Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Michael Preece: A Conversation

Michael Preece is a longtime Hollywood director who directed 11 episodes of MacGyver in Seasons 4-7 along with numerous other shows including Dallas, Hunter, and 7th Heaven.  I talked to him by phone about all things MacGyver, and he was incredibly nice, funny, and easy to talk to.  

NS: How did you first get started on MacGyver?

MP: I had seen it on television, and I said to my agent, "I'd really like to work on that show." The next thing I knew, he called up there, and I went up to Vancouver and did one. I loved being up there -- the Canadian crews were terrific.  The actors loved going up there too because they were getting per diem and staying in a hotel, and everyone loves that.   There's nobody alive who says, "You're paying me to go up to Vancouver and stay in a hotel?  No way!"  I never remembered anything bad...except the rain.

NS: What about the show appealed to you when you first saw it?

MP: I liked the character.  I'm not that anti-gun, but I liked the fact that one time he picked up a rifle and looked at it like he was going to shoot it, and instead he threw it into a lake.  I thought that was very funny, and I liked that sense of humor.  It wasn't a comedy, but it had a good lightness about it.  Richard Dean Anderson was delightful, and I liked him on screen.  A handsome young guy. 

NS: One of my favorite episodes that you directed is "The Ten Percent Solution," about some Neo-Nazis plotting to take over 10% of the U.S.

MP: I've done a lot of Neo-Nazi episodes in my life, including one on Walker: Texas Ranger

NS: I thought Nehemiah Persoff (Sam Bolinski) gave one of the best guest star performances of the entire series. 

MP: I just talked to his nephew yesterday -- he's an actor who lives in Philadelphia. Nehemiah Persoff was a wonderful actor.   I go back so far with him.  There was a movie I worked on when I was about twenty called Men in War, and he was in that.  He played a young G.I. 

We did another one where Milton Selzer was hiding secrets in his toy shop.

NS: Yes, that's "The Wall," another great episode.

MPMilt Selzer was one of my favorite guest stars and such a delight to work with.  Very funny, and had a wry way about him.  I admired his body of work -- he had been in so many good movies.  It was nice to work with someone older who was still acting.

NS: My favorite episode you directed was "Walking Dead" about voodoo and the Haitian underworld. 

MP: We shot that one in Hollywood.  We came back there the last year.  I think Richard Dean was tired of the rain, and they made a deal to shoot at Paramount Studios.  On that episode, I remember sitting there and waiting for a long time while the makeup was put on the characters. 

NS: Another one of my favorites of yours is "Squeeze Play" which guest starred Reggie Jackson. 

MP: I loved that episode.  I'm a baseball fan.  Reggie gave me an autographed baseball and I still have it.  With that ending scene, we were trying to imitate The Natural when we broke the lights.  The special effects department went all out on that one -- for a television show, that was a big stunt.  Kent McCord (Novis Riley) was another of my favorite guest stars -- I had known him for forever.   Della Reese was great too.  She was a nice lady – we should have had her sing more.

NS: What do you remember about "MacGyver's Women," the Western?

MP: You know who was in that, the one girl, do you know who she is?

NS: Yes, you're probably thinking of Traci Lords, the adult film star. 

MP: She was the sweetest girl.  She never said a swear word or anything.  I never saw her movies, but everybody would talk about it behind her back.  But she was a sweet girl. Is that episode the one where they hung him out in the woods?  

NS: Yes, that's right. 

MP: That was one of the best stunts that Richard did himself.  He had a harness on, but he actually hung there for the longest time.  And it was raining during that whole sequence -- I remember it like it was yesterday.  We're out in the middle of the woods, and my coffee cup is filling up with rain water.  And Richard, the poor guy -- it was just miserable.  But we all loved doing a Western.  It was great fun.  

NS: Another episode you did was "The Treasure of Manco," where MacGyver goes down to Peru.

MP: That was a nice episode.  I remember we walked on stage to look at the set they had built for the underground temple, and I was overwhelmed by how impressive it was.  They had built that thing out of mostly styrofoam, and it was enormous, almost as big as a two story building. Then the doors opened and the corn came down.  It was pretty miraculous for a television show to build a set like that.  We would never do that on Dallas or Hunter.

And Gregory Sierra -- he was a good actor.  He did a Walker: Texas Ranger with me where he played the president of some South American country.  That's what he would do. 

NS: Yeah, he played a similar role in two other episodes of MacGyver.   As for "Trail of Tears," that was about a power company encroaching on Native American lands.

MP: That was a nice episode.  Michael Gregory (Whitecloud) was a good actor.  One thing I liked about the series was that the stories were pretty good.  They were a little far-fetched, but I enjoyed it.  I liked the eerieness of it, and the locations were fantastic.  We shot at that power plant in Vancouver for a couple of days, and it was a real power plant.  You'd be hard pressed to do that in Los Angeles.

NS: "Two Times Trouble" was a memorable episode. 

MP: That was the girl from Dallas, Audrey Landers.  I worked with her sister on B.J. and the Bear.  

That tube into the water was another impressive set that they built.  Rick went down it and got all wet.  I can't say enough about how good he was and how willing he was to do that. A lot of actors don't want to get wet.  

NS: "Hind-Sight" was a flashback episode focusing on Dana Elcar's glaucoma. 

