Sunday, March 22, 2015

Kerry Lenhart: A Conversation

In the early 80's, Kerry Lenhart and John J. Sakmar teamed up to form a partnership that has resulted in the writing and producing of numerous successful television programs for over four decades. They are credited with work on four MacGyver episodes: Jack of Lies, Three for the Road, Dalton Jack of Spies, and Mask of the Wolf. Even though they are busy working on a new pilot, Mr. Lenhart was gracious enough to take the time to answer some of my questions about MacGyver and Three for the Road, one of my favorite episodes that I profiled earlier today.

NS: How did you originally get involved with MacGyver?
KL: I was a big fan of MacGyver during its first season while my partner (John J. Sakmar) and I were writing on Remington Steele. Remington was cancelled and we interviewed with Mark Lisson and Bill Froehlich at the beginning of MacGyver's second season. We were not hired (this was around June of '86). We got a call later in August telling us that a position had opened up on staff. We were hired and told that we would be "MacGyverism specialists" i.e. we would supply MacGyverisms for other writers' scripts. Our agent had it put in our contract that we would also get to write one script, which ended up being Jack of Lies. The script was well enough liked that we were told to focus on writing more episodes.

NS: In "Three for the Road," there are two people (including you and Mr. Sakmar) credited with the teleplay and two different people credited with the story. What is the difference between the roles?

KL: Story credit is generally for the person(s) who write or break the story for the episode. The written credit is for whoever puts that story into script form.  In the case of Three For The Road, a script was needed quickly. John Sakmar, Rob Hedden, Mark Lisson and I all worked out the broad strokes of the story together.  Then, each of us chose an act to write. I wrote act four. John wrote act three, Rob, I believe, wrote act two. And Mark, after the rest of us turned in our acts, wrote act one.

If all four of us had shared the "written by"credit, as should have been the case, the studio would have had to pay twice the normal script rate (per WGA rules). This was not going to happen, so two of us had to take story credit (a lesser payment) while two of us took written credit (a greater payment). The only "fair" way to settle this credit issue was with tennis balls. We each took a ball and rolled it down a long hallway outside the writers offices. The two writers who rolled their balls closest to a mark on the carpet at the far end of the hallway received the written credit; John and me. I celebrate this victory every time I receive a residual.  Editor's Note: That blows my mind.  What a story!  

NS: "Three for the Road" is one of my favorite episodes.  I'd love to hear any behind-the-scenes info you remember about it.

KL: We asked an associate producer how Three For The Road was looking as it was being edited. She told us it was problematic because, "You can't sustain a chase for four acts." Well, I beg to differ.

Edward Mulhare only took the role of Guy when it was agreed that his girlfriend, Anne Rogers, would be given the role of June.

The director, Alan Crosland, nearly knocked himself out in the production meeting when he was demonstrating (with his hand) how the car hood should slam onto the back of a villain's head. He karate chopped the base of his own skull and nearly put himself down! Editor's note: That is another incredible story! 

NS: Do you remember the inspiration behind any of the other episodes that you wrote for MacGyver (like if the idea was based on another story or real life experience)? 

KL: I don't remember much about what inspired any stories. I know that for Jack of Lies we wanted to create a character that would allow us to write some fast paced banter like we were currently enjoying when we watched Moonlightling. Bruce Willis' character on that show was our inspiration/model for Jack Dalton. Because Richard Dean Anderson worked so hard on the show, we also wanted to create a character who could, at least for an episode, take some of the burden off of him.

NS: What was your role in "Mask of the Wolf" (an episode in my top 15)? Like "Three for the Road," there are 4 people credited with the story or teleplay. 

KL: Our role on Mask of the Wolf... During our season on MacGyver, John and I sold a pilot to CBS. We left MacGyver before the end of its second season. Though our pilot filmed, it did not make the schedule. Still, we were given a development deal by Tri-Star Television. Before the deal was finalized, we had a small window to write a freelance MacGyver episode for the third season. I think we met with John Whelpley and worked out a story that had elements of the movie The Trouble With Harry (a body that keeps disappearing and reappearing at inopportune moments). We wrote up the story and turned it in. I think Steve Downing didn't like it and we were asked to change it. By this time, we had signed our deal at Tri-Star and were not able to do the work. It was given to other writers on staff. They changed EVERYTHING. It sucked for them that that didn't get full script credit. They deserved it. 

