Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Stephen Downing: A Conversation

There are countless people on MacGyver who worked in front of or behind the camera and helped make it the show that we all know and love.  But there aren't too many people who made more of an imprint than Stephen Downing, who worked on the show from Episode 2 all the way through the series finale.  It was a great pleasure for Mark and I to ask him some questions and learn from his treasure of knowledge, and we really appreciate his time.  Before we get started, one quick housekeeping note: I put links to all the conversations (some of which happened in episode recaps) on the Readers Picks and Links page which is also available in the blog header. 

NS: What was the origin of your involvement with the show? 

SD: I knew the executive producer, Jerry Ludwig, from writing with and for him on other TV shows. When he was hired to launch MacGyver after the network bought the pilot, he asked me to come on as supervising producer.  It was then that we re-worked the basic concept from the pilot and launched the series. You may note that in the pilot that MacGyver uses a gun.  It was my suggestion that we should demonstrate to our audience that a guy like MacGyver should have the moral constitution against using a gun and the smarts to avoid its use - which also made for many interesting ways to get around it. Editor's Note: Wow, what a legacy and achievement: to be the person who decided that MacGyver wouldn't use guns.  

NS: Were you working as a police officer at the time? 

SD:  No, I retired from the LAPD in 1980 and worked as a writer/producer on three shows prior to MacGyver.

NS: Did MacGyver become a full time job for you?
SD: Yes, I started as Supervising producer and worked full time in that capacity for the first two seasons.  Ludwig left after the first season, then John Mantly became executive producer the second season.  He left and I took over for the remaining five seasons as the executive producer/showrunner.

NS: On a typical episode, were you always on set and involved in all aspects of decision making, or was it more at a high level (i.e. reviewing and signing off on the final product)?

SD: As a showrunner I was involved in every aspect of the production - - overseeing the writing, conducting production meetings, casting, design reviews, hiring directors, spending many hours in the editing room and reviewing sound and music mix and dealing with Network notes.  

MH: What was your favorite episode and MacGyverism?

SD: I like Legend of the Holy Rose, Part 1 the best.  My favorite MacGyverism is when he picked up a revolver, knocked the cylinder out and used the frame as a wrench to close a valve to save the day from a massive explosion.  Editor's note: this MacGyverism is from Flame's End.

NS: Can you do a quick word or thought association on the following people?
  • Richard Dean Anderson
                SD: The most considerate team playing actor I have ever worked with.
  • Dana Elcar
                SD: A beautifully, compassionate talent who was a delight to work with.  
  • Bruce McGill
                SD: An actor with so many levels, just right for Mac’s sidekick and a great golfer.
  • Michael Des Barres
                SD: He rocks, and made a perfect foil.  Lots of fun to be with too.

NS: Who were some of your favorite or most memorable guest star actors?

SD: I loved Cuba Gooding Jr.  As I recall MacGyver may have been his first acting job.  

NS: In Season 1, the MacGyver character has a definite swagger that borders on arrogance, and that steadily declines over the years.  Do you think RDA played him that way intentionally or was he just playing himself and that was who he was at the time?

SD: I think he was finding his comfort level as an actor.

NS: Just recently on the blog we discussed Thief of Budapest and the stunt where the horse gets pulled into the air by a helicopter.  Would love to hear any background on that.

SD: That was a nightmare to produce.  First, the company had to travel overnight to Pismo Beach, CA. Then the pre-training of the horse was very expensive.  And then the beach work was very slow. A very costly episode, but one that had what I called the WOW Factor.  

MH: What was the biggest challenge you experienced working on the series?  Either in terms of a one-time issue that emerged or a recurring impediment?

SD: Staying within budget on a big action show is always a major difficulty.  It was squared rooted with MacGyver because we had the MacGyverisms to come up with for every show, the rigging and science to make them work and then the fact that the show had both Great Scope and Small Detail, which makes budgeting, 2nd unit photography and insert photographic a very expensive proposition to deal with.

MH: In the third season episode "Blow Out", MacGyver had the flu.  Do you remember if Richard Dean Anderson had the flu in real life and it was incorporated into the story or was it just a gimmick not connected to the actor's condition?

SD: I do not recall, but I can say with confidence if he had the flu in the show, it was story, not fact.  

MH: "MacGyver" was one of the few series who bought spec scripts from amateur writers back in the 80s and early 90s.  Do you recall which episodes were spec scripts?   Editor's note: a spec script is when a show buys an unsolicited manuscript from an amateur writer not in the Writer's Guild. 

SD: I do not recall ever buying a spec script for the show.  We did use freelance writers and if we liked their pitch we would contract with them.  But, I don’t ever recall buying a spec script coming through the door unsolicited.

MH: There were reports of great difficulties on the set early on and a revolving door of producers bickering with ABC suits about the direction to take the series and character and with a couple of episodes directed by "Alan Smithee".  As one of the few survivors who made it out of the first half of Season 1, do you have any memories of the series being particularly challenging in the early days compared to the more well-run operation of later seasons?

SD: The early days of any show are difficult, as they all have to find their way.  The Network bought Richard Dean Anderson off the pilot but not much.  We doctored the pilot concept and kicked off the series.  Ludwig like to use a lot of big stock footage, like the ant show, to bring production value that we otherwise could not afford and that occasionally resulted in big discussions.  He decided to leave at the end of the first season, and John Mantly brought his ideas, many of which came from his many years as showrunner on Gunsmoke. That didn’t work out, so he left at the end of the second year.  As mentioned, I took the helm for the rest of the seven year run.  I don’t recall which if any of our shows took the cop out “Alan Smithee” credit.  Editor's note: the two Alan Smithee directed episodes are the Pilot and The Heist. 

