Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Stephen Kandel: A Conversation

Stephen Kandel started working on MacGyver right after the Pilot, and he went on to write 17 episodes (including 2 in my top 6) and produce 58.  Before MacGyver, he wrote for innumerable other iconic shows including Mission Impossible, Hawaii Five-O, Wonder Woman, The Love Boat, and I could go on and on.  He's Hollywood royalty as far as I'm concerned and a true MacGyver legend. Mark and I asked him some questions, and he provided us with answers that were as entertaining as they were informative.  I also learned some new vocabulary words!  ("irredentist" and "palimpsest" to name a few).  We're very thankful for his time here and for his amazing work in shaping the MacGyver series and creating some of our favorite episodes.

9/19/15 - for Part 2 of the conversation with Stephen, click here.

MH: You were involved with the series almost from the beginning. How did your involvement from the ground floor come about?

SK: I was hired by Jerry Ludwig, the first Ex. Producer -- whom I knew from a dozen other projects.  Jerry brought me in -- because I'd written a lot of "The Rogues" and "It Takes A Thief" both of which involved scams -- including scams relying on simple-minded science.  Not to mention "The Magician" which used stage magic as a weapon, so he thought I'd be useful as a gizmist, not to mention my sterling qualities as a writer.  And I loved the idea of the gimmickry, so we had a meeting of the minds.

When I joined MacGyver, just after the first network order, there was a strong feeling that the Network had put its chips on Henry Winkler's other project, Mr. Sunshine - and MacGyver was a longshot.  Several network pundits advised that the viewers wanted action, not intellect; gunfire, not gadgets, etc., etc.  So -- we were operating under the radar, which was terrific.

I had an odd deal -- I did MacGyver, but if I found the time I could do other projects.  So I was Executive Story Whatever, Producer, Etc., etc.  Which was invigorating. 

NS: What was it like coming up with the MacGyverisms?

SK: There was an instant problem: finding writers who could do the kitchen chemistry, peasant physics that MacGyver used in lieu of weaponry.  That problem never went away -- and more often than I'd like, we just got the script and someone on staff, usually me, would install the gimmick.  But the decision was that sink or swim -- stick with the non-violent, cleverness approach.  Which worked.

The gimmicks were often tricky -- and frequently required detailed explanations.  On "The Gauntlet" I actually built a tiny toothpick model of the bridge for the original crossing -- which involved MacGyver driving onto the bridge, then picking up the tread planks behind the vehicle and re-laying them in front, i.e. - driving a movable platform across.  That sort of thing made the series fun.  We ended up with the barrels...and like a lot of the gimmicks, it was worked out on location.  Fun.

Minor note: another episode [Jack in the Box], the script had MacGyver dumping calcium carbide into a trough of water -- which explodes.  Director: "and how the @#$% do I rig that?  It'll take forever!"  Rig?  I tried to clarify -- finally just grabbed the calcium carbide and dumped into the trough.  It promptly erupted, dousing said director from nozzle to vent.  He simply wouldn't believe it actually was a chemical reaction - until he was washed down.

Whenever possible, the gimmicks were scientifically accurate.  When it came to acids, explosives, dangerous things -- we always left out a key ingredient.  Kept the lawsuits down, although there was always some smart adolescent who figured it out -- in one case, blowing up his family's toilet.  But we had plausible deniability. 

NS: Tell me about the opening gambits.

SK: Jerry had the idea of, in effect, replicating the film fare of the 1920's and 30's: short subject, feature.  Repeat.  Ergo, the short, unconnected opening gambit -- then the full show.  It turned out to be very expensive, confusing, difficult and promptly went down the tubes.  But a minor note -- on one episode [Trumbo's World], I was trying to find a new-ish stripe of villain, so I made them Basque Irredentists.  Jerry then insisted on the actors speaking actual Basque.  I don't know if you're aware that Basque, like Hungarian, is unique.  One of a linguistic kind.  Took me a week to find a professor of Agronomy at the University of Arizona - who was Basque, and did the phonetics for us.  AND - when the episode aired, it begat a raft of uber-enthusiastic responses from Basques in California, Arizona and Nevada -- who were ecstatic to hear their remote, arcane native tongue.  We did have an intriguing audience.  Some of them wrote me at intervals for years -- asking for another bout of Basque.  Go figure.

NS: Do you remember anything else about Trumbo's World?