NS: Do you have a favorite episode that you worked on?

KL: Favorite? I loved Jack of Lies. I thought Bruce McGill was inspired casting (John, I and Mark Lisson had just seen him on Miami Vice. Mark suggested him to casting). I also got to go on set when they filmed in the town of DiNoto (named after a friend John used to work with). The town was actually on the Universal back lot. I was a tour guide there for three years. It was a thrill to return just 6 years later and watch the trams goes past as the episode shot.

I'm also a huge Buster Keaton fan. Several gags that MacGyver pulls while wearing the monk's robe were inspired (stolen?) from bits that I had seen in Keaton films.

NS: Tell me about your new pilot.

KL: Our pilot is about Guardian Angels. We're doing it for NBC. Our fellow Executive Producers are Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (who knows a thing or two about angels). It's currently called Unveiled, but NBC is asking to change the title to something with the word "Angel" in it.

Thanks again to Mr. Lenhart for his insights and for his contribution to MacGyver, and we wish he and Mr. Sakmar great success with their new pilot! 


  1. Excellent interview. Some of the most impressive commentary you've encountered yet. I think his memory for details is as thorough as mine...perhaps more so! I knew that Lenhart and Sakmar both wrote for "Remington Steele", as did a couple of other season 2 writers. When Sakmar mentions how a position opened up, I believe he's talking about Robin Bernheim, who wrote "The Human Factor" and worked as a story consultant for two episodes. What appears to have happened there was that NBC decided to uncancel "Remington Steele" and revive it for three TV movies to air in 1987. I know Bernheim wrote at least one of those "Remington Steele" movies so my suspicion was that she left "MacGyver" as soon as she started after being beckoned back to "Remington Steele". This is mere speculation though and I could easily be wrong. Either way, worked out well for Sakmar and Lenhart. Interesting that they were originally hired primarily as the writer of MacGyverisms!

    That is indeed a one-of-a-kind story about the "Three for the Road" script. I always figured that episode required a pretty tight narrative cohesion given the way the car was utilized as a recurring plot device so it's really wild to me that they wrote the script backwards one act at a time. Especially back in the 80s, you saw a lot of TV show episodes that featured multiple writers. I wonder how often (if ever) something like that played out, even without the off-the-wall context of rolling balls down the hallway!

    Some great additional commentary about "Three for the Road" as well. If I remember right, the director of the first talkie movie "The Jazz Singer" was also named Alan Crosland. Not sure if this was a relative of the original Alan Crosland or not but seems unlikely to be a coincidence otherwise. I always wondered why Lenhart and Sakmar left abruptly late in season 2 and now I have the answer that they were pitching another development deal. I was never a huge "Moonlighting" fan but am nonetheless fascinated that the Jack Dalton character was inspired by Bruce Willis' David Addison. I would never have guessed it as the two of them never struck me as particularly similar.

    One thing that would be tough for me to deal with if I became a TV writer would be to see a script of mine decimated and retooled as happened to Lenhart and Sakmar with "Mask of the Wolf". I'd be intrigued to see what their original script included before Clements and Moran radically altered the original script. As for the "Miami Vice" episode that McGill was in that inspired produced to contact him, it was the October 1985 episode "Out Where The Buses Don't Run", which frequently makes lists as among the top episodes ever produced for television. McGill played an unhinged former cop who had special insights about a drug boss long thought to be dead. I thought the episode as a whole was a bit overrated, but the last 15 minutes were definitely worth the hype in a "my mind is blown!" kind of way.

    Can't ask for a much better interview that you got out of Mr. Sakmar. Many thanks to him for the inside information! We're getting the inside information that Paramount failed to deliver with the no-extras DVD sets!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it - there were some great nuggets in there. Regarding Alan Crosland, I tried to find his contact info but had no luck. But in the process I learned that he was the grandson of Alan Crosland who directed The Jazz Singer. And his father was also a director named Alan Crosland.