MH: It seemed as though the move to Monday night in 1986 killed "MacGyver's" ratings momentum and kept it trapped in a time slot with unpredictable scheduling issues during "Monday Night Football" season and prevented the series from ever reaching its ratings potential.  Do you believe "MacGyver" was poised to become a decent-sized hit had it stayed on Wednesday night?

SD: I always saw it as a companion piece to MNF.  I am not sure what the scheduling would have done to it.  The fact that we stayed on the air for 7 years was a pretty good sign that the show had legs and decent ratings for that kind of show.

MH: "MacGyver" took a lot of bossy treatment from ABC programming executives in terms of adding new characters (Nikki Carpenter) and changing creative direction (more voiceovers in Season 2).  Was there any specific dictates from the network that annoyed you most and did the series face more or less network intervention than other series you worked on?

SD: TV shows always get notes from the Networks, and the showrunner and studio has to deal with them.  I saw nothing unusual from ABC that I would not have expected.  The Nikki Carpenter casting didn’t come from the network.  It was our effort to freshen the show. What we didn’t count on is the ladies in our audience.  Not only did they not like her, but they wanted to keep Mac for themselves.  When Nikki went, so did any future long term romantic undertakings.  As for the voice overs, I do not recall that we increased them in season two - - we liked the voice overs, but also got to the point that the scheduling problem for Richard became near impossible.  He’d work twelve hours on the set and then have to come into the sound studio to record them to picture.  It became both a scheduling nightmare and a major fatigue factor for our star.  Unlike many shows on television, Mac was in most every scene we shot, and he never had a day off when the company was shooting.

MH: Did you feel it was time for the series to go when it did at the end of Season 7?

SD: Yes.  A new production crew may have found a way to freshen it up, but I was personally ready to move on at the end of season 6, as was Rick.  The Studio asked us to stay and offered to bring the show back to Los Angeles for the final year if we would stay on and do it.  We agreed.  That’s why the 7th season returned home from Vancouver.

And here's a later conversation I had with Stephen about the inspiration behind the episode Deadly Dreams.


  1. Thanks very much to Mr. Downing and to you Nick for taking the initiative to track him down. I continue to be duly impressed at your ability to find these people. Either it's way easier than I ever predicted or you should work for the Phoenix Foundation yourself! Excellent answers all around although I was a bit confused about whose decision it was to have MacGyver fire the gun in the Pilot since Mr. Downing seemed to be saying he wasn't for it.

    Not surprising that most of the recurring guest stars were a pleasure to work with because if they weren't I'm sure they wouldn't have been asked to return. I didn't want to ask any negative questions but I was curious about whether there were some guest stars and crew members that were difficult to work with. I'm surprised all of the opening gambits weren't nightmares to produce given all the logistics but it's easy to see why the "Thief of Budapest" opening gambit was particularly taxing for a six-minute segment. I always respected the crew of "MacGyver" for the very reasons Downing cited as it seems like it would really be a tough series to control the budget of. Easy to see why RDA and Downing were exhausted after season 6.

    Rick Drew wrote comments on an old MacGyver fan site many years ago alluding to one specific episode that was a spec script and cited that there were others, so I guess there's some conflicting details on that front. I also remember a Hollywood Reporter or TV Guide snippet where somebody on "MacGyver" said they "always welcome new scripts" and were bombarded with 20,000 scripts. Perhaps that was an urban legend.

    I can't think of any other show, at least back then, where one actor was "the franchise" to the extent that "MacGyver" was, in virtually every scene of every episode. It's different that Kiefer Sutherand on "24" or Tom Selleck on "Magnum P.I." who shared screen time with other actors and weren't required in nearly frame as RDA was. Easy to understand the exhaustion factor or this show....perhaps more than just about any other show!

    Thanks again to Mr. Downing for taking the time to answer a flurry of fanboy questions. I'm assuming he's retired now and hope he's enjoying his retirement.

    1. Yes - thank you to Mr. Downing for taking time to answer these questions.

      And, there probably were guest stars and crew members who were difficult to work with, but the 'smart' ppl in the business will be diplomatic about it in public discussions and not 'air the dirty laundry', so to speak. Sort of a Hollywood 'etiquette' thing - you don't want a rep for being the person who bad-mouths the ppl you work with, because then no one will want to work with you.

      Re: RDA being so very much 'MacGyver' - that specifically came up when he was asked to work on SG-1 (at least, that's how the stories go) - he didn't want to work on a show where he had to carry all of the action. He wanted an ensemble cast where he didn't have to be THE MAN all the time. Leader, sure, but not the one guy doing all the things. And, like you, I can't recall any other 'action' show that required the main character to be in so MUCH of the show all the time. Definitely can see where RDA would've been exhausted from doing the show for as long as he did.

    2. I remember reading about one guest star who grumbled about his experience on "MacGyver" and that was Todd Duckworth who played the guy who got stapled to the construction site on "There but for the Grace". His grievance was petty though.

      I'm 37 now, the same age as RDA was for MacGyver's third season. Hard for to me imagine having the energy at this point in my life to do the work required to play "MacGyver". After doing it for six years and being 42 years old, easy to see why the fatigue was often obvious in RDA's eyes in the series' last season and why he wanted a much less active role in his next series.

    3. Like I said - the 'smart' ppl in the business... =)

      Yeah - RDA was essentially running at full speed for 7 years. Equating his years on MacGyver with something like a hockey career -- even 42 is getting 'old' for hockey players. The body just can't do the things it used to do. And if you don't actively train for something - like stunt work - it can be grueling. Dan Shea - his long-time stunt double/stand-in is 5 yrs younger, but stunts are totally his thing. (He's also pretty awesome to talk to. XD) He has a part as a van driver in "Deep Cover" - you can see him with his big shaggy MacGyver-hair! =)