MP: We called that type of show a bottle show.  We only shot for two days, and the rest of it was all flashback.  It was easy to shoot.  We got paid for seven days work but shot it in two days.  They still saved a lot of money on salaries and residuals by doing a flashback episode.  

As for Dana, he was practically blind and was going through eye surgery.  He was not well. But he loved being in that bed and being wheeled around.

NS: Which of these episodes was your favorite. 

MP: Two Times Trouble and the baseball one and the Western.

NS: How did you like working with Steve Downing and Michael Greenburg?

MP: Steve Downing I had worked with on T.J. Hooker.  He was a good writer and a good boss.  He was always working on two to three shows ahead, so I didn't see him as often during filming.  But Michael Greenburg was right there every moment.  He was great -- one of the best producers I've worked with.  He was really well organized. We're still friends on Facebook. 

NS: What do you remember about Richard Dean Anderson?

MP: He was athletic and he could do everything and make it look good.  He really knew what he was doing.  It was so easy with him.  Patrick Duffy from Dallas was like that in terms of doing everything – ride a horse, shoot a gun.  Richard had stuntmen, but he could do everything right up to the big stunt and make it look real.  Ride a horse, ride a motorcycle, everything.  

He would always be right on the set.  He had a motor home with a gym he was towing, and he had a buzzer set up.  They would buzz him, like two buzzes for when he had to be on set in ten minutes and then one buzz when it was time to go on set.  Then he would jump on a bicycle and ride up to the set.  He always knew his dialogue and was not a prima donna.

NS: Can you say more about the gym he had?

MP:  He had a complete gym on a trailer he towed behind his motor home.  He had weights, treadmill, pulleys, punch machines, etc., all bolted down to the floor.

NS: That's really interesting because I always wondered how he stayed in shape.  Now that I'm getting older, I can appreciate his athleticism even more and the things that he was doing in his late 30's.  

MP: He was not a big body builder, but he knew how to work out.  And he was a very clean liver, except for Friday nights which was his night out.  He’d have a couple of drinks but wouldn’t stay up real late.   But that was his night to do whatever he wanted.  During the week, he didn't drink or stay out.   A lot of actors do.  But he was a good boy and took care of himself.

He was a very good hockey player.  The crew used to play tennis ball hockey -- street hockey with a tennis ball.  One day, one guy hit Richard in the nose and it started bleeding.  They had to cover it with a band aid and makeup, and we couldn't shoot for like a day and a half.  He was so embarrassed.   He got out there every day at lunch and would play hockey or basketball.  

He actually lives about 4 houses down from me.

NS: Wow, really?!

MP: I don't see him that much.  Where we live in Malibu, nobody knows their neighbor.  

NS: What are you up to now?  

MP: There's a movie I'm supposed to direct, a Western shot in Santa Fe.  I was down there a year ago to scout locations.  We have a producer who is raising the money.  It's an expensive project, and we keep re-writing the script and hoping that an angel will come along and put up a whole bunch of money so that we can make it.

NS: Last question: how did MacGyver rate compared to other series that you directed?

MP: I liked Dallas, Hunter, and Falcon Crest, but I would probably say that MacGyver was my favorite of all time.  It was always fun.  Except for the rain!  I still have the rain gear from that show. 


  1. Another great interview! One of your best! Was this the guy you alluded to last month as someone you were trying to pin down? He remembers a lot and I liked the comprehensive analysis of all of the episodes. I've always felt the episodes of Preece's with the best directing work were "Two Times Trouble" and "Fraternity of Thieves". And even though I wasn't a fan of "MacGyver's Women", I thought the production work was exceptional. Very cool that he still has an autographed baseball from Reggie Jackson from "Squeeze Play". I also liked his insights on the production quality on "Treasure of Manco" and his description of the stunt at the end of "Squeeze Play". A casual viewer probably wouldn't think that stunt seemed so out of the realm of what was capable for TV but when you think about it I'm sure it was a huge tactical challenge. Nice insights about Richard Dean Anderson's routine on the set as well as his impressions of Mike Greenburg. Excellent interview all around.

    By the way, you mentioned earlier that you were gonna start sampling "Burn Notice" as your next TV viewing project. Have you gotten around to that yet?

    1. Thanks! This isn't the person I was referring to earlier -- still hoping to hear back from him at some point. Mr. Preece was a ton of fun to talk to and extremely friendly. His memory needed some jogging (not surprising since these were 25 years ago and he's directed a million episodes of television in his life), but once I gave him some details, he was able to remember a lot. That's one of the benefits of doing these by phone instead of email -- I imagine talking to RDA would be much the same way in that he wouldn't remember at first but would after some jogging. I still can't believe that RDA lives 4 houses down from him.

      Haven't gotten to Burn Notice yet. It's been a very busy month -- maybe when summer's over I can get into it.

  2. Great interview and some excellent insider stories from your second interviewee to recall the fun-sounding lunchtime hockey sessions. I wonder which episode was held up by RDA being hit on the nose? Although not one of my favourites, I just watched ''MacGyver's Women' for the hanging stunt Michael describes and was very conscious of the incessant rain throughout the entire filming. The actors did a great job of putting on a brave face!
    Every so often I watch the odd MacGyver episode at random and its good fun to go back and read the blog and all the comments afterwards. Will go and revisit some of the others mentioned by Michael armed with new background knowledge.