Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Paul Margolis: A Conversation

Paul Margolis wrote 4 episodes of MacGyver (Collision Course, The Black Corsage, Black Rhino, and The Lost Amadeus) and worked as a Story Editor during Season 5.  Today he works as a Real Estate Director in Beverly Hills.  He was really friendly and a lot of fun to talk to.  You can visit Paul online at his author page, and check out his book The Naked Philospher on Amazon - it has great reviews!

NS: How did you first get started on MacGyver?

PM: Executive Producer Stephen Downing read one of the tv movies I wrote and liked it, and he hired me to do several episodes of T.J. Hooker. Then he moved over to MacGyver and I moved on to other things, but our paths crossed again and he offered me the Collision Course episode. Part of the appeal was that I got to produce that episode too, so I was involved in the casting, production, and post production aspects of it.

And then there was an opening to be a story editor on the show. I really liked Steve and had gotten to know the cast and crew from Collision Course, so I said yes. I went and spent a year up in Vancouver working on the show that season and loved it.

NS: Richard Dean Anderson has said that Collision Course was the MacGyver episode "closest to his heart."

PM: He had a real love of race cars. One of the cool things about the show was that Steve Downing was always wanting to tap into people's passions, and so that was the source of a lot of stories. We all knew that Rick Anderson loved racing cars, so Steve said why don't you come up with a story about car racing where MacGyver races a car?

NS: Were you a fan of race car driving?

PM: I knew nothing about race car driving.  It involved doing a lot of research.  There was a track not far from Vancouver where I went and spent a lot of time talking to the drivers, and I did a lot of reading and learned about some of the dark aspects that went on in the world of racing.  I was looking for sources of conflict which is the key to any good story -- a conflict thread that can keep building and twisting. 

NS: The filming of the race car scenes on that episode was really well done. 

PM: We had access to this nearby track because that was where Rick raced along with producer Mike Greenburg.  Rick had a whole crew up there, so a lot of people in the show were people that were in his pit team or were other track officials.  They were only too happy to accommodate him.  So we got access to a lot of production values that another show wouldn't have got because he had already established himself at that racetrack.

NS: And that episode featured G. Gordon Liddy, the infamous Watergate burglar.

PM: I wish I could say I was responsible for casting him.  He was a really interesting guy. I remember a wonderful dinner in Vancouver that Steve Downing threw for Liddy. There were about 20 people there including Rick, Mike Greenburg, and a few others who starred in the episode.  And Liddy told this amazing story about being afraid of rats, and I remember this story because I've always been afraid of rats.  He said there were rats in the basement of the house he grew up in, and the way he overcame his fear of rats is he went down to the basement, caught a rat, killed it, and ate it.

NS: Whoa.

PM: And he was never afraid of rats again.  I've never forgotten that story.

NS: Yeah, I can see why!

PM: I should have incorporated that as a monologue in one of the MacGyver episodes I wrote!

NS: Let's move on to The Black Corsage.  Supposedly it was intended for Jesse Colton but the actor Richard Lawson wasn't available so Jesse's brother Frank took his place.

PM: I was the one who proposed the idea of having another Colton brother.  And I also suggested having a whole family of Coltons, and we meet Billy Colton in Black Rhino. Unfortunately I was not involved in the later Coltons pilot.   But it worked out in The Black Corsage because Cleavon Little was great as Frank Colton.  I remember we used the Expo site in Vancouver as the backdrop of the episode.

NS: Another thing notable about that episode is that it's the introduction of Frog Dog, who I am a huge fan of.

PM: I don't remember how I came up with the name of Frog.  It might have actually been Richard Dean Anderson -- we were sitting around and trying to come up with a name for this dog, and I think he may have come up with the name Frog.  It was a very collaborative show.

And the bulldog who played Frog was actually a dog that was used in a feature film.  He was kind of expensive and had his own wranglers and trainers, and he was kind of a celebrity dog.  

NS: I love it!  Frog Dog was a superstar!

PM: I also remember that episode because I got to play a cab driver who drops off MacGyver at the Expo site, but unfortunately it got cut out of the episode.  But I did have my day of glory with makeup and wardrobe -- I was there on the set all day pretending I was a cab driver.

NS: Now let's get into Black Rhino, one of the series' most distinctive episodes.  What inspired you to write that one?

PM: One day I read in the New York Times about how the Black Rhinos were being poached to extinction in Africa, and I walked into Steve's office and said, "I think we should do an episode where MacGyver goes to Africa and saves the Black Rhinos."  Any other show, the showrunner would have said, "Get out of my office," but that was one of the cool things about the show -- we could do anything.  We turned an area outside Vancouver into the African Savannah.

