It took more than duct tape and chewing gum to bring MacGyver back in 2016. The original show ran from 1985 to 1992 and starred Richard Dean Anderson as the title character, a hero who used his scientific knowledge to get out of tough scrapes and invent things on the fly to save the day.
Today, Lucas Till, a vet of the X-Men movie universe, plays MacGyver, who boasts the same DIY prowess and some of the same allies, but the world around the character has changed considerably in 30 years. The new series comes from producer Peter Lenkov (CBS’s Hawaii Five-0 reboot) with a pilot directed by Furious 7 director James Wan. It airs Friday nights at 8 p.m. on CBS, premiering September 23.
Here are 10 ways Lenkov, Wan, Till, and the cast reinvented MacGyver for today.
Today we all carry around cell phones full of apps that can search for answers to any question, call transportation and even find us a date. A world like this could be overwhelming to MacGyver, so the show will be about finding situations in which only MacGyver can help.
“I actually think it makes it more interesting,” Wan said. “When the original series came out where MacGyver was dealing with science and engineering, that was all cutting-edge stuff that he was dealing with. So in a world that is so heavily digital, I love that our lead hero is still somewhat analog, is very practical — right? — does everything with his hands and all of that still. So I actually think it makes it more interesting, and in a lot of ways, he’s a little bit like a fish out of water in some respect, having to adapt to this new environment. I actually think it’s more interesting.”
MacGyver can’t completely ignore the importance of technology, so the new series has invented a new character to handle cyber stuff. Tristin Mays plays Riley. She’s basically to MacGyver what Chloe O’Brien was to Jack Bauer on 24. She has access to computers, satellites, and anything not on the ground with Mac.
“Riley is not your average computer geek,” Mays said. “She’s kind of an unexpected, edgy character. When you first meet me, I’m in prison. They bail me out of jail to help them on their quest. I kind of get conned into joining their crew. They are my ticket out of jail, and we become a family. I’m the one that helps him sneak past a security camera. I’ll hack into the servers and all of this stuff and figure out how to get him through a building. So I do bring that sort of technological aspect to the show. I’ll shut off the security camera. He’ll sneak by and take out a security guard. We are a team.”
Jason Bourne is so serious and even the new James Bond is dour. Heck, Batman and Superman are super serious now. In a way, all the show creators have to do is bring back the essence of MacGyver, and he’ll stand out from today’s grim and gritty action series.
“We’re embracing what this character is,” Wan said. “We know he’s a fun character and we just kind of go along with it. I think that is so unique in a world of so many superheroes and in a world of James Bond and Jason Bourne and all that, it’s so cool to have a guy like this that is almost like a throwback Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones-esque character in a lot of ways. The only thing missing from him I would say is the hat and the whip.”
On the original series, Jack Dalton was sort of a lovable troublemaker whom MacGyver had to bail out as often as he relied on Dalton for a ride in his airplane. He also wasn’t in every episode. Dalton (George Eads) is now MacGyver’s full-fledged partner and the muscle when Mac really does need a big gun.
“I think Jack’s his Swiss army knife in human form, his junkyard dog,” Eads said. “His Han Solo to his Luke Skywalker kind of thing. It kind of stems from a pretty healthy friendship away from the camera. We try to bring as much of ourselves as we can to it.”
Consistent with the original show, MacGyver does not like guns. Dalton is also the show’s way to address when guns may sometimes be necessary
“Well, it would be unrealistic to do this type of show and not have anybody have a gun,” Lenkov said. “I think MacGyver is the kind of guy that, if he needs a weapon, he’ll build it. He’s not a gun guy. George’s character is very different. He’s ex-military. He’s the guy that sees the value in a gun as a defensive weapon. This is very true to the original concept of the show, which is MacGyver is not a gun guy. MacGyver is a different type of hero.”
