Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Jerry Freedman: A Conversation

Jerry Freedman (aka Jerrold or J.F. Freedman) occupies a very important place in MacGyver history as the director of the Pilot (an episode that I initially had ranked too low and made up for in my re-rankings by bumping it up 24 spots).  It's a memorably classic episode and one on which the fate of the series rested -- if it didn't turn out well, there likely would have been no series.  So all MacGyver fans owe a lot to Mr. Freedman.  I figured his experience on the show wasn't great given that he chose the pseudonym of Alan Smithee, the name of choice when a director doesn't want to be associated with his work.  So in addition to being grateful for his time in talking to me, I'm also appreciative of his honesty and in his talking about an experience that wasn't the best for him.

A quick note about the blog: despite being in the midst of my Disney song countdown, the discussion of MacGyver will never cease here (MacGyver is still in the blog title, after all).  There are some people I'd like to talk to who I missed out on the first time around, so check back every once in a while to see if there's anything new.  And if you haven't already, check out the Phoenix Foundation podcast's interview with Darcy Marta from Ugly Duckling -- one of their best yet.  And also please visit Mr. Freedman's website where you can learn more about his best selling novels.

NS: How did you get involved with the show and chosen to direct the pilot?

JF: I was hired by Peter Greenberg (now a famous travel writer and broadcaster), who had been at ABC earlier. We worked on movies there together and had a good rapport. He went to Paramount as director of TV development. Henry Winkler, a mega-star because of Happy Days, had been given a production deal from Paramount. He brought in John Rich, a famous comedy director, as his partner. The studio gave them the MacGyver pilot as their first show. Peter convinced them to hire me.

NS: What was your overall experience like, and what did you like or not like about the episode?

JF: I had a bad experience on the show.  Henry and John were comedy people. I was a drama/melodrama writer-director-producer. Their vision and mine of the director’s job were very different. One example: I had always been taught that only the director talks to the actors. He gets input from the producers and writers and other meaningful people, but his is the voice the actor listens to. Acting is a hard job. Having to deal with several, often conflicting directions is confusing and unnerving. From the beginning, when we started casting, Henry jumped in. He talked to the actors about how they should perform, including giving them line-readings, which I don’t like. The actors should use their own voice, not Henry Winkler’s or anyone else’s. What might be standard in a comedy table-reading doesn’t work in drama.

A second problem for me was Henry’s choice of producer. Henry brought in Vinnie Di Bona (they had gone to Emerson College together), who later became an important reality producer. At the time, he had not produced anything in the dramatic field. The show needed a strong line producer, because it was very tough physically. This was not Vin’s forte. He worked hard and cared, but he didn’t have the experience. Not having an experienced line producer slowed us down, cost us time and money.

The biggest problems in making the show for me were the physical demands, which were high, and the tension between me and the producers. They wanted everything to be fast, bright, snappy. I was trying for more diversity in mood and feeling. I felt they did not understand the rigors of the day to day filming. We had nightly meetings to try to work things out. They mostly became arguments. I have directed many movies and TV shows, and know the difference between producers who have your back and those who don’t. They were not behind me. And I fought back, which brought a lot of tension. But we got it made.

I liked shooting the show, but not the tension around it. I had a great crew and good actors. The cinematographer was Tak Fujimoto, one of the best cameramen in the world (Silence Of The Lambs among many great films). After the first week and a half, they wanted to fire him, because they felt the show looked too dark. They were used to comedy brightness. I didn’t let them, and we moved on. This is one example of many in which we clashed. We were always behind. The sets were never ready. Some of the costumes didn’t work. Making a big action movie is hard. Making a big action movie on the fly is harder than it needs to be.

NS: Why did you go with the Alan Smithee pseudonym?

JF: By the time I showed my two-hour cut to Henry and John, we were at each other’s throats. They recut it into a 90 minute movie and got it on the air. That’s the bottom line. When I saw the final cut I was upset, and used the DGA pseudonym Alan Smithee because I didn’t want my name on it. The production company tried to deny me my royalties because of that, but the DGA wouldn’t let them. If I had to do it over again, I would swallow my pride and leave my name on. Lots of directors are recut, sometimes badly. I was reacting as much to the overall bad feelings as to the editing. Water under the bridge. The show did well, and I wish everyone involved the best. It is interesting to note that the show went through many changes and producers before they hit their stride. A tough show to get the right handle on.

NS: What you were trying to achieve with the MacGyver character given that he was a blank slate at the time?

JF: MacGyver was created by Lee Zlotoff, a good writer with a unique vision. He had worked on Remington Steele and (I believe) had been let go due to personality clashes. He was supposedly hard to work with (this is said of lots of creative people, including me). After he wrote the script and it was approved for production, he was taken off any further involvement. This became a hardship later, because I didn’t have access to the brain behind this special concept. I had no dealings with him at all.

