When Paramount’s television division decided they needed an action hero that was both family- and advertiser-friendly, writer Lee David Zlotoff had the answer: MacGyver, an adventure series about a freelance Samaritan who uses unlikely tools (paper clips, gum, chocolate) to get out of everywhere from a locked room to the Middle East.
The series, which ran for seven seasons, turned Richard Dean Anderson into America’s favorite science geek. Here's a look back at the show, its production, and why MacGyver wasn’t allowed to have a girlfriend.
1. THERE'S A "REAL" MACGYVER. (KIND OF.)
After Lee David Zlotoff decided his protagonist would be armed with little more than a Swiss Army knife and a formidable intellect, he stumbled upon a gemologist at Caltech named John Koivula, who seemed to have experience in everything from physics to chemistry. When MacGyver was ordered by ABC, Koivula became the show’s scientific consultant. Writers would think of a logistical problem, then call Koivula, who would come up with the “MacGyverism,” or solution. Anything deemed harmful usually omitted a step or two so that people who attempted to recreate the experiments at home wouldn't blow themselves up.
2. HIS FIRST NAME WAS ORIGINALLY STACEY.
The seventh (and final) season of MacGyver satisfied fan curiosity by revealing the character’s first name: Angus. (In a not-very-Dickens move, Richard Dean Anderson suggested it because he saw it on a banner in Vancouver.) But prior to the show’s premiere, Paramount publicity circulated a flyer that credited Anderson as playing “Stacey MacGyver.” The name was thought to be taken from an early version of the pilot script.
3. HIS LAST NAME WAS INSPIRED BY MCDONALD'S.
Zlotoff wanted a masculine-sounding name for the character and had intended to simply call him “Guy,” but friends convinced him that it didn’t sound too compelling. Instead, Zlotoff picked up on the fact that the popularity of McDonald’s was prompting people to facetiously add a “Mc” or "Mac" in front of words. “So I suggested we call our hero MacGuy,” Zlotoff recalled. “But everyone thought it really needed to have three syllables ... and we finally got MacGyver and agreed that was the one.”
4. THE PILOT WAS SO BAD THE DIRECTOR HAD HIS NAME REMOVED.
Executive producer John Rich told the Archive of American Television that the pilot for MacGyver came in at a running time of 90 minutes—and it was awful. “It was dreary,” Rich said. “It was no good … it was an hour and a half of dreadful.” Over an Easter holiday, Rich re-cut the episode, removing 30 minutes. As a result of the perceived meddling, director Jerrold Freedman wanted his name taken off. The generic pseudonym “Alan Smithee” appears in the credits.
5. VIEWERS THOUGHT THE SHOW KILLED A RHINO.
For an episode in which MacGyver confronts poachers, the show’s effects team spent $40,000 crafting a fake rhinoceros for a key scene in which the animal is destroyed. The money made for an effective moment, but it also prompted viewers to call in condemning the producers for victimizing a helpless creature. (In fact, only Richard Dean Anderson was harmed during filming: he accidentally stepped into a ditch and injured his back in the first season, causing a nagging injury that needed surgery two years later.)
6. POOR MAC COULDN'T HAVE A GIRLFRIEND.
While the show was popular for its clever approach to science, it didn’t hurt that Anderson was a former soap opera star and a frequent target of affection for swooning viewers. As a consequence, MacGyver getting romantically involved with a woman in the series was usually met with indignation. When a love interest was introduced for several episodes in the third season, the show’s fans voiced their displeasure over the potential of the show turning into Moonlighting.
7. THE SHOW PAID FANS TO COME UP WITH "MACGYVERISMS."
Getting MacGyver out of hairy situations using a variety of items within arm’s reach was a clever conceit—and one that got increasingly difficult to orchestrate as the series continued. At one point, John Rich offered viewers a cash reward if they could submit a scenario for use on the show. While all incoming letters were read, very few had plausible ideas: one successful entry described a way in which MacGyver could fix a leaking cooling system in a vehicle by cracking an egg into the radiator. As it heated and hardened, it would seal the hole.
8. MAC DID USE A GUN—TWICE.
Among the character’s many distinctive traits, his disdain for firearms was possibly the most defining: because MacGyver couldn’t rely on weapons, he was forced to improvise alternative solutions. But in the pilot episode, Anderson (who didn’t like guns, either) is seen shooting an automatic weapon. In a later season, MacGyver used a gun, smashed out the barrel, and used the remaining piece as a makeshift hand wrench.
9. NOT EVERYONE WAS A FAN OF HIS NO-BAZOOKA POLICY.
When an episode aired in 1988 that depicted the origins of MacGyver’s aversion to guns—it turns out that a boyhood friend was killed by one accidentally—the National Rifle Association went nuclear. "Since that time, we have been on their hit list,” co-executive producer Steve Downing told the Los Angeles Times. “They have been encouraging people not to watch us and boycott our sponsors. We try to do a decent job of really saying why a gun is dangerous and they choose to boycott us and put us on their hit list."
10. HIS FLOATING HOME ENDED UP ON CRAIGSLIST.
For most of the show’s run, MacGyver lived on a pretty cool floating home that was docked in a Vancouver boat yard. When Paramount was done using it, it was sold off, remodeled, and resold in 2012. Since then, it has apparently suffered damage due to the whole foundation-of-water thing. In late 2014, it sold for under $40,000 on Craigslist, far below the original $200,000 valuation.
11. YOUNG MACGYVER NEVER MADE IT TO AIR.
Cool and hip are not exactly trademarks of the MacGyver franchise, but the WB still gave it a swing: in 2003, they commissioned a pilot that starred Jared Padalecki (Supernatural) as MacGyver’s equally resourceful nephew, Clay. A tepid network reception resulted in the series never getting a full order.
Now, CBS is trying again with its own MacGyver reboot, which premieres tonight.
12. FURIOUS 7'S DIRECTOR WAS SET FOR A MACGYVER FEATURE.
James Wan directed the most recent installment of the Fast and Furious franchise, and it was obviously a wise career decision: that film made over $1 billion globally. But before he committed, Wan was deliberating over tackling a MacGyver feature film adaptation. “My initial concept was I wanted to do a young college MacGyver who went to Boston, one of the great universities, who’s really brilliant, right?” Wan told CraveOnline. “He gets blamed for something that he had designed, something really big that’s something everyone wanted, and now someone has weaponized it and everyone’s coming after him.”
13. RICHARD DEAN ANDERSON BOTCHED HIS OWN MACGYVER MOMENT.
When Anderson was once locked out of his house, he found a way inside: The actor had gone to a cast and crew holiday party during the first season, but wasn't having much fun. So he and a friend moved over to a gathering for Cheers instead; when Anderson made it home, he couldn’t get in. Relating the story to a TV Guide reporter, Anderson thought the most efficient solution was to pick up a nearby bench and throw it through the front window. A friend later sent him a new bench: it had the Swiss Army symbol on it.