SK: Trumbo's World is a direct steal.  Story discussion, trying to find a natural threat for a change -- I mentioned "Leiningen vs. the Ants", a story I vaguely remembered, something I read as a kid.  The story was actually based on an old fable (I was a Classics Major; a useless mass of factoids, except for a writer), so the decision was to go ahead and use it as the basis -- after that it was just the battle plan.

NS: How did you feel about the use of stock footage?

SK: Stock Footage was our salvation.  I did some of the post-production editing, and God bless "Lawrence of Arabia", "Ghandi", several spaghetti westerns and whatever else.  TV is made on a tight budget -- and you can do miracles in the editing room.  By the bye -- we used stock footage not only in the early episodes -- but whenever possible; you got a million dollars of production value for nickels.

NS: Do you remember anything about "Slow Death?" I've always loved the scene where MacGyver makes a doll out of socks for the little girl on the train. 

SK: That episode was where we used Ghandi footage -- and thanks for the comment about the doll; it was a really nice use of the MacGyver improvisation technique.

NS: Tell me about Richard Dean Anderson.

SK: MAJOR POINT: Richard Dean Anderson was, and for all I know, is a genuinely nice guy.  A pleasure to have as a series lead, and MacGyver reflected that -- you wouldn't believe Jack Bauer making a doll, except perhaps to practice his beheading skills, but MacGyver was always a warm character.  MINOR POINT: his one flaw was his constant attempts to do his own stunts, like Burt Reynolds in his early TV stuff.  As one horrific result, when he lithely vaulted over a wall, he discovered the other side was an eight-foot drop and broke his hand.  Result: I had to invent a series of variant reasons for his hand to be bandaged, gloved, wrapped, embedded, etc. for the next four episodes.

NS: In"Deathlock," there's a scene (see video here) where the helicopter almost crashes in real life. Do you remember anything about that moment or any other stunts gone wrong?

SK: I do remember, all too clearly.  The director wanted to speed the action -- urged the pilot to touch down and go right up, as swiftly as possible -- add visual urgency to the shot.  Said pilot overdid it, ergo overhasty takeoff, door flapping in the breeze, heavy shaking.  Similar moments:  I was in a chopper, scouting locations in Canada, north of Vancouver.  An interesting copper mine.  I ask pilot - can we go lower?  Pilot promptly puts the chopper into a dive, and we skate about twenty feet over the mine.  I yell - not THAT close!  Pilot shrugs -- he wants more business from the show.   Typical.  

Second Category of Moronic Examples:  never listen to a network VP on stunts.  Said VP suggests MacGyver go up a drilling rig [Hellfire] -- and when it explodes in flame, he rides the falling, burning rig down to the ground, using his body weight to guide it away from the vulnerable people below.  Great idea.  Costs about twice the entire episode budget.  I suggest the network pay for it -- VP gives me a look and I am once again marked dirty in network books.   

Third item: A show called "Mannix"- looking at dailies with network mavens - always a short squad.  Watch a stunt, in which Mannix, on top of a huge dam, facing death in both directions, spots a coil of rope, ties it off and leaps off the top of the dam, sliding down the rope.  Heavies start shooting downward.  Mannix swings into a downward gush of narrow waterfall -- line breaks, he finishes the slide by falling to the bottom of the dam, alive and well.  Cheers from network types.  Great stunt!  Give us more like that! I point out that the stunt went sour - the line actually broke, Mannix's stunt double broke an arm in the fall.  Network comment:  so?  we think it's worth it.  

What with Ricky Dean's predilection for doing his own stunts -- we were always nervous about something going really wrong.  Vide broken hand.

BUT - the chopper shot really sexed up the moment, didn't it?

NS: Do you remember much about the development of Pete Thornton or Grandpa Harry as characters?

SK: Pete Thornton was designed to add a new face; there was always a fear of going gray...turning the series boring. Frankly, the episode [Deathlock] is blurred in my memory -- I was usually on several at once.  Grandpa Harry was a response to the viewers' demands for more details about MacGyver.  Past?  First name?  Family?  The series worked in the present tense; MacGyver's family were the regulars -- but Grandpa was a small enrichment, leaving all the other personal questions dangling.

MH: There were four different writers on the episode "The Wish Child", yourself included.  Any recollection of the process for that episode and why it required such a collaborative effort?

SK: "Wish Child" was a pain in the ass.  I wrote it, then the producers were replaced by a new pair -- who had, of course, to establish their bona fides, ergo - rewrite suggestions ad nauseam.  It wasn't really a collaborative effort as much as a sequential one -- I wrote the original, did a rewrite, was overwritten, then did my own overwrite, and it ended up as a corrupted palimpsest.  I loved the original draft -- but such is TV life.