NS: The scene where the poached rhino gets shot is a powerful one.

PM: I came up with a set piece and presented it to Steve Downing as the centerpiece of the episode: that MacGyver and this female game ranger come upon poachers that have just hacked the horns of this rhino, and the rhino is dying.  MacGyver grabs a rifle out of the hands of one of the poachers, and MacGyver is standing there with this rifle and he has to decide whether or not to kill the rhino.  Which for MacGyver would be this tremendous moral dilemma because he never used a gun -- that's what the whole series was about.  

I originally wrote in the first draft that he cannot bring himself to shoot the rhino because of his feeling about guns and so the ranger grabs it out of his hands, aims, and kills the rhino.  I thought that was the most powerful way to write that scene, but Richard Dean Anderson would not do it that way.  He said, "I need this to be rewritten because MacGyver would never hold a gun in his hands." And so I had to rewrite it when we were in production so that the ranger grabs the rifle from the poacher, and the camera keeps cutting away to MacGyver just standing there watching. To me that was too passive, and the first draft version made him a very active character in the story and confronted him with the moral dilemma of a gun.  The way they shot it, he's just sort of a passive bystander in the scene, and I didn't think that that was the most effective way to shoot that.  But I was just the writer so I got overruled on that one.

NS: Do you remember anything about the rhino animatronic?  Many viewers thought it was real when they first saw it.

PM: Again, kudos to Steve Downing who said that we'll do whatever it takes to make a great story. They hired the guy who created E.T. to build an animatronic rhino.  Way, way over budget for us on that episode, but it worked.  That rhino was actually given to the Bronx Zoo and was used in one of their displays.

Another thing I remember about that episode which was very touching was that after it aired, I got a ton of letters mostly from kids all over the United States saying things like, "Thank you so much for writing this episode about the Black Rhino.  We have started a Black Rhino club at our school and are collecting money to save the Black Rhinos."  And that was so amazing to me to realize the effect of writing an episode of television -- you can touch people's lives. I remember once teaching a screenwriting workshop in New Zealand and someone told me, "I remember seeing that episode when I was 10 years old and it made me want to be a screenwriter."  That was a very humbling and gratifying result of writing an episode like that.

It was also the only episode of MacGyver that won an award.  It won a Genesis Award which is the highest honor for any kind of programming that promotes animal rights.  I accepted the award with Henry Winkler.

NS: What do you remember about The Lost Amadeus?

PM: I came up with the idea but didn't know anything about violins.  I tracked down this little but prestigious violin shop in Seattle, and I drove down there and spent the day with the master violin maker there.  And some of the things from the story came out of things he told me.  For example, he had these halon gas detectors that would spread the gas in case of a fire because you couldn't have sprinklers that would spray water and ruin the priceless violins.  And we used that in the episode.

And there was a wonderful soundtrack to that episode which involved violin music.  It was submitted by Paramount for an Emmy for best music in an episode, but it didn't end up being nominated.

NS: Do you remember much about the other Season 5 episodes that you worked on as a story editor?

PM: I don't remember much at all.  When you're on staff on a tv show like that, you work like a dog -- 8 in the morning until 11 at night, and sometimes I'd pull all nighters. Sometimes we'd have scripts come in from freelance writers that were unproducible, and it was one of our turns to pull an all nighter and get it in shape for the production meeting the next morning.  So as you could probably imagine, the last thing we wanted to do was to go home and watch MacGyver on television.  So frankly, there are a lot of episodes even in Season 5 that I never saw.  If I wasn't working on it, I may not have had any contact with it.

I do remember doing a rewrite for an episode about MacGyver in a classroom or something.

NS: Yeah, that's Live and Learn.

PM: There was a line, something about Archimedes saying, "Give me a lever that's long enough and I will move the world."  And there's some kid that's having trouble with his father. I don't remember much else, but I did a major rewrite on that one.

NS: Any other good Richard Dean Anderson stories?

PM: He was an amazing guy and a wonderful person.  Very modest and didn't want a lot of credit for things.  One thing he would do every Christmas -- and he didn't want anyone knowing about it and didn't want the press to find out because he didn't want any credit -- he would go to a local hospital and hang out with kids.  That's just something he would do because he cared about them and cared about stuff like that.

NS: Did you know Dana Elcar well?

PM: I didn't know him too well.  I knew Bruce McGill pretty well.  He and I would hang out a little bit and have dinner.  I remember a very nice dinner where he treated my girlfriend and I in the hills of Vancouver.  Dana was kind of a private person and didn't mix very much with the gang there off the set.

