Sunday, April 12, 2015

Calvin Clements, Jr.: A Conversation

Calvin Clements, Jr. worked as a producer on "MacGyver" during Season 3, and he is credited with the writing of 4 episodes: GX-1, Kill Zone, The Negotiator, and Mask of the Wolf.  The latter two episodes are in my top 13 as are three other episodes from Season 3, and it's my favorite season overall.

Mr. Clements offered to talk to me on the phone for over an hour which was unbelievably kind of him.  He was extremely friendly, courteous, and knowledgeable, and I greatly appreciated his time. Unfortunately I wasn't technologically sophisticated enough to turn the conversation into a podcast, but fortunately we have the Phoenix Foundation team to fill that role in the MacGyver universe! Below are some of the highlights from our conversation.   

CC: There are shows that develop real followings -- "Star Trek" had trekkies, etc. -- and I was unaware of it at the time, but MacGyver had such loyal fans.  Long after my time with the show people would talk to me about their interest in it.  It knocked me out to hear that a collection of school teachers -- some science teachers! -- would gather to watch the show to see what the MacGyverisms would be, and then seriously dissect these things!

The MacGyverisms came about in many ways. My approach was to either have it stem from what was visual about the picture (the improvised hot air balloon in GX-1 is a perfect example -- that was a very big, visual bit, and feasible because a hot air balloon is (theoretically) a simple device to construct -- or I would just put him in a box and see how I could get him out. The fun was that you didn't have to be a chemistry major to get the gag and admire MacGyver's ingenuity.   MacGyver was, after all, just a guy in a jeep with a swiss army knife and duct tape, but he was a jack of all trades who could think on his feet. The reality of it might be that it's difficult to do such MacGyverisms and would be tough to physically reproduce, but with some dramatic license, they were real enough.

NS: How did you get into the writing business?

CC: The short answer is that I had a father in the business and therefore an entrĂ©e into it, but obviously there's more to it.  To quote the line from "Oh God!", a lot of it's luck...
My father was a New York City fireman, a pilot on a fire boat, who also wrote magazine short stories for the pulps of the day.  Then along came this new thing called television, and he managed to sell some spec scripts that got him some notice.  So he retired from the FDNY, packed up the family, and headed out to the coast to start a new career as a writer.

At that time I had intended to become an advertising artist, but put the art on hold while I went back to finish college in California.  I used to edit my father's work, and kick story ideas around with him.  One day I came up with an idea which could be told in a couple of lines and still hit all the marks, and since he was busy he said, "why don't you try that one?"
He was doing "Gunsmoke" at he time, and I was known in those offices from delivering his work, and so I got to tell them the story, and they bought it.  Over the phone, no less.  They wouldn't trust me to do the teleplay, but still!

It was a very special circumstance, and that might have been that, a one-off, because I wasn't sure that was the career path I was going to follow.  Then, a bit of serendipity:  there was a writer's strike looming.

I had a friend who knew an Associate Producer on a new series called "The Monroes".  He was complaining they were just gearing up, and here was the strike coming in six weeks, they were desperate to stockpile material, would talk to anybody, and were buying anything even coherent as fast as they could.  Well, I was anybody...

My Gunsmoke credit got me in to see a screening of  the pilot, and sure enough they bought a story from me -- which they wanted yesterday.  It wasn't a very good story, but they asked for it fast and I gave them fast (overnight) and in series television fast sometimes trumps good.  Later that day I got a call. They had a pile of story and script casualties they thought I couldn't hurt anyway, and offered to bring me aboard to bang away at them and see what I could do.  The studio wouldn't let them hire a pro at WGA rates, but they could get around that (the Guild rules then) if they made me an executive.  And so I got the title of Story Editor.

The strike didn't happen, but the six weeks turned into a full season.  I got a ton of experience very quickly, and a stature I really hadn't earned.  None of that would have happened under normal circumstances.
So I got off to a fast start.  Early on in my career there were a couple of rocky years (every writer has 'em;  freelance writing is a tough game), but after a time I started doing pretty well.  Call it twenty years later that I landed at MacGyver. 

NS: The first episode you wrote was GX-1, which also was the high water mark for romantic tension between MacGyver and Nikki. What did you think of the MacGyver/Nikki dynamic?

CC: We wanted to have the sense of sexual tension, but on the other hand he and she were water and oil, or fire and ice. A female in any story is always a good thing because it affects the dynamics and gives new edges to each scene. It was decided to bring in a female element to MacGyver, but with MacGyver who's a loner, you're not going to bring in some big, sweeping love story as a long running plot line.

Long term, I don't think the chemistry ever worked. And it was hard to plug the sexual tension into it - you sort of reach for some of that stuff, and sometimes it doesn't seem to be a good fit. They may have gotten some feedback from viewers that was negative. All I remember about the Elyssa Davalos character is that I think she was hired for so many episodes out of the season - I don't think anyone was clamoring to continue the character. But no reflection on Elyssa Davalos and no reflection on whoever made the decision - just going in a different direction.

