Sunday, February 22, 2015

David Rich: A Conversation

Spoiler alert!  It's "Jack in the Box" week at the MacGyver Project.  Now that I've reached the top 30 point in my countdown, I'm at the stage where I love the episodes almost as much as the air that I breathe, and so I will try to celebrate them with as much behind-the-scenes info as possible. This episode is personally significant because it's the first full episode that I ever saw (will talk more about this in my episode recap).

To celebrate "Jack in the Box," I'm talking to David Rich (the episode's writer) and James Conway (the director). Originally I planned to have both interviews and the episode recap in one post, but I'm splitting them out because there's too much content!  Let's start with David Rich.  He wrote two episodes of MacGyver: "Jack in the Box" and "Split Decision."  Now he's an author and the creator of the Rollie Waters series.  You can see more about his books at his website:

Mark is back to join the conversation, and we're both very grateful for Mr. Rich's time and thoughtful answers to our many questions.  We're also thankful to him for giving us "Jack in the Box," a fantastic episode and the one that first turned me into a MacGyver fan many years ago!   

NS: What was the origin of your involvement with MacGyver?
DR: Michael Greenburg was a line producer on the show; we had worked together and were friends.  He passed along a feature script of mine as a writing sample.  Steve Downing, who was in charge of the writers, liked the script so I came up with a few ideas for shows and went in and pitched them.  I think the first time I went in with three ideas and all were rejected.  But Steve agreed to let me come back and that's when I sold "Jack in the Box."

MH: Did you just write the scripts for "Jack in the Box" and "Split Decision" and submit them on a lark or did you go through the process of discussion with the other staff writers to work out the general framework of the stories?
DR: Both stories were sold as pitches.  I didn't start writing until the producers had decided they were interested and the deal was made.  It's rare for a show to buy spec scripts.  They'll read them, and if they see something they like, invite the writer in to pitch stories.  Once the outlines were turned in, the staff writers gave their notes and based on that feedback, I began on the scripts.

MH: Did you have any relation to Executive Producer John Rich?
DR: Never met John Rich and we're not related (that I know of), though I did meet Henry Winkler.  A few people on staff asked me the same question.  Maybe they thought my relationship with John Rich was why I got the job.  

NS: Where did the inspiration for Jack in the Box come from?
DR: I had read a news story about a labor camp in Texas where they used itinerant laborers and charged them such exorbitant amounts for lodging and food that they could never leave; they worked but ended up in debt.  I thought that Jack might get himself stuck in a place like that and MacGyver would be the one to save him and liberate the camp.

NS: Did your original draft have Jack Dalton in it?  If so, you must have watched previous episodes with him in it to get a feel for the relationship between he and MacGyver.  The dialogue between the two is fantastic throughout the entire episode.
DR: TV freelancers have to watch as many episodes as they can before going in to pitch, otherwise they're likely to pitch story lines that have already been used. Back then, it was a little tougher - no Hulu.  But I liked the show so I had been keeping up with it.  Before I wrote the script they sent me the show's bible - the original booklet that lays out the characters, their mission, their relationships, their pasts.  Thanks for the compliment regarding the dialogue.  Michael Greenburg was helpful to me with that.  He knew the show much better than I did.  

NS: Once you submitted the script and it was accepted, were you done or were you on set and working on the production the entire time?
DR: I submitted an outline, rewrote that (elaborately) after much feedback, then two drafts of the script and then I was done.  They had shifted production to Vancouver that year.  After they bought the idea, but before I had done the outline, they flew me and some other writers up there to scout locations.  That's where I saw the abandoned copper mine that worked so well in that episode.  On the plane I sat with Stephen Kandel, who was on staff.  He was an excellent writer, and had worked on at least a dozen different series, from "Sea Hunt" to "Mission Impossible."  He passed along lots of helpful hints about how to write a MacGyver episode.  Editor's note: the mine site is now the Britannia Mine Museum and also featured prominently as the silver mine in "The Ten Percent Solution."

NS: Do you remember working with James Conway, the director? 
DR: I was not around to watch James Conway work, unfortunately.  The episode was shot in Vancouver.  But, a couple of years ago I was on a panel at Thrillerfest with him.  Odd coincidence.  

NS: One of the things that sets this episode apart from many others are the great villains: the sheriff and the warden.  Many of the villains on MacGyver were somewhat silly and incompetent, but these two were extremely menacing, dangerous, and very well-acted.  Having strong villains elevates the story because we want the hero to succeed that much more. 
DR: I agree.  Usually, a story is only as good as the bad guys.  Their motivations have to be clear and believable - that's what makes bad guys dangerous.  Good (bad) villains make you believe - if only for a moment - there's no way for MacGyver to succeed. 

NS: Great touch at the end for the 5 million dollars to be blown up. 
DR: No way MacGyver, or Jack, were going to walk away with a fortune.  I think the money blowing up was one of the first images I had when I developed the idea.

NS: Did you know of any negative feedback from southern audiences (like maybe the tourism board of Arkansas fearing that people would think it's not safe to travel there)?
DR: Never heard anything negative about the episode.  Today, things might be different.  People tweet their thoughts throughout a show and maybe people in Arkansas would express their unhappiness.  Or, maybe they would like it.  

MH: Which of the two episodes ("Jack and the Box" and "Split Decision") are you most proud of or were most pleased by the way they turned out?
DR: "Jack in the Box" was my first tv job.  I was very green, but I knew it was a good story and the staff gave me a lot of support.  I was pleased with the way each episode came out.  "Split Decision" was a bit smoother process for me and I got to shake Dick Butkus's hand (I'm from Chicago).  Production had moved back to L.A.  Also, on "Split Decision" I spent a little more time with Steve Downing and listened a little more carefully than I had the first go 'round.  He's a smart man - very clear and direct -  who knew exactly what he wanted, knew exactly how the episode should go.  Though I've only written a couple of tv episodes since then, I came away with a much better understanding of the process. 

