Saturday, September 19, 2015

Stephen Kandel: A Conversation -- Part 2

Stephen Kandel has been one of my favorite MacGyver interviews so far due to his entertaining and informative answers.  I had been hoping to have him back for a Part 2, and thanks to him it has come to fruition!  If you missed Part 1 of our conversation, read it here.

NS: Is your last name pronounced KAN-del or kan-DELL?

SK: kan-DELL.

NS: I'd love to know the backstory on what inspired some of the episodes that you wrote which we didn't cover last time:
  • A Prisoner of Conscience
    • SK: Do you remember the Satanic craze of the 80's?  Prosecutors brought innumerable cases against teachers and counselors - based on fantasaical "confessions" and "testimony" created by pressuring kids as young as five to describe teachers performing cannibalism, ritual sacrifice, sexual acts and evoking Satan in kindergartens and lower grades.  Despite the obvious fact that no adults, who were nearby or within sight, ever noticed these alleged horrors - psychologist and therapists added "expert" testimony -- and a large number of innocent teachers were sent to prison -- or mental health facilities.  I thought this would be an interesting area.  Network shit a brick.  So I evoked Soviet Political Madhouses -- ergo the episode.  I still regret not being able to get the original idea, un-american as it was, by.
  • Pirates
    • SK: Modern piracy was in the news -- I wanted to do a riff on it, have some fun -- no more.
  • Ghost Ship
    • SK: I liked this one, too.  Started with a discussion on how to commit a creative crime -- and, considering the price of oil, came up with the idea of looting a tanker -- siphoning off what could be fifty million dollars without a trace - transfer, vanish, reappear, resell.  The other candidate was a computer-based scheme to alter bank deposit slips so that everyone who used a bank deposit slip would inadvertently deposit the money into the swindler's account.  Too tame, too theoretical, too hard to explain.  So Ghost Ship it was --  The actual process of writing is always interesting to me.  Sometimes you rewrite forever; very rarely you have to rethink the whole damned thing.  But Ghost Ship took me about a day -- it was all in my head, I just had to get it down. 
  • The Odd Triple
    • SK: Odd Background.  I stole it, without shame, from an episode I'd written for The Rogues, one of TV's great early efforts.  In that version, the good guys were the con men, using the jewels as bait -- and aided, without their knowledge, by the police forces of three nations.  I just reversed the morality.  Frankly, The Rogues' version was more fun -- not least because the cast was truly stellar: David Niven, Charles Boyer, Gig Young, Margaret White -- great to write for.  But it worked nicely for MacGyver, too.
  • The Spoilers
    • SK: Just doing environmental good -- and emphasizing the fact that MacGyver is an environmentalist.  We tried, every now and again, to slip in something about global climate change -- but it was too early.
NS: Did you ever try to give MacGyver a romantic partner?

SK: Love and MacGyver just didn't mix very well.  Somehow, our lead was likeable, even loveable -- but hard to ignite.  Or maybe we couldn't find the right chemical mix.  I'd always wanted to try a story in which MacGyver has to team up with a female chemical engineer, specializing in explosives -- to find a common ground, but somehow it never happened.  I did try a story in which MacGyver works on exposing a fake spiritualist -- who is, of course, a gorgeous woman -- and while he exposes the group around her, discovers she actually believes in her powers.  Ending would be ambiguous -- could she really....?  Didn't happen; I'm not sure why.

NS: Who was the most talented actor/actress that you ever worked with (not just from MacGyver but from any series)?

SK: Most Talented?  Carroll O'Connor.  GOOD actor.  I optioned the Pat Hobby Stories for him -- was in the process of putting it together - as a limited series -- with Carroll hot to trot -- and @#$% Norman Lear came along with All in the Family.  At least I got Carroll for an I Spy episode -- in which he did one of the best line readings in history.  When the I Spy Guys nail him as a super-evil, mind-bending enemy mole -- he shrugs and announces "Okay, I defect.  You are now responsible for my safety, gentlemen - I'm worth at least two of your divisions, I shall require adequate housing, stipend, laboratory space -- and I am now one the USA's major cold-war assets.  Congratulations."

Something like that, only more graceful - and Carroll made it memorable.  I'm still in mourning about Pat Hobby -- it would've been a labor of love and rue.