NS: Was "Kill Zone" based at all on "The Andromeda Strain?"

CC: Ideas come from anywhere - they come from your reading, current events, the newspaper front pages. Writers get ideas all day along. And certainly we "borrow" from the classics, or whatever else works, frankly, so yes, that episode echoed The Andromeda Strain.

The scope of stories that MacGyver was involved in was incredible: everything from aliens to The Andromeda Strain to a balloon over the Alps to you-name-it.  The concept gave you the ability to be out of the ordinary - not everything was "catch the bad guy" or "save the damsel in distress."

NS: Tell me about "The Negotiator."

CC: I did use romance in The Negotiator.  In that episode powerful forces wanted to influence MacGyver, but how do you get to a guy like that? He's an unorthodox guy - what do you do? He's not going to be bought off, or maybe he can be. He's not going to be scared off, or can he be? Or if he cares about somebody, can he be scared off on their behalf? And if all else fails, who's close enough to him to to kill him? Here I invented a "lady hit man", The Negotiator, who would get into his life and into his head and into his bed and whatever it took, to get the job done.  That one was fun.

NS: What was something that set MacGyver apart from other shows?

CC: One of the things that set MacGyver apart and made the show different was the Phoenix Foundation - no one ever knew what the hell it was. It was an undefined entity, so it got into environmental questions, defense questions, find this or rescue that. It could go anywhere.

NS: Yeah, I've talked about that before on the blog how they have an endangered species program and an art recovery program and the list goes on and on.

CC: It worked well, and it was wonderful because the canvas could be in any of those areas, all of which are fascinating.  MacGyver could go anywhere. They could call on him to do anything.  For me that was the magic of the show.  I can see him diving to the wreck of the Titanic to unravel some historical mystery, or taking the space shuttle up to the MIR to ferret out a mole or whatever, and patch something with duct tape.  There were no limits.

NS: How would you rate the production value of MacGyver?

CC: MacGyver was one of the best produced shows on television. Other than the Phoenix Foundation and his houseboat, there weren't many standing sets. All those sets had to be built or shot on location. For the "Ghost Ship" episode, Steve Downing had a freighter--some old rusted hulk--towed into a bay, some inlet someplace. I had been on other shows where they made miniatures or used a stock shot, or some kind of optical.  But here, that boat was actually out there in the middle of nowhere. Quite a deal.

I thought it was perfect for MacGyver. The sasquatch idea - people are fascinated by it. There's an immediate hook. So that episode I thought turned out really well - it was simplicity itself. But that's the perfect MacGyver for me: simplicity, a fascinating canvas, a few intriguing MacGyverisms.

Other people got swept up in the chemistry of it. There was one that we did, "Hell Week," where the brainiacs in one of these MIT-type colleges create obstacles and so on. That's putting the spotlight on the MacGyverism or the gag - sort of making that the centerpiece. For me, the really successful episodes came out of the story and from something that MacGyver would do that other people wouldn't do or couldn't imagine doing.

NS: I wanted to ask you about Mask of the Wolf. Kerry Lenhart recently told me that although he and John Sakmar were given some credit on it, their original idea was completely changed and that you and W. Reed Moran deserved all the credit.

CC: It was my policy to always involve the first writers in the credit. It was something I believed in. There is stature involved and money in residuals. When writers did the best job they could but for reasons beyond their control the thing had to take a different direction, I always tried to make sure they got some kind of credit -- especially if we took it over "in-house", and most especially if I was involved. 

The WGA has final aegis over credits, but arbitrators do take note of company recommendations.

NS: Kind of like Ghost Ship, the story in Mask of the Wolf is fairly simple.

CC: I harken back to my comment about the fascinating canvas: the old Indian, an ancient mask. These are fascinating things, and the kind of things that MacGyver could get involved with, but other shows could not.

NS: I was wondering about Henry Winkler, was he very involved, like was he always on the set? Or was he more involved at a high level, like popping in every now and then?

CC: Winkler and John Rich were both very nice and a pleasure to work for. Winkler was very much interested in casting. He loved that, and it was a world that he was obviously a part of - the acting world.

Rich was very hands on in the post process, in the cutting of films. He came from a comedy background and did a lot of "All in the Family," and he had a great sense of timing. A lot of work was put into cutting those films. He was one of the great raconteurs I've ever met. He had a story a minute, and they would all be funny.

As I said, I think the production we got out of Downing in Canada and some of the post production down in L.A. with the scoring and the cutting, it was a very excellent and gifted bunch of people who put that show together.

NS: So it sounds like Winkler and Rich were in L.A. Winkler looks at it up front, Downing's the guy while it's being made, and then Rich is after the fact?

CC: Close enough. The executive producers were at Paramount, and Downing was the general of the army up there in Vancouver.

NS: What was Downing like to work with?

CC: Mostly, a pleasure.  He was a consummate administrator - a talent I wish I had more of. It's not easy to keep everyone on track. Very bright guy, very personable, and very exacting. Very methodical. The first in the office and the last one out.  Steve and I are different people with different styles, and in a creative business you don't always see eye to eye, but I have the highest respect for him.

