less, unified as well—at least for the purposes of our hero because, if I couldn’t jump time, then he would need to be restricted to a fairly tight area or location for the bulk of the story. Because the larger the area of the story, the more time it would take for our hero to get from one place to the other and, unless he was being chased—or racing to get somewhere—that wasn’t apt to be terribly interesting to watch. And even racing and chasing can get old after a while. Not to mention that racing and chasing happen to be the more expensive things to portray on film, requiring moving the crew and camera multiple times for which you only get a few seconds of actual ‘screen footage’ for each move. And an easy budget-buster, at least for television.
What’s more, after a few episodes of that, the audience would soon realize they were going to be more or less stuck in one place for the entire hour. And if they didn’t happen to feel like spending the next hour of their lives in that particular setting, all it would take was a little squeeze of their remote and our show would be gone.
Still, not impossible. I could easily come up with a bunch of episodes that might fit the bill: the mine cave-in, the locked bank vault, the burning oilrig, the sinking submarine; you get the idea. But, back then, for a series to be considered successful by the studio it needed to run for a minimum of five seasons. That meant this concept had to be sustainable for more than just a season or two; it had to work for like 110 episodes!
And no matter how hard I racked my brain to find a way to make the ‘Hourglass’ concept work— like with extensive flashbacks, maybe of things before the key incident? Or by trying to see the same action repeatedly but from different characters’ points of view, (know in the biz as ‘Rashoman’ style after the Kirosowa film). But whatever I considered just seemed so incredibly restricted that I couldn’t picture how anyone would pull that off for even one full season, much less five of them.
Bottom line: I simply couldn’t find a way to disarm the bomb I’d been handed, because this ‘Hourglass’ concept wasn’t just a challenge, it was a fricking straightjacket! And I at least was not enough of a creative Houdini to wriggle out of it.
This then left with me an acute moral dilemma—yeah, I know, morality in showbiz, hard to believe, huh? But there it was. I knew if push came to shove, I could keep my mouth shut, write a single pilot that satisfied the ‘Hourglass’ criteria, and make it look like this concept would work. And leave the bomb just ticking in the lunchbox for someone else to discover.
But this was my first pilot. And in truth, they weren’t just asking me to write a single cool episode—but to create a blueprint for a whole series—that at least had a shot of lasting five seasons or more, right? And, after a stern talking-to from my better angels, I knew there was no way in good conscience I could pass the buck on this one.
So after a few days of personal and creative struggling to make sure I had left no rock unturned, I finally bit the bullet and called Grant Rosenberg and Tony Jonas at Paramount to tell them I just couldn’t make ‘Hourglass’ work—and why. And, despite the fact that we had a deal in place, I would bow out gracefully if need be so they could find another writer if they wanted. Grant and Tony—(both of whom by the way eventually went on to be really successful TV producers in their own right)—just listened patiently and said they would discuss it internally and get back to me.
Certainly not the kind of call one likes to make, but at least the bomb was out of the lunch box and on the table and ticking away for all to see.
Next thing I know, I get a call from Henry Winkler’s office: Henry would like to meet with me—alone. No agents, no studio execs, no other producers or ‘seconds’—just me and Henry, period. Oh, man. This cannot be good.
Now it might help you to know that Henry Winkler has a well-deserved reputation for being like the nicest guy in show business. I don’t mean he just has good publicists or spin doctors, I mean everyone who knows Henry genuinely reports that he’s a prince among men. He shares his time and wealth with a host of charities, he waits his turn in line despite the fact that he’s a major star; he helps old ladies across the street for real. Henry doesn’t just talk the talk; he walks the walk of ‘niceness’ with a passion. And it dawns on me that—more than likely—I’ve just managed to piss off the nicest guy in show business!…And he wants to see me, alone…now.
That bomb is ticking louder than ever. And as I make that seemingly endless drive to Henry’s office, I can just picture my career going up in flames—what kind of imbecile must you be to invoke the ire of Henry Winkler! My first pilot deal is going to be my last: no more assignments, no more TV shows—I will be banished from show business.
So I’m trying like hell not to picture my children starving as I drive through Hollywood, blasting the AC to keep the sweat from soaking through my clothes, and silently praying I haven’t just detonated that bomb under myself…
Part 4 – The Fonz: Up Close and Personal
So, just to recap, in the last issue I was on my way to meet with Henry Winkler who asked to see me after I informed the studio that the ‘Hourglass’ concept wouldn’t work—at least in my humble opinion.
Now Henry’s office was on the Paramount studio lot, which is smack dab in the heart of Hollywood. And the traffic there is usually terrible, so I’m really counting on the long crawl across town to rehearse the encounter in my head and get my nerves under control. No such luck. In some freak occurrence that defies all explanation there is no traffic. The roads are deserted and you just know I make every single traffic light. It’s almost as if I’m being inexorably pulled toward his office like it’s some black hole from which any escape is hopeless and I will be sucked into oblivion— forever.