      I haven't seen Moonlight or Miami Vice but in the future it would be interesting for me to watch some of these mid-80s shows and see the work of all these MacGyver writers and actors who I've become much more familiar with over the past year. I'll bet Lenhart and Sakmar never imagined that Dalton would become a mainstay and iconic character that would appear in over a dozen more episodes.

      Regarding your point about how it would be tough to see your script retooled, I found an interview with Lenhart and Sakmar here where they talk about exactly that (at the end of page 5, though the whole article is worth a read).

    2. Thanks for the link to that article. I had a portion of it before--when it originally came out--but something came up and I didn't get back to it. The whole process would probably be harder for me to swallow than what I envisioned the industry was like back in 1994-95 when my impulse to be a TV writer was the strongest. I find it wild that they referred to themselves as "lazy" because in no way would the life of a TV writer be lazy. The metaphor of "homework for the rest of your life" sounded about right.

      I find the hardest part of writing for me is the rapid assemblage of something worthwhile. I'll come up with a great idea and a couple of additional fun ideas...and then stall out. I'll keep those ideas in the back of my head, and then have some trigger that inspires a couple more great ideas. Finally, I'll reach a point where I'll arrive at the secret sauce that weaves everything together compellingly. Sometimes this process takes years, which obviously wouldn't fit the timeline of a TV show in production. It used to come high school. I'd have a nugget of a great show idea in my head, plan it out for a few days and then start writing, always sure to have the final product done at the top of the month so all my buddies in school could read it on schedule. I'm still that way when it comes to actually writing when my light bulb finally goes off. I will grind it out on my computer every waking minute until it's completed. I can spend two years waiting to get the final product the way I want it in my pre-writing phase....and then write the whole thing out in 36 hours.

      Thanks for looking up Crosland. I tried to check him out again but couldn't get to the bottom of it based on what I found. Agreed that I bet Lenhart and Sakmar had no idea Jack Dalton would become the iconic wingman that he became on the series.

      I didn't like "Moonlighting" much as a boy but it might be worth revisiting as an adult as it was probably geared more towards an adult audience and I was probably too young to pick up on most of the humor. "Miami Vice" was hit or miss. One episode would be absolutely brilliant. The next would be drivel. If you do end up watching that one, quit at the end of season 3. The last two seasons were terrible. I think the writers were snorting some of the nose candy that Crockett and Tubbs were supposed to be taking off the streets in season 4!

    3. Interesting to hear your thoughts on writing. I like what Lenhart said about writing quickly and going back to edit later - that's what I did with my book and it was really helpful. I found when I was stuck that just sitting and thinking didn't help at all - I had to be doing something else like jogging to allow the ideas to flow naturally.

      Good to know about Miami Vice if I ever go that route. I have another show that I'm thinking about doing a blog like this one for (which I'll reveal at the end of this blog). If you're interested in following along, I can send you a copy of the DVD set (my treat) - probably would do an episode per week and in order since there's no other show that I know well enough to pre-rank like MacGyver. But anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. And I would take at least a few months off in between to catch up on other shows that I've been putting off to just watch MacGyver!

    4. One of the shows I'd like to try after the blog ends (to watch, not to write about) is Prison Break based on your recommendation.

    5. I do think you'll like "Prison Break" least the first two seasons before they started winging it. As for "Miami Vice", it'd almost be best if I gave you a list of episodes to watch and episodes to avoid at all costs! Interested in the show you plan to analyze next. I won't turn down your offer for a copy of the DVD set when the time comes.

      Still gonna order your book in the weeks ahead. With summer coming, I'll have more warm afternoons to sit on my patio where I do most of my reading.

    6. Awesome, it'd be fun to have you on board for the next show! And my thinking was if I did 1 episode per week then it could give you or whoever else is interested enough time to watch and comment (as opposed to doing 4 episodes in a week). And I would just rank them as I went along. Obviously it's less fun that way than to have the mystery of the countdown but unfortunately MacGyver's the only show where I could pull that off. And going straight through in order is a better to way to watch a show that you're not as familiar with.

      And thanks for your interest in the book! Will be interested to hear what you think once you get a chance to read it.