MH: You wrote the episode "Silent World" in which MacGyver was helping out the deaf community.  Richard Dean Anderson was dating Marlee Matlin around the time this episode came out.  Do you recall if the role of "Carrie" in that episode was originally written with Marlee Matlin in mind?

SK: "Silent World" was a happy coincidence -- I'd written a tv movie about autism, and was hired to write one about deafness, which ended up as something entirely else.  But the idea was always niggling about, and it ended up with that happy coincidence.  Nothing like stroking you star with a succulent bit of casting.

MH: Years after leaving the series as a regular crew member you returned to write the two Western dream episodes "Serenity" and "MacGyver's Women".  Were you tasked by producers to write those episodes or did you volunteer?

SK: I left the show for other sand traps, but I actually did rewrites from time to time.  I honestly don't remember if Steve Downing or Steve Kandel had the idea for a change in style as a refreshment in what was by then a long-running series.  I'd written a lot of westerns, so the idea of MacGyver in the Old West was a natural -- and I think it worked out really well.  I know I enjoyed the writing -- and I had the wild notion of doing a series-within-a-series; MacGyver in Meiji Japan; MacGyver meets Captain Kidd -- a little fantasy riff from time to time.  But seven years is fiscally optimal for a series -- so it went.

MH: Which was the favorite of the episodes you wrote?  Or the series in general?

SK: Favorite episode(s)?  Hard to say.  Can't say.  Gauntlet, Ghost Ship, the one in a Soviet Mental Asylum [A Prisoner of Conscience], - remember, I was doing other things at the same time.  Sorry.

MH: Which was your favorite series of the numerous shows you've worked on over the years?

SK: Favorite series?  I loved The Rogues; a cast to die for: Charles Boyer, David Niven, Gig Young, Margaret White -- they would allow a bad line and they did miracles with a good one.

Of course, liked my own series, Iron horse.  Loved Star Trek.  Had fun with Hart to Hart.  I go back too far -- I began writing TV, by accident, before sound, color and reruns.  Does anybody remember Hollywood Detective? Highway Patrol?  Sea Hunt? China Smith?  Oddly enough, one reason I enjoyed The Rogues and MacGyver was the nice group who made them.  Some series are produced by ghouls, eaters of dead flesh.  These were produced by people pleasant to work with.  As an odd note, graphologically familiar, MacGruder & Loud was a delight -- because the producer, director and Story Maven (Me) found each other like thirsty desert travelers find an oasis.  The series was secondary; we had three-hour lunches to discuss literature, art, politics -- the actual making of the series was an offshoot of our round table.  So, I enjoyed it immensely.


  1. So many great lines from Mr, Kandel, but I think my favorite is, "Some series are produced by ghouls, eaters of dead flesh."

    1. That was the line that jumped out the most to me too. And I have doubt whatsoever that it's true.

  2. Kandel's interview was every bit as colorful as you suggested and a great deal of fun to read. One other question I should have asked but didn't is whether is name is pronounced "candle" or "Kan-dell", something I always wondered. I knew that "MacGyver" was at one point looking like a longshot to make it on the air back in 1985. Winkler's other project that season, "Mr. Sunshine", was originally on the 1985 ABC fall season but got shelved till midseason. I believe it aired 13 episodes, mostly on Friday nights, before riding off to the sunset. I'm a little surprised Kandel found the network's early nonsupport liberating...I'd find it terrifying!

    Sounds like he was quite the presence on the set as well, getting the director all wet to prove the calcium carbide gimmick on "Jack in the Box". On the other hand, I didn't quite get his description of the would-be bridge-crossing scene on "The Gauntlet" before it was presumably replaced by barrels across the river.

    Great story about the Basques in the "Whitewater" opening gambit. Very cool that they got the dialect right but on You Tube the Basques have a good laugh at the dark-skinned actors in mud huts on the set of that gambit. I always thought the scene was incredibly well produced though, with so many extras on hand going through military training early on. No surprise at all that the expense and production delays on those gambits ended them early, but I'm grateful that they made as many of them as they did.

    I've never seen "Gandhi" but am curious as to what footage was taken from that movie from "Slow Death".

    I'm betting the incident where RDA broke his hand came in season 1 before "Every Time She Smiles" when his injury was explained away that MacGyver was skiing.

