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“The world needs a hero like MacGyver now.”

A conversation with MacGyver creator Lee David Zlotoff
By: Stephanie Shimada
November 21, 2013 —


Lee David Zlotoff's character MacGyver

Q: Take us back — MacGyver debuted in 1985. What’s the television landscape like at this time?

A: This was when The Cosby Show was on, Murder She Wrote, Who’s the Boss, The A-Team. But there’s been this almost complete inversion between TV and film. It used to be that films were about weighty, controversial and intense subjects and that TV was really more escapist mind candy. Now, it’s the other way around.

Q: So MacGyver is a secret agent who is best known for his engineering prowess. What was the evolution of his character?

A: The first key decision about the character was to send him into a dangerous situation with no weapons and basically nothing and make him sort things out from there. That meant his only real tool was his mind. He knew everything. He knew physics, he knew chemistry, electronics and so on; he could look at any given situation, and, using whatever was available, produce something that would get him out of the situation or overcome the bad guy. Because, although this was originally done for purely dramatic purposes, if you don’t give him a gun, he’s gotta find a different way to defeat the bad guys, which really became the hook for the show.

Q: As the creator of MacGyver, what sort of responses and fan mail would you get from kids, parents or viewers about inspiring an interest in science or creating new things?

A: I literally could not tell you how many times people have come up to me and said, “I became an engineer, or I went into the sciences because of MacGyver.” Just this past week, I gave a talk at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where I heard this from a number of people. But one young man in particular came up after the talk and said, “I have to tell you flat out the only reason I went to college was because I wanted to do what MacGyver did. I realized the only way I could do that was by going to college, and if I hadn’t gone to college, I wouldn’t be working here at JPL. And I owe it all to MacGyver. Thank you.”

Clearly, MacGyver inspired people to look at the world differently, and to look at science not as this dry dead thing, but as the ability to perhaps redefine the narrative of whatever challenges they were facing. That fact alone has literally changed countless lives just based on the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen.

The other thing, curiously enough, I hear repeatedly was that MacGyver proved to be a show the whole family could watch together. Dad liked it because of the engineering stuff. Mom liked it because he wasn’t always shooting a gun. The kids said, wow, here’s a show that mom and dad like, and I can watch it at the same time; and we’re all interested. It became a remarkable family event.

Lee David Zlotoff

Q: Exciting kids to the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has been declared a national priority by the president and American industry. What are your thoughts on the power of TV and film to excite kids to these things or specific professions in general?

A: Well there’s no question that if you see something on TV or film that excites or inspires you, you are more likely to go out and try to imitate it. Let’s face it. They put on the Olympics, and kids want to be gymnasts, ice skaters and high jumpers.

If TV or film exposes you to something, that’s how you become aware of it, and if you are aware of it then you can potentially see yourself doing it.

So do I think entertainment could play a key role in this? Absolutely. Certainly it’s one of the reasons that I’m now trying to bring MacGyver back on a slew of platforms as well as in directed, project-based educational curriculum.

Q: So if someone came up to you today and said we really want to launch the next great TV show about engineers or scientists. What would be your ideas or advice to them?

A: I would say it isn’t important to call him an engineer or a scientist. Just call him something else and have him or her use the capabilities and skill sets of an engineer and scientist and let the backstory explain how they’re able to do all this. But if you start out saying we want to do a story about an engineer, its like saying we want to do a show about an accountant. Really?

So the key is to have the character do what you want them to do, but don’t worry about what you call him. MacGyver clearly had all these skill sets, but he was portrayed as a secret agent of sorts, not an engineer.

Q: So, I read somewhere that you actually do carry around a Swiss Army knife or duct tape, is that true?

A: The only time I don’t have a Swiss Army knife with me is when I travel by plane because they won’t let me keep it with me, which becomes a problem unless I’m checking luggage.

Q: What’s the most fascinating single thing you ever learned about science or technology?

A: To me, the most astonishing thing about science is the fact that it is evolving, that it is dynamic and that it is fundamentally creative, even though it may not appear so.

Everyone thought that Newton’s physics was the living end until Einstein came along and said, in effect, “I think I can turn this whole thing upside down because I don’t think that’s how reality works.”

Science is fluid. Science is not fixed and immutable and when you realize that science is a moving truth, an evolving truth, a developing truth, it’s a lot more exciