Monday, April 27, 2015

John Whelpley: A Conversation

John Whelpley was a writer of 5 MacGyver episodes, and he also worked as a producer on Season 3, my favorite season as I've mentioned several times on the blog including at the end of my previous episode review.  There's nothing more interesting to me than to hear from writers about the episodes they wrote, and Mr. Whelpley shared some fascinating insights and memories for which I'm very thankful.  

NS: I'd love to know more about the episodes you wrote.  

JW: I wrote 5 scripts for the show as a writer-producer over two seasons.   I actually wrote 7 in total, but Steve Downing (whom I bumped heads with a lot during my young "anti-authority" phase) refused to film the last two, even though I considered them my best efforts. One had MacGyver going back to his roots in Scotland, and the other had Jack Dalton seduced by a beautiful Interior Decorator-turned-art fence after he won a lottery.

As for THE WIDOWMAKER, that was my first script when I got hired on the show -- and it was important to me as everyone at Paramount and the Executive Producers of the show were wondering if they had made a good choice with Whelpley or not.   That said, the first script when you join a show is always like an audition, and the pressure is terrible.   However, I had a good conceptual story with the Murdoc character as a lethal antagonist.  I restructured the plot a bit, and I was influenced by a scene I saw Richard Dean Anderson perform on General Hospital years earlier -- where he was blind and agitated.  It helped me tap the source of the emotional scenes that followed "Mike's" fatal fall off the Widowmaker. I thought that Mike Greenburg did an outstanding job with the production elements - we shot day for night and built the mountain.   The stunts were terrific and I had a great working relationship with the director, Mike Vejar.   When John Rich, one of the Exec Producer's, questioned our order of scenes (on script and in the editing room) we stood firm and he, to his credit, eventually said we were right about the dramatic flow of the piece.

MA DALTON was a strong episode.  I was always looking for ways to bring humor to MacGyver and all we really needed was Bruce McGill to accomplish that.   Of note: Richard Dean Anderson really knew how to play the comic frustration and stoic moments with the "Jack" character - and that's what made the scenes funny, in my opinion.  The airplane theme bar was a great set.   I also didn't have to stretch to hard when it came to Ma Dalton. The character was inspired by my mother whom certain members of my family referred to as "Maureen O'Hara on acid."  Tough but with lots of mischief and a buried sentimentality.

ON A WING & A PRAYER was directed by one of the great TV cinematographers, Charlie Correll, whom I adored.   I was aggravated that we had not cast the Latina actress who played the Marine in "Aliens" (available a couple of days before shooting) and Charlie rightfully put me in my place with "It's over. It's cast.  Move on."   And the actress who played Santina (Jenny Gago) turned out to be terrific.  Our biggest challenge was finding something that looked like Central America in the Vancouver area.  I remember also calling four high school nerd buddies with the idea of starting up a prop plane using a garage door opener and receiving unit.   They initially all laughed at me... then they thought about it and called back with specific solutions.  Editor's note: the actress from Aliens mentioned above is Jenette Goldstein who later appeared on Season 7's "The Prometheus Syndrome" as one of my least favorite characters from the series. 

ROCK THE CRADLE was the easiest of all the scripts to write.   I think I did it in a week.   Mac and Jack with a baby.   Danger from all sides.   The heartline being that Jack thinks it is his child and is ready to take responsibility for it.   The best idea was the clock inside the stuffed animal and I want to say that Steve Downing came up with that one.   The remote toy aircraft dive-bombing the bad guys was a tough scenario to shoot, but again, Mike Vejar was a stellar director.

EARLY RETIREMENT was my chance to hone in a bit more than usual on the Pete Thornton character and write for Dana Elcar.    Such a fine man and actor.   I still go and see a play now and then at the Santa Paula Playhouse, which he founded.  The nuclear warhead scenario took a lot of research -- a pain in the butt to get it right in the pre-Google days, but something that brought a nice slice of technical sophistication to the script and show.   I also liked writing for Elyssa Davalos (Nikki).  The challenge was to write dimensional adversaries, especially the guys aiming to put Pete out to pasture.

As for my overall experience on the two seasons I worked on the show as a writer-producer, the upside was that it was one of the most creatively fertile landscapes a TV writer could wade into -- full of imagination.  The cast was exceptional and we had a "can-do" crew under Mike Greenburg.

It was a manic-creative time in my life which I'm sure made me a bit of a pain-in-the-ass for people at times (especially Steve Downing), but I truly loved the show and was grateful to have had the experience.  If anything, it taught me how to harness my imagination within the TV format, and more importantly, how to better play with others.  :)


  1. How long was it since you reached out to Whelpley? Nice of him to deliver with some excellent commentaries on the episodes he wrote. Interesting that there were two episodes he wrote that didn't get produced. I wonder if they were for season 3 or season 4. Unlike most "MacGyver" writers, I hadn't seen Whelpley's name around much on other series but I do know he wrote for "Trapper John, M.D." before "MacGyver", a show I only watched a couple of times.

    "The Widowmaker" was definitely my favorite Whelpley episode and I agree completely that the production that Greenburg and the rest of the crew pulled off with that one was out of this world for episodic television a quarter century ago. I wonder what sequence of events John Rich was originally pushing for.

    He really seemed to like the Jack Dalton character as three of the five episodes he wrote featured Dalton (four if you count Jack's brief phone message on "The Widowmaker"). All things considered, I thought they did a good job of giving a Central American vibe in "On a Wing and a Prayer". I know it's wet and mountainous down there, although perhaps not with too many pine forests as the Vancouver area boasts. I can't see Jeanette Goldstein as a Central American woman though....and think I would prefer the actress they had playing Centeena.

    One thing I like about these crew interviews is that they point out things we never consider as viewers, in this case that it would be hard to film the remote control airplane dive bombing scene at Dalton's airport in "Rock the Cradle". As someone who had to take difficult football field action photos when I worked at the newspaper, I can certainly recognize how that scene would have been more of a challenge than one would generally assume. Kind of cool for Whelpley that his episode was featured in that "MacGyver" seminar in 1998, and that he got to be there for it.

    1. Good point on Dalton, and interesting that one of his other proposed episodes had Dalton in it. The other proposed episode with MacGyver going back to his Scottish roots sounds interesting and like something that was finally realized with Good Knight MacGyver though Considine's version was likely quite different from Whelpley's.

      On the remote control airplane scene, wouldn't it be funny if they had to recruit some 10 year old kid as an ace pilot?

    2. I'd be interested to know if there was more to his 2 episode ideas or if he only had the basics in place.

      I'm w/ Mark on photographing moving persons - they are sometimes some of the most uncooperative subjects. =)

    3. It sounds like he actually wrote the scripts. I wonder if there's any possible way for fans to get their hands on any unused "MacGyver" scripts floating around there. Unlikely but I could see myself paying a fairly impressive chunk of money necessary to read one.