Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Pat O'Brien: A Conversation

Pat O'Brien is a property master who worked on MacGyver during the show's Vancouver run.  He was kind enough to answer many questions from me and also from Lance, a regular on the MacGyver Online forums and someone with a special interest in props from the show. 

NS: What was your role, exactly, as the property master?

POB: To make sure all the props were procured and on set in time for filming.

L: Did the various props come from a prop warehouse or were they "Found"/OTS (off the shelf) items? What was done with these props after filming?  I'm specifically interested in the jade dragon from "Lost Love Parts I & II", the wolf mask from "Mask of the Wolf", and the pieces of Diana's Mirror from "Legend of the Holy Rose Part I & II."

POB: It is a bit of a mix. The way it works is, we read the script and then do a "break down." This is where we go through each scene and make a list of all the props. And of course many props are not scripted, for instance the scene may say "A lawyer walks into his office." We then have to think about what kind of briefcase would this guy have? What kind of watch? Is he married and needs a wedding ring? Basically every detail needs to be listed. Then we go out and find everything.

It is a mix of renting from prop houses, buying, and building what is required. I also have an inventory of props on my props truck which we can pull from.

After filming we itemize each prop and put them away safely in case of re-shoots or inserts. There were a lot of inserts on MacGyver, and most of MacGyver’s close tight shots of just his hands were a hand double. These shots were often done weeks after main unit filming, so we had to take care to get good photos and keep the props safe. Often a "hero" prop was nothing more than a stick, but it had to match the main unit filming.

Unfortunately I did not do two of the shows you mentioned. There were two props master who alternated, also I only worked on some of the episodes done in Vancouver, seasons 3 - 6. The Jade Dragon was sculpted by a props maker and then made into a mold. We had three hero ones and several ones to break.

L: What was the turnaround time on getting the various props ready for each episode?

POB: Each episode took 7 days to shoot so we generally had 7 days to prep a show. Sometimes we would get scripts ahead so we could start on props that had to be built or were difficult to find.

What factors went into the selection of the vehicles ('87 jeep wrangler, '57 nomad, '46 chevy pick up) driven by MacGyver?

POB: Vehicles were handled by the Transportation department. The Jeep was chosen after season one in L.A. But when any prop, vehicle or wardrobe is chosen it is based on the character and the specific needs of the script.

L: Why were two Jeep Wranglers used on the show?

POB: We have a saying in props which some other departments have to adhere to -- the saying is: "One, is none." If we have a prop, and we only have one, and it breaks, or is lost or stolen or stained, we are screwed because the prop will be needed in subsequent scenes. Sometimes, we will need to have two units shooting in which case we would need at least two props, and usually we would try to have 4 or 5 of a particular item. That is a long way of saying that we would often have to put the Jeep on a trailer for shots where MacGyver was driving, then have the Jeep do a pull up to a location. It would take too long to take the vehicle off the trailer so two were needed.

NS: How many Swiss Army Knives did you have on hand?  Anything else interesting about the procurement or use of the knives?

POB: We kept a dozen or so with us at all times, and there was the odd occasion where we would need a specific one so we would buy several for that scene. The company gave us permission to use the knives but we had to buy them.

NS: What was your favorite episode to work on, and what were some of your most memorable props?

POB: My favorite show was the one (Harry's Will) where we had a whole cast full of cameos. Henry Winkler, one of our Executive Producers, Marion who was Mrs. Cunningham on Happy Days, Dick Butkus, Rich Little and several more. That was fun working with lots of different stars.

My most memorable prop was from the hockey episode (Thin Ice). One of the characters, MacGyver's old coach, was on the 1960 US Olympic hockey team.  The US won the gold medal that year and one of the props we needed was the gold medal.  I called the Olympic committee in Denver and they said one of the team members worked for the Canucks. Big score, so I thought. The fellow was a scout for the Canucks but worked in Minnesota. I ended up in the office of the media relation person with the Canucks with the holder of the gold medal on the phone. I did and said everything I could but he just would not let it out of his sight. So in the end, the same person who sculpted and cast the jade dragon made me an Olympic gold medal. You do what you have to.

NS: What was it like working on the 2 Old West episodes?

POB: Those were great because we were working outside our normal sphere. We traveled to Calgary for one of the episodes, the one Murdoc was in (Serenity). It was interesting trying to keep the MacGyver theme and look but in the 1860’s.

NS: There are lots of interesting props or sets that come to mind - here are a few that I wonder if you have any thoughts or recollections about:

  • Ghost Ship -- the big tanker in the middle of nowhere where MacGyver eludes Bigfoot, and the Bigfoot costume itself
    • POB: The tanker and costume I did not work on but I had to create the voice box that gave Bigfoot his weird growl, and of course the tracking device Mac put in the pipeline.
  • Murderer's Sky -- a birdcage that shot poison arrows
    • POB: That was built by the same props maker who made the dragon and gold medal. We found the cage and had then created the special bottom. The special effects department then make the thing fire.
  • Brainwashed -- the magic mirror/fun house.
    • POB: That was shot at a place in Vancouver called Playland, at their House Of Mirrors.
  • Black Rhino -- the rhino that was dehorned and dying
    • POB: That was an interesting one because many people thought we killed a real rhino for the show, that’s how good the animatronic one looked. It was made by a company in L.A. and was operated by several people who had to hide inside the creature. One interesting note is that a line of dialogue was cut that really upset the producers. The line was Macgyver’s where he explains to Thornton why the poachers wanted the horns. He said “They make them into knife handles that are given to young boys as a right of passage into adulthood, isn’t that sick?” The studio made them cut the line because they were afraid of offending the very people responsible for the killing of these animals. One has to wonder sometimes about the thinking of some lawyers.


  1. When I first saw an interview with "Pat O'Brien" I thought you were talking about the old "Entertainment Tonight/Extra" host as I was unfamiliar with the name Pat O'Brien associated with "MacGyver". Pretty amazing that the "property master" doesn't get more credit for a production because it sounds like he had a very comprehensive and stressful job to arrange for with every single episode, especially if they needed to get two of everything as he said. I bet property masters have run into lots of angry directors over the years if they didn't have every specific prop available on hand at the time of filming. O'Brien didn't specifically get into how long before the production began that he had to arrange for the purchasing of all the set props.

    O'Brien cited "High Control" as the episode with all the guest cameos but he meant "Harry's Will" as I'm sure you picked up on it. Fascinating story about the attempt to get a gold medal to authenticate "Thin Ice" but eventually settling on a prop. Interesting extra details on the other episodes too. Great interview all around. I guess I always figured Mike Greenburg was in charge of production details like props and never realized there was a specific property manager role and that it was as involved as it clearly is.

    Good questions by Lance as well. Has Lance posted on the board elsewhere under a different name as I don't recall his name coming up in prior posts?

    1. Good catch on Harry's Will -- that was my bad (I filled that in for him and had a brain cramp while mixing up the "Earl Dent on a tricycle" episodes). I have fixed it now.

      I don't believe Lance has posted on the blog before. He sent me a message a while ago through the MacGyver Online site and asked if I could interview someone involved with the show's transportation and vehicles. I told him that if I got a hold of anybody that he could ask some questions. We thought the prop master would be the best bet, though Pat said that he wasn't involved with the vehicles.