NS: How about Richard Dean Anderson and Dana Elcar?

CC: I did most of my work from the L.A. area but my understanding is that they were both first rate, absolutely professional in every way.

NS: So when you say you were in L.A., were you working more on the pre-production side or the post side?

CC: My responsibility was generating material -- buying the stories, working with the writers through the script process, and of course I also wrote some.

NS: What other show from your career was the most enjoyable for you to work on?

CC: "Dallas," because of the people.

NS: Any final thoughts or recollections?

CC: I look back on my time on MacGyver with great satisfaction.  It was not an easy show to do.  No television season is all sunshine and roses and that one wasn't either.  But out of it came a lot of good stuff.  I take it as a personal compliment that you picked 5 episodes from my season to be in your top 13 all time MacGyver favorites.  Maybe you can guess I'd say that doesn't happen by chance.

It was one of the best produced shows I've ever been connected with and, at its best, one of the most fun to do, outside the usual boxes.  There were some great people connected with it.  You referenced Jimmy Conway and Ken Harrison in our conversation -- both good guys, both very talented.

(Side note:  I'll take a bow here for being the one who brought Ken Harrison to the company.)

Most TV shows are eminently forgettable, but not MacGyver somehow.  It was a unique show, which apparently resonated with audiences, and is remembered by fans even after lo these many years.  I'm glad to have been a part of it.  


  1. Another great interview. Interesting context to have this interview done over the phone rather than e-mail. Seems like it worked well. Wild story of how he broke into the business.....and interesting that his tenure on "MacGyver" ended right at the dawn of another writers' strike in 1988 meaning her probably had to do some of the same stuff....stockpiling script ideas in advance of the pending strike.

    Rick Drew made similar comments in his 1990 interview with The Hollywood Reporter regarding MacGyver being something of an anthology given how many different situations he could get into week to week. From a writers' standpoint I suspect that would be a dream, but it had to have been a nightmare for producers to start anew with different locations for every episode and never be able to count on falling back on a generic standing set like all the sitcoms and even many dramas did back in the 80s.

    Most interesting to me was that Clements did most of his work in L.A. dealing with the writers and wasn't frequently on set in Vancouver. It sounds as though his role as supervising producer was quite a bit different than his successor Michael Greenburg. Good to hear him speak of the overall production quality....although it still burns me up that the television industry never recognized that at the time considering how big of lightweights most other programs were in that era, particularly from a production value standpoint.

    Surely there have to be some people who didn't have a good experience working on the crew of this show but you've yet to find any yet. Thanks again for taking the initiative. The results have been very gratifying.

    1. The diversity of locales and story lines in this series was absolutely incredible, and I notice it even more as I watch the episodes out of order. I remember as a kid thinking how I wanted to work for a "think tank" like the Phoenix Foundation but as I got older I realized that there's no organization quite like it in the real world. Maybe I need to start one! And Quantum Leap is a lot like that too in that every episode was in a completely different environment - it's a good formula for stories but a lot of hard work to pull off well.

      I thought the LA/Vancouver dynamic he talked about was interesting too. Amazing that the whole process of making an episode could get done in 7 days (though I guess the pre-episode stuff went on beforehand).

    2. Also interesting that he knew Ken Harrison previously and suggested him as a composer. Thank goodness!

    3. Yeah I tipped my hat to Clements for introducing Harrison to the series as well. He really did incredible work. Good point that "Quantum Leap" was another series that started anew with different sets and production locales every week. I'm guessing it was one of those situations where the challenge for the production team made the work simultaneously fun and stressful as all hell.

  2. This was a lot of really interesting information. And, I agree, his break into the business is definitely an unusual one.

    Did they do the whole episode, shooting through post, in 7 days or just the filming? I always assumed it was filmed in 7 days and post happened for a few days after that.

    1. I think it's probably just the filming in 7 days and then the post after that.

    2. Pretty sure it's 7-8 days of actual filming. Probably a few further days of post-production after that. Really hard for me to wrap my mind that someone like LL Cool J is putting in the kind of hours that is required to produce an action show. Nothing against him or his show, but it seems like it would be way too big of a commitment for someone in the music business. I'm guessing his presence on that series is less consuming than was RDA's on "MacGyver", but still.

    3. NCIS:LA? Yeah - he's part of an ensemble cast - there's like 5 or 6 ppl in the main cast from what I recall, so it's not all on him. But it's still a pretty big commitment if he's doing TV, music and that Lip Sync show too. That's a LOT of things going on.

      But - other actors make movies between production seasons/schedules for TV, so anything's possible I suppose.

  3. The bit about the Phoenix Foundation made me chuckle. It really is a MacGyver organization. We should start it and work there. :P

    "or taking the space shuttle up to the MIR to ferret out a mole or whatever"

    You know, they never did have a space travel thing. I guess maybe the alien episode, but that doesnt really count.

    Great interview. Shame you didnt get it all recorded. No tape recorder around? :P