MH: Were you a fan and regular viewer of the series during its run?
DR: I always enjoyed MacGyver.  I started watching more in the second season.  I liked the action and, of course, the MacGyverisms.  RDA did a great job with that character.  Can't imagine anyone else in the role.  

MH: Did you ever consider a more consistent role as a staff writer or producer on "MacGyver"?  Or any other series for that matter?
DR: Not long after I wrote "Jack in the Box" I wrote the feature script that became "Renegades."  My career moved in that direction.  I think it would have been great fun to be on staff on MacGyver, though.  Once I moved east, the chances for joining a tv writing staff were greatly diminished.  I began writing novels a few years ago and I'm enjoying that.   

NS: I love Jason Bourne, and your books seem to be in the same vein and look very interesting to me. Tell me about your latest book and your next project. 
DR: I hope you enjoy the Rollie Waters books.  We're trying to set up a movie or tv deal for them.  In fact, I think RDA would perfect as Dan, Rollie's father.  I'm taking a break from Rollie Waters books now, though, and writing a spy story set in Washington, D.C. - a two-hander, sort of in the "True Detective" mold.  

Thanks again to David, and we wish him the best of luck with the Rollie Waters movie/tv deal. Next up, a conversation with director James Conway. 


  1. Thanks to Mr. Rich for his excellent responses. All these years, I operated under the premise that he was related to Executive Producer John Rich, a hypothesis I doubled-down on when John confirmed in that March 1998 "MacGyver" seminar that the co-writer on "Passages" was indeed his son Anthony Rich. Glad David Rich set me straight on that one. Also didn't realize that Mr. Rich is now a novelist. Best of luck in his subsequent novelist ventures.

    I've heard it's typical for a writer to approach a show with story ideas and get rejected but I'm glad he was persistent and we ended up with the excellent episode "Jack in the Box" in 1987. The series was getting middling ratings in the first several episodes of season 3 but "Jack in the Box" was the first episode of the season to get impressive numbers so audiences were very receptive. ABC reran the episode twice in 1988 so they must have gotten positive feedback from fans as well. I always thought the episode had a "Cool Hand Luke" vibe that played well as a "MacGyver" story, particularly with the sinister villains that Nick mentioned.

    I believe Arkansas has copper and zinc mines so the geography was right too. I have ANOTHER ex-girlfriend association with this episode that connects to Nick's question about the portrayal of the South in the episode. Way back in 2001 I had a girlfriend who grew up in small-town Arkansas and even though she wasn't into "MacGyver", I had her watch this episode just to see her reaction. She rolled her eyes a little bit at some of the Arkansas tropes but she also said the culture of the episode wasn't that far from reality outside of the "go directly to jail, do not pass "Go", do not collect $200" prison camp theme. Back to the episode, fascinating that there was a "MacGyver bible" back in the day in regards to laying out the show's creative arc for writers.

    Agreed also that I can't imagine anyone else but Richard Dean Anderson in the role of "MacGyver" and have always had mixed feelings about the frequent chatter of reviving the series that the end product might end up a charmless, sterilized version of the original. Sometimes remakes work but more often than not they don't.

    1. I like the ex-girlfriend association stories - keep 'em coming!

    2. I may not have a ton of things in common with MacGyver, particularly when it comes to my resourcefulness or Mr. Fix-It skills, but we are both from Minnesota and we both suck at relationships!

    3. Did you happen to see the 'Young MacGyver' pilot w/ Jared Padalecki as Angus MacGyver's nephew, Clay MacGyver? (No, I have no idea where this mysterious brother of Mac's came from.)

      You can watch it here:

      No, it's not very good. The modernization didn't work out well at all really.

    4. I hadn't heard of that and just watched the first couple minutes - not hard to see why it didn't get picked up.

    5. I've watched the whole thing just once... and, I can't say that I'd be overly interested in watching it again.

      One of the biggest problems with 'updating' MacGyver is the huge changes in technology. Cell phones and sat-phones and movement away from analog - the writers would have to get a lot more creative to make things work.

      There was something else about the Young Mac show that irked me - I think it was the 'Phoenix' ppl being all snotty and over-the-top arrogant and almost more 'military industrial complex' than the old Peter Thornton think-tank.

    6. I only saw one small clip (about five minutes) of "Young MacGyver" about 10 years ago. Wasn't overly impressed. If I remember right though, the old gang was back for it, including Stephen Downing. Not sure why they deviated from the template of the original by so much.

    7. My guess? They were trying to appeal to a specific audience, drawing in new folks... since 'Clay' was supposed to be considerably younger than his uncle. Like college age, maybe? So, sort of MacGyver-90210. Which - perish the though. /o\

    8. I was wondering the John Rich connection too, but its a common name. Do we know if Herb Edelman is related to Randy? Thats a bit less common of a name.

      Nick, have you ever had an idea for a MacGyver episode? Something you wish they had done. It would be interesting to read some fan fiction. Ive thought about it, but never came on anything concrete. Maybe one day.

    9. As far as I know they're not related. As for MacGyver episodes I wish they'd done, that's a good question! I don't have any on the tip of my brain because it's not something I've ever thought much about. One thing that I think would be cool for the reboot is if MacGyver had to go off the grid for some reason and he had to survive in an old-school manner without electronics.