A lot of what made the character work, besides the good writing, was Richard. He had good comic timing and brought a nice sense of irony and reality to the role. It could have been cartoonish and sitcomy, but he made it seem real.

NS: Do you remember how or why the general concept of the opening gambit came about?

JF: The opening gambit was scripted more or less as we shot it, although what seemed manageable on the page was a bear to actually shoot. We spent a week in Utah, sometimes using two helicopters simultaneously. Some of the best movie helicopter pilots and stunt men in the business worked on this opening. For television, it was a very large production piece, which I think we pulled off well.

NS: The chocolate bars to stop the acid leak is a classic MacGyverism and I was curious if you had any memories of that scene.

JF: I don’t remember the chocolate bars.

NS: There's a brief but memorable moment in the opening gambit of the Pilot where MacGyver fires a gun.  Do you recall anything about that?

JF: I don’t remember the gun sequence. I have not seen the pilot since I finished it and turned it over to Henry and John.

NS: Do you have any books that you're currently working on or promoting?

JF: I published my latest book in 2014. The title is TURN LEFT AT DOHENY. A contemporary Los Angeles noir thriller. I’m presently working on a legal thriller set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where my first novel, AGAINST THE WIND, an international best-seller, was set. I hope to have it published next year.


  1. Great interview! I like Jerry's honesty.

  2. Nice get. I wouldn't have even thought of reaching out to him but he definitely offered a unique perspective. Sounds like the speculation that there was tremendous turbulence on the set early on was worse even than the rumors. I get that Winkler and Rich were comedy guys who didn't know the rigors of a drama/action show, but there were so many other old hands in the TV business working on the show that it's hard to believe they went in so clueless. I'm a complete amateur on how the business works and even I would have figured out that the series producers envisioned early on, complete with stand-alone opening gambits that required their own set designs and actors, all having to be done with the budget and time constraints of a weekly TV show. I admire Freedman's honesty attempt to sugar-coat anything which I find refreshing.

    Did he mention if he eventually became a viewer/fan of the show after his bad experience with the Pilot?

    1. I liked his honesty also, and it helps clear up some of the mystery surrounding Alan Smithee and the Pilot. I don't know if he became a viewer of the show -- what you see is all that he told me (I didn't leave anything out).

    2. He must have followed it at least a little since he talks about the show finding its footing later on. I bet most of those early crew members walked away displeased in some capacity. Judy Burns definitely didn't have the best experience on the show and from another interview I read Terry Nation said it was a comedy of errors and constant friction. Really amazing the show still went on to be a success.

  3. Thanks, another great MacGyver interview, Nick. Really interesting to hear about Jerry's experience as we realised there had been some early tensions in the show, although later, all the experiences seem to have been very positive. RDA still comes out of everything well though! Would still love to be able to see the original 2 hr Pilot or even the '90 minute' version Jerry refers to. As I think I mentioned in the comments before, it may be lying in a studio vault somewhere waiting to be discovered! Good luck with the Disney blog - you're doing great work but I haven't been able to comment as I'm not too good Disney songs.

    1. Thanks Al, good to hear from you. That would be awesome to be able to see the full Pilot. There is at least a deleted scene available on MacGyver Online.

  4. It's too bad they had the personality clashes and Zlotoff was not involved after the pilot (if I understood that correctly). I think the series was at it's best for the first season and a half -- before Pete Thornton, the Phoenix Foundation and the mullet.

    MacGyver (first season) was unique because of the opening gambit, voice-overs, synthy Randy Edelmen score, and actual clever tactical improvisations -- all of which were essentially non-existent in the later seasons.

    I'm not going to bother with the re-boot :^)

    1. I agree with a few exceptions.
      Things that made the later seasons bad in my opinion: social issue episodes, mullet, Jack Dalton and Penny Parker get really annoying, aversion to women, flashback and dream episodes, spin-off episodes, macgyverisms that relied on pure luck like hitting a match from a slingshot 50 feet away. I don't really find Pete too annoying. Things that worked in the later seasons: Murdoc and Dr. Zito of course, some of the supernatural Scooby-Doo like episodes and Indiana Jones-like episodes were a good change of tone, a lot of forest/nature scenery once production shifted to Canada.

  5. Enjoyed this interview. Thanks for posting it! IMO the pilot episode is a classic, regardless of what went on behind the scenes. I'm happy he realises he should have swallowed his pride, even though I can understand that he wanted to protect his vision.

    I was a bit confused about one thing. Jerry says he shot a two-hour film and it was cut to 90 minutes, but I was under the impression that he shot 90 minutes and it was cut to the length we see today.