And before I know it I’m inside the studio gates and marching across the acres of parking lots, sound stages and twisting warrens of offices— in the searing southern California heat—so that, by the time I finally locate Henry’s office, you could wring the sweat from my clothes, my nerves are in wicked knots, and when his smiling assistant chirps, “Would you like something to drink?” it takes a Herculean effort NOT to ask for a double scotch and instead mumble that a water will be fine, before I’m ushered in to meet my fate.
Though he’s not smiling, Henry graciously welcomes me in and we exchange a few seconds of pleasantries about the heat, the incredible lack of traffic, and the like before he directs me to a dark brown leather sofa—to which I instantly stick from all my perspiration– as he sits in a matching chair adjacent to the sofa and set at a right angle to it. And it’s then that I first notice it…
There’s a small baseball bat leaning against his chair. And as he launches into the matter at hand he takes this little Louisville slugger—or whatever it was– and starts gently tapping the business end against his free hand.
“So,” he says, “The studio tells me you’re not happy with the concept for ‘Hourglass’” And, as I toss back a heavy slug of my water before starting to explain that it’s not a matter of ‘happiness’ but, you know, the logistics of narrative film, my eyes can’t seem to move off that bat—even as he gets up and starts pacing around the room, twirling the thing around in his hand like a Billy club.
Now, to be fair, it’s not the first time I’ve seen a bat in a producer’s office. Lots of guys—particularly writer-producers—have bats or golf clubs or nerf balls to get them out from behind their desks and help them break a creative logjam (remember Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men”?).
But Henry’s not a writer. And he’s not trying to solve a creative problem. He’s pissed off—and waving this bat around for…what?
Now, again to be fair, I can’t really blame him for being upset. Here he used his considerable star power to sell this cool-sounding concept to the network—who loved it so much they bought it in the room, remember? And now there’s this nobody of a writer sitting in his office telling him that it’s a dud and will never really fly as a series. Hell, if I were in his shoes, I’d be pissed too.
And that’s when it dawns on me what the bat is all about—since even in my worst moment I didn’t really imagine he was going to take a fat swing at my melon– as I realize I’m not in a room with Henry Winkler, one of the nicest guys in show business- even if he is pissed off…
No, I’m really talking to the Fonz! One Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, Henry’s stellar alter ego, and I’m Ritchie Cunningham, desperately pleading to assuage the fearsome displeasure of TV’s most renowned—if not safe for prime time—motorcycle gang member. And suddenly, the bat, the pacing, his whole demeanor makes perfect sense. And there’s nothing left for me to do but lay it out for him with all the clarity and certainty I can muster– and let the chips fall where they may. (After all, how many times did Ritchie really get pummeled by the Fonz anyway?)
And to his credit—and my sincere relief— Henry/Fonz is actually listening to me– and getting it. And, while he may not be happy, I can see the problem with ‘Hourglass’ becoming clear to him as the bat finally slows to a stop and just hangs from his hand like it had no business being there in the first place.
“So you’re really sure we can’t make this work?” he asks with the anger all but drained from him. “For a pilot or a few episodes, yeah maybe,” I reply, “But for a long-running series? You’d be painting yourself into an impossible corner. And I can’t see how that’s a smart way to go.”
And he nods, and sits back down and—for the first time since they dropped ‘Hourglass’ on me at the last meeting—that hideous ticking in my head has stopped as I realize the Fonz has left the building—and it’s Henry, one of the nicest guys in show business, who’s turning to me.
“You know,” he says “When Grant and Tony told me about your call to them, I was really ticked off.” “Really?” I say—like I hadn’t just witnessed Dr. Winkler and Mr. Fonz stalk around the room with a fricking bat in his hands. “But they said this is exactly why we hired you: to really give us a series and not just a pilot” (Note to self, I’m thinking, be sure to send Grant and Tony a big basket or fruit or muffins or something!)
“But,” he continues, “That still leaves us with a problem.” Oh God, now what? “Because I’m not going to call the network and unsell this. They gave us a pilot deal, and I intend to honor that.” “Okay….” I say, waiting for the other shoe to drop as he goes on, “Which means, if ‘Hourglass’ won’t work, then you’ll just have to come up with something else that will. Understand?”
Now, I’m so relieved that I’ve survived the Fonz and might yet not have to watch my children beg for food at a freeway off-ramp, I blurt “Of course! Absolutely. That’s what I’m here to tell you.”
“Good”, he says, patting me on the knee, “Then just let us know when you have something, ‘cause the network is anxious to get rolling on this.”
And I’m peeling myself off the leather sofa, and we’re shaking hands, and I’m bounding out of his office and walking across the broiling studio like a man reborn… Until it hits me: I haven’t got a clue what to do now. I was so entirely fixated on the problem with ‘Hourglass’ that I didn’t give any thought whatsoever as to how to replace it. And I’ve got nothing.
Good news: I’m still alive in all this. Bad news: the bomb just started ticking again…only this time I own it!
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 publish my MacGyver Secret for solving nearly any 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 when the McDonald’s 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 more than 35 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 this website 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?