Dana Elcar costarred as Pete Thornton in the original. The new MacGyver also includes a Thornton, but the role is now “Patricia Thornton” and played by Sandrine Holt. Not only does the casting help ensure that the new MacGyver isn’t a total boys’ club, but the new Thornton also provides a nice counterpoint to MacGyver and Dalton.
“I play Patricia Thornton, who is the boss lady,” Holt said. “They are young blood, and I sort of see my character as sort of old school, Black Ops trained, the boss that just is in the field sometimes and kind of tries to keep things from being derailed, which doesn’t work all the time. Maybe even sort of like the parent, the voice of reason.”
Justin Hires plays Wilt Bozer in the 2016 version of the show, appearing in every episode, which means he’s a lot more significant a character than Robin Mossley’s Bozer, who only appeared in eight episodes of the original show.
“I play Mac’s best friend and roommate,” Hires said. “I don’t know what he does. I think I bring a little heart and humor to the show. I give Mac some type of normalcy. He goes out and solves these crazy missions, and then when he comes home, I bring some type of just normalcy. He gets to be around a regular human being. So that’s what I bring to the show.”
MacGyver was not only reconfigured from the original 1985 show, but it was also reworked from its original pilot. CBS shot a pilot that will not air. Then they brought on Lenkov and had Wan direct the new pilot. The only things that remain are Till and Eads.
“I look at it like a company that goes into R&D,” Lenkov said. “They want to make sure they, at the end of the day, come out with the best product possible. They did do a version of the pilot. There was a lot of things that worked, and I think there were some things that didn’t work. I think everybody felt that we could do better.
“I think one of the good things that came out of that version of the pilot was the relationship between George and Lucas,” Lenkov continued. “We felt that a lot of pilots don’t succeed because of casting. Here, the thing that everybody recognized was that they had cast it right, but all we need to do is now tell the right story. So building a story around these two characters, I think that’s really where the challenge was after that first pilot. Again, it was a very expensive dress rehearsal, but at the end of the day, it was worth it, because I think we got the best product out of it.”
Shared universes are all the rage now. Look at the Marvel movies. DC is trying to do the same for its comic book characters. Star Wars is introducing anthology movies, and even the Conjuring horror movies that Wan directed have side movies spun off from them. MacGyver may coexist with CBS’s other hit shows like Hawaii Five-0, NCIS, and Scorpion.
“I hope so,” Lenkov said. “We specifically did a little nod in the pilot of this show to Hawaii Five-0. So I’m hoping that we all coexist, because I’m hoping, at some point, we get the opportunity to do a crossover.”
Sometimes MacGyver will run into some tough guys he can’t elude with one of his inventions. He will have to fight his way through them, and Till is willing to get in there and roughhouse with stuntmen. On TV, he doesn’t have much time to learn fight choreography, so Till pretty much wings it.
“Hey look, there’s a fight scene coming up in 20 minutes,” Till said. “There’s 30 moves to learn. All right, here we go. That’s about the prep that we get, because honestly the schedule is ambitious, and we want to make it good, and that’s what we’ve got time to do. It’s something I enjoy doing, so over the years I’ve picked it up I guess.”
The new MacGyver hangs from an airplane as it’s taking off, jumps from a crashing speedboat, and drops from a helicopter onto a moving truck — and that’s only in the first episode. It used to be that only movies could pull of this kind of stunt work, but now producers can accomplish it on television.
“We did a lot of things in this,” Wan said. “Peter wrote such a really fun, great pilot that there were a lot of things to play with. I felt like there was never a shortage of some exciting things that we were doing every day that we were filming. I feel very fortunate that the script that I had to go out there as my first foray into television was a really, really fun, big world, and I think it really set this international stage that MacGyver basically lives in for the rest of the series.”
They even have ways to let Till do the stunts himself, safely, now. Sometimes that means green screen.
“A lot is me,” Till said. “I try to do as much as I can. I’m jumping out of a helicopter, but it wasn’t a real helicopter. We’ve gotten a lot better technology-wise at being able to make it safe. I have been on the back of several moving vehicles at this point. All the fights are me so far.”