Monday, May 11, 2015

Judy Burns: A Conversation

Judy Burns was a screenwriter for many hit shows including Star Trek, Mission Impossible, Magnum P.I., The Six Million Dollar Man, Fantasy Island, and Wonder Woman, just to name a few.  I recently described the opening gambit of The Gauntlet as being so perfectly constructed that it must have been created by God himself. Well, turns out that in reality it was written by Ms. Burns!  She also wrote another classic first season episode in Last Stand.  I was really excited to talk to her and beyond thrilled and thankful that she took time to talk to me on the phone about her time on the show and about my favorite episode. 

NS: How did you get started on MacGyver?

JB: I had moved over from T.J. Hooker where I worked with Steve Downing, and he brought me on to MacGyver. I didn't stay there very long - I cashed in my money and left because I had a lot of creative differences with others on the show. It was a great show, but they were going in one direction and I was going somewhere else. And so after writing the Gambit and Last Stand, I said, "That's it, I'm off. Goodbye." And it took them a year to finally get around to where I was going.

NS: What were some of the creative differences?

JB: Lee David Zlotoff, the creator, had bowed out. Jerry Ludwig, the Executive Producer, loved old movies, and so he had his movie of the week that he would go back to and make a MacGyver episode out of. It was not what I was used to doing. I really thought that making up your own stories was a better way to go. Sometimes trying to pigeonhole MacGyver into a movie that already existed worked, and other times it didn't work. I got stuck on an episode that ended up being rewritten by my friend Jimmy Schmerer and Larry Alexander called "The Heist." I worked on that thing for three weeks before it was clear that I was never going to make it the way they wanted it. After that I said, "That's it, guys. Take your money. I'm going away." I had written a lot of action adventure shows, but I just couldn't get into writing old movies. On the map scene, they allowed me to what I wanted to do.

NS: Yes, let's talk about the map! My favorite sequence in MacGyver history.

JB: They spent a lot of money on it - it was a very expensive gambit. Originally all of the shows were going to have gambits, but then they realized that it was just too expensive to do two shows in one hour. The sets, the balloon, and filming at the sand dunes all cost a lot of money.
It was the first gambit that was written, not including Lee Zlotoff's from the Pilot.

When we started talking about how to use various tools, we were sitting around and I said, "I think if we could just use one tool for the whole thing, it would be really cool." And so I think somewhere in the past a long time ago, either in a comic book or in some tv show, I had seen somebody slip a piece of paper under a door and drop a key out onto it, and the idea started with that. And so I thought what kind of piece of paper would I want, and that evolved into a map. 

And then after having the map I thought, if this is going to be a treasure hunt, let's turn it into kind of a treasure map. Even though I placed it in an Arabian desert locale, I basically went back to my old girl scout days and said, if you're going to be prepared, how can you be prepared?  

NS: It's really interesting that you just mentioned that, because in the beginning of the gambit, MacGyver says how his cub scout den mother, Mrs. Freivogel, always taught him to be prepared.

JB: That's it -- came right out of girl scouts.

NS: Was Mrs. Freivogel actually someone that you knew?

JB: No. I took German in high school and college, and Freivogel is "free bird."  

NS: What else do you remember about the map?

JB: I thought, "How many ways can I use this map?" I don't remember all the ways that I used it, but I rolled it up one time and put a crowbar in it. There was the slide and the patch on the balloon.

NS: It served as a pea shooter where the pea hit a woman's leg to distract her from the clothes on the clothesline.

JB: Yes, the pea. When I was a kid, in the old, old days, I had a pea shooter. Some of us were very poor and we had very few things. We'd roll up a piece of paper, put a bean in it and shoot it. I can remember those days and thought, "Well, why not? Let's do that." And so I just sat around thinking about what I could do with that map.

Ricky Dean could do anything at that time. He had been a bicyclist and was really, really strong. He'd do these stunts like sliding down a mountain of sand on a map. They had to fortify the map to go down the sand because of the size of the map and the way they had it rigged. I originally had thought of it as a little larger and easier to maneuver.

I had always been a fan of "Around the World in 80 Days" by Jules Verne, so I always liked balloon trips. We see tons of balloons in southern California. And so I thought, what would happen if he got going and then suddenly someone shot his balloon? How would you make a patch? Well, you could maybe make one with duct tape, but it's more fun to stick the map on the side of the balloon and off you go.

It was the easiest thing I ever wrote in my life. Once I sat down to do it, things just fell into place like 1-2-3. And on the page, it was as spectacular as it was on the screen. It just worked.

NS: What do you remember about Last Stand?

JB: Don't even ask me about Last Stand!

NS: I can refresh your memory if you want me to!  (At this point I refreshed her memory).

JB: I can't really tell you a lot about it because I didn't like writing it. By that time, I was really disenchanted. I loved everybody there and everyone was super bright, but sometimes you just don't like the situation. The series eventually became what I always thought it would become, and then I loved it. But I was busy doing other things by that time. So I can't help you too much on Last Stand. I wrote it, gave it to them, and went to work on The Heist. I've done a couple three hundred of these things so it can be hard to remember some of them. Some of the Six Million Dollar Man shows stand out in my mind. Some of the Star Treks stand out in my mind. But the Last Stand does not! It was not a memorable episode as far as I'm concerned.