NS: What do you think of the new MacGyver reboot?

PM: I saw a promo for it and I thought, "I don't know how they're going to do this." Because when MacGyver came out in the 80's, it was a very different dramatic form.  It was a basic, very clear 4 act structure and a tag, and there was basically one story line -- a very simple kind of storytelling.  But now television has evolved into a complex, deeper character driven medium now, and I think the best writing today is on television, not feature films.  Shows now have multi story threads that are being interwoven together, and the idea of a single story is a very old fashioned approach.

So I'm sure they're going to come up with a multi thread way to do the new MacGyver.  But that's not really MacGyver. They're using the name MacGyver and the idea of a character who puts together a piece of tin foil and bubble gum and comes up with a bomb, but there's a lot more to MacGyver than just that.  I don't think it's going to work, personally.  I think people are going to be disappointed because it's going to be a wisecracking, younger version of MacGyver and likely won't have the charm of the original MacGyver.


  1. Nice Interview! It's always interesting to read how some of the episodes came to be.

  2. I had thought there were multiple and interchangeable "Frog Dogs" -- I wonder what the movie was that featured him.

    The story about RDA and the Black Rhino gun was interesting. In Trail to Doomsday he not only picks up a gun but also fires it (though not with the intent to harm), but they were going for an edgier MacGyver in that movie.

    I had assumed that as story editor for all the Season 5 episodes that Paul would have worked on all the episodes, but he said that wasn't the case. When I asked him if he remembered anything about The Madonna, Halloween Knights, and Passages he said he had no memory of any of those and had probably not worked on them, but his memory of the episodes he wrote was really good despite it being decades ago.

    1. I forgot to comment on the "Black Rhino" part. I actually agree with RDA. It would have been odd for "MacGyver" to have to shoot the rhino....since he was standing next to a bunch of wardens who worked at that preserve whose job it was while he was just a guest.

  3. Great interview. He really remembered and shared a lot. This one flowed more like a telephone or instant message interview. For some reason I always thought Margolis was a Canadian writer so I was surprised to see he came to Vancouver to work on the series. Although I do remember him having writing credits on "TJ Hooker" so I don't know why I assumed that.

    A lot of information about "Collision Course". G. Gordon Liddy hosted a right-wing radio talk show in the 90s so it's a little surprising he was such good buddies with the left-wing crew of "MacGyver". I've never been a racing fan either and can relate to how challenging it would be to write and produce an episode of a show about it. It was very well executed though, particularly since the weather didn't cooperate during the filming and it seemed to always be raining.

    His story about "The Black Corsage" somewhat conflicts with the media reports and interview with Downing back in 1991 about how "The Coltons" came to be, but perhaps he's just saying his idea of how the additional Colton brothers came to be was his idea after Lawson had to pull out of "The Black Corsage". No surprise that Frog was in high demand. English bulldogs are notoriously temparemental and lazy so to find one that cooperative with the production was really impressive. Cool that RDA came up with the name "Frog".

    I imagine "MacGyver" would be about the only show where a writer could walk into the room and pitch a story about saving the black rhino in an African setting and get the okay from the producer. It was exceptionally well done all around and I wonder how they got around going overbudget on an episode like that. I'm guessing that doing an episode like "The Madonna" that didn't require as heavy of production values allowed them to even things out some.

    I couldn't help but notice that you didn't have much to ask about "The Lost Amadeus"! I did enjoy the soundtrack and production values on that one so it doesn't surprise me it was up for Emmy consideration.

    Much as I used to want to work in TV, I don't think I could cut the kind of schedule Margolis described. I require my downtime too much. Great story about RDA volunteering at hospitals for children over Christmas.

    I think a faction of viewers will embrace the retro storytelling style of the new "MacGyver" if they follow that approach. Margolis mostly describes all the heavily hyped cable shows with his description of modern TV writing styles. There's some of that on network television as well but especially on CBS they have maintained fairly old-fashioned approaches to TV crime dramas. I haven't watched much of the "NCIS" franchise but from what I've seen there's not much in the realm of "multistory threads woven together". The bar is very high for "MacGyver" though so Lenkov has his work cut out for him.

    Thanks again for another great interview.

    1. It was a telephone interview, so that's why it flowed like one. :) I'm not sure what Downing said about the Coltons but I took Paul's point to be that it was his idea to add a brother after Lawson couldn't make it and then to add another in Black Rhino, but he wasn't involved in the Coltons pilot (even though it sprouted from his original idea).

      And I'm with you on the schedule -- I wouldn't enjoy working 16 hour days and pulling all nighters.