Of course, there were others.  Charles Boyer, a Gallic Ego of Monumental proportions, nevertheless was a sly, penetrating actor.   David Niven could deliver an ordinary line with enough panache to give it wings -- and so on.

The most important discovery was that Hollywood is full of solid, reliable journeymen actors who -- given the right script and director -- can rise to the occasion.  Of course, there was  Laurence Olivier -- whom I had in one of the shows I did in England.  I remember I was twitchy about the part, a perfect cameo -- about twenty minutes in the two-hour film, but it had to be really well done.  British Producer, very avuncular, "relax, dear boy -- we've found quite a good fellow, reliable, y'know --"  wouldn't tell me who, so I toddle in Shepperton -- and there is Olivier (call me Larry, loved the lines, we shall have fun, shan't we?) - immensely charming, of course.  But also good.  So there's an endless answer to a short query.

NS: I noticed on your credits that you worked on the original Hawaii Five-O.  What was that like, and did you meet Jack Lord?  What was he like?

SK: Hawaii 5-0 - I did it for the money, escaped producing it after meeting Jack Lord who was GOD, at least in his own inner-directed eyes, and a big presence on the islands.  I got in some surfing, had few problems -- so what the hell?  If you get ulcers from egos -- get thee to a monastery.

NS: I noticed that your papers are kept in the UCLA library.  Is there anything related to MacGyver in there, like any scripts or notes?

SK: I frankly cannot remember.  I was interested in cleaning up what was becoming a Collyer Brothersworthy heap of paper -- and UCLA took it off my hands.  I'm still finding odd remnants of this and that (who remembers the Brothers Brannigan or The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart?) - and if I ever get around to it, I'll send the stuff off to UCLA.

NS: How do you spend your time nowadays?

SK: I'm deep into a novel and also a libretto for an opera.  Which is a long shot.  I wrote the book and lyrics for a musical (which died a hideous death out of town) so I'm clearly a belated Lorenzo da Ponte.  But I'm having fun - writing at a very leisurely pace.  I had a reading of a play of mine a few years ago, at Bennington, and I'm considering noodling with that again.  No pressure, many grandchildren, life is good.

3 comments:

  1. Nice second act. Did you just decide to reach out again recently with more questions and see if he'd bite? I hope I'm as savvy at age 88 as he is!

    I was pretty fascinated with the whole "Satanism" phase of the late 80s which you probably were a little too young to remember so I'd have dancing on the tables if "MacGyver" had done an episode in that prism. Easy to see why the network suits vetoed that story idea though given the age of the audience. I definitely would never have figured "A Prisoner of Conscience" started out as a story idea about being possessed by the devil. I was originally excited about "The Walking Dead" because I thought it would have that context.

    The story idea of the stolen oil tanker was very cool by itself in "Ghost Ship" but I wonder if the addition of the Sasquatch storyline was afterthought that the crew asked him to work into the primary story with the oil thieves.

    The other stuff was all very interesting too. Not a big surprise that Jack Lord was a difficult personality. I didn't realize Kandel worked on the original "Hawaii Five-O" but I suppose it shouldn't surprise me given his substantial resume. Glad he's enjoying his retirement but his "leisurely pace" might very well exceed my pace on an active day!

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    1. Yeah I got back in touch to see if he'd do another round. There are still some episodes he wrote that we didn't touch on so maybe someday there will be a third round! He really has been one of if not my favorite cast/crew members I've talked to so far, and I'd love to look through his library papers if I'm ever in L.A. and have time. You're right that I had no memory or knowledge of the Satanism phase.

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  2. Kandel's comment on Jack Lord is typical of many who say negative things, but never explain them. Did Kandel that Jack was a co-producer and every right to be in charge of the set? How does he know what Jack was thinking?Actors and crew who came to the set made these claims about Jack, just because he was charge and in their inner-directed eyes, to use Kandel's term, it bothered them, as though they have any say in it. Just because Jack was in charge of the set, that doesn't mean he was godlike or a difficult personality. I spoke to other writers who worked on Hawaii Five-O - including John D.F. Black, Arthur Kean, Jerome Coopermsith, and others, and none of them had problems working with Jack.

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