Once Jerry Ludwig left and Steve took over, the show started becoming much more interesting because Steve was a much more well grounded writer, in a way. He had done a lot of police stuff and action adventure things, and he wasn't stuck in the old movies. At the time I said, "MacGyver needs a sidekick -- somebody who cares about this man." And it took them a year or so to get that guy. But from the very beginning I said that these episodes are hard to write because you don't have somebody back home that cares about MacGyver. It all eventually evolved into a vision that I had, but it certainly took a while for it to happen. And the map was lucky because it was a little comic book adventure, straight out of my comic book days.

NS: Are you a big comic book fan?

JB: I'd never taken any writing classes before I wrote.  As a kid, I read comic after comic after action adventure after science fiction book after anything I could get my hot little hands on. I'm a Superman kid.  From the time I was 5 or 6 I was reading comics until the time I was 60.  If I could have, I would have written "Smallville."  The map comes off of that whole history.

NS: Did you come up with the idea for "The Heist?"

JB: No, it was another movie. There have been so many heist movies, and I love heist movies. But casino movies are not my thing to write. I struggled with it and struggled with it, and whatever I did just didn't seem to be right.

They wanted to do the car coming out of the airplane stunt, and so I called up the service that had the planes. They said that those planes are used for firefighting, and if you want to use them to be aware that's it's fire season and there's a possibility you won't be able to get them at that time. I came in and said, "Guys, the planes are in Arizona right now and they're not going to be free for two weeks." That threw the episode into chaos and they ended up rewriting some of it. We had such a row over that - it was a very big argument. Because I had been telling them for six weeks that they weren't going to get it in time.  

The ending just totaled me because I knew I couldn't get what they wanted. And once you get a psychological mindset that says those airplanes aren't going to be there, I just went in and said, "I don't want to do this." I like to be proud of my work and couldn't be proud of it there, and I moved on to Airwolf II.

NS: What did you do after you were done screenwriting?

JB: I broke into the business at 21, and after 25 years of working on staff and pulling my hair out on 16 hour days, I stopped screenwriting and got my PhD in Theater.  I liked teaching a lot better than writing, and I taught screenwriting at UCLA and UC Riverside for a while before retiring. 

NS: You mentioned Lee David Zlotoff earlier.  Do you know why he left the show after writing the pilot?

JB: He had been over at "Remington Steele" -- I had met him and pitched a few shows over there.  He was getting involved in writing pilots.  After he had written and sold MacGyver, he said that he didn't want to be stuck doing this day in and day out -- he had enough of it at Remington Steele.

I think had he stayed around, MacGyver would have gotten to where MacGyver was going a lot faster.  Because he had a really strong vision of the show, and it took a while to get that vision back.  Very, very smart writer.  Had a lot of humor.  Boy, when he wrote that pilot, he nailed it. I have every respect for Lee. 


  1. Another fascinating conversation. Looks like you stumbled into one of the people from the early seasons who didn't jive with the show's direction. Honestly I can see why the direction Ludwig was taking the show was controversial to some and I have no idea how anybody believed doing the opening gambits indefinitely would be affordable on a weekly TV show budget, even in 1985 when shows had unusually generous budgets. But I think they got the timeline right with the evolution. Having it be all about the action and adventure in the beginning set the stage for a slowly developing mystery man who the audience got to know piecemeal. One of my biggest criticisms of modern shows is that the producers feel the need to lay out the main characters' entire mythology in the first five episodes, and then have to engage in soap opeara-ish gyrations ("I've just learned oh mortal enemy of all-time....that you are my brother"!!!") by the time season 3 comes around to keep that mythology going. Not saying that if Ms. Burns' vision for the series had played out from the get-go that the show would have followed the template I described, but I didn't think it was the worst thing in the world for the series to grow into a format of character development after a couple dozen epic adventures that led up to it.

    I'm glad to hear that she had one great writing experience with the show, however, and that it was one of the series' most iconic segments. Very cool that it came so easy for her too. Also fun that her own Girl Scout days played a role in the narrative, both literally and figuratively. I appreciate hearing some of the stunt details too.

    I think we have a better idea now why "The Heist" was directed by Alan Smithee. I wonder how common it is for a writer to walk off from a gig as a staff writer for a series over frustration with a specific script. Would have been interesting to see what direction "MacGyver" would have gone if Lee Zlotoff had hung around as showrunner but I loved what they did with those early episodes so I'm not gonna spend too much time thinking about it. Either way, congrats for getting a hold of Judy Burns. I welcome every piece of the puzzle I can get regarding the behind-the-scenes machinations of these classic episodes.

    1. The "you are my brother" story line that you mention sounds a bit like H50 - I thought for sure that Wo Fat was going to be McGarrett's brother, though it ended up being more of a symbolic rather than biological brother. In any case, I agree that shows of today move way too fast, probably because attention spans have become so short.

      Also interesting to hear about the long hours and stresses of screenwriting - sounds like a job with a lot of reward, but not without its challenges.

    2. One show that immediately comes to mind drifting to "you are my brother!" absurdity quickly is "The Pretender" in the late 90s. It started as a really good show but it didn't take long for soap opera hysterics to dominate the plotlines. "Hawaii Five-O" certainly flirts with this and even do favorites like "Prison Break" and to some degree "Burn Notice". Attention span of the office may have a good amount to do with it but I think exhaustion in the writers' room is probably the main culprit.

  2. We have been big fans of Judy Burns' contributions to the show over at the Phoenix Foundation. This was a great read and confirms a lot of our suspicions about that first season. Excellent interview!

    1. Thanks Patrick! Your pod's been fun to listen to - keep up the great work!