    Good story about the location shots in Vancouver where the pilot got them too close. The director on "Deathlock" definitely got lucky that the pilot corrected the situation because the TV industry was already tense and under a number of new rules for helicopters after a couple of high-profile accidents (on "Airwolf" and "The Twilight Zone") not long before that. Still can't believe they didn't hold out to do another take on that scene. Darkly funny stories about the network execs requesting other deadly stunts as well.

    I'd be interested to see what the original version of "The Wish Child" looked like before all the revisions.

    I always wondered back in 1985 if the name MacGyver was very hastily swiped from that show "MacGruder and Loud" which was on the same network the same year. It premiered after the Super Bowl in 1985 and lasted 13 episodes, canceled at the end of the season in favor of "Moonlighting" despite the fact that "MacGruder and Loud"'s ratings were quite a bit better than the six-episode spring sample season of "Moonlighting".

    1. re the bridge-crossing scene - I think what he was meaning was laying slats end-to-end for something to drive over, but them not being long enough, thus requiring Mac to move them each time the vehicle reached the end. At least, that's the mental picture I put together - I could be totally wrong there.

      I'd like to know abt "The Wish Child" too - oh the 'executive meddling' that messes with things. (A trope that can lead to good and bad, but fans/viewers only notice it when it's 'bad'.)

    2. I thought the Basque anecdote was really interesting. And even though the level of detail was lost on most, it wasn't lost on the viewers who spoke Basque, which is really cool.

      I'm sure you're right that the injury incident Kandel's talking about is in Every Time She Smiles since that's where he starts sporting the cast. I don't recall off the top of my head when he jumps over a wall - I'll have to go back and take a look at that.

      I've never heard of MacGruder and Loud, but it makes sense that it would influence the "MacGyver" name even if only subconsciously.

      I was thinking the same as Highlander on the bridge crossing scene. Sounds interesting but also dull (since there must not be any bad guys around if they have time to do mess with the bridge like that), so it seems they made a good choice with the barrel ending.

    3. LDZ described how he came up w/ the name 'MacGyver' over here: (the 4 links at the bottom) - it was around the time of everyone 'Mac-[thing]'-ing everything. So he was 'Mac-Guy', but LDZ liked a 3-syllable name better and tossed the 'ver' on the end, ditched the extraneous 'u' and boom - MacGyver. So 'MacGruder' may be where the 'ver' on the end subconsciously came from? But, the 'Mac' part was ttly influenced by fast food commercials in the early 80's.

    4. Correction: 5 links... I can count, honest! =)

    5. interesting, thanks for sharing

  3. By the way, Steve Downing was interviewed on CBS Evening News tonight...asked his thoughts on a police procedure in the headlines yesterday where an officer rammed his squad car into an armed-and-dangerous perp shooting randomly into the streets. I'm sure the video clip is available online on CBS. No mention of "MacGyver", unfortunately. :)

    1. Thanks for sharing. I usually DVR the CBS evening news but don't always watch it. I just watched the clip with Downing.

  4. One of the best of a great bunch of interviews - what a witty, intelligent guy! I couldn't think where RDA jumps over a wall either in Every Time (or possibly at the end of shooting Enemy Within )- maybe they had to cut the scene as a result anyway.

  5. I looked up 'Leiningen versus the Ants' and the story is pretty much the same including using fire and water to try to stop the ants and making an ant-proof suit to reach the dam to blow it up. The main difference is that Leiningen has the help of his local workers while Trumbo has MacGyver! I'll be buying the book for my next read.

    1. We read "Leiningen Versus the Ants" in my 10th grade English class. I enjoyed it a little but having seen it on screen for a "MacGyver" episode it felt much less tangible just reading the book. I've always been a more visual person so the movie is more often than not better for me than the book.

    2. I'd be interested in reading the book too, and also in seeing the Naked Jungle movie which was also based on the book.

    3. I've never seen The Naked Jungle either so that's next on the movie list. Have just watched 'Trumbo's world' again - its one of those episodes I never seem to tire of and leaves me with a feeling of exhilaration at having watched a great human endeavour, although this may sound a bit OTT given that its 'only' a tv action series episode. Its already way up there in my rankings but I think I may even move it a bit higher as I finalise the top slots!

  6. Just found this... Not sure if anyone cares anymore, but I was on MACGYVER for 3 seasons and wrote several episodes while on the writing staff. Kandel (as we always called him) was always our go-to guy when we needed help. He was (is) an amazing professional. He could literally write a script over night. Always a joy to work with and an inspiration still. Just look at the range of stuff he wrote in his career! What a guy. I doubt there are any craftsmen like him around any more.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I'd love to talk to you more about your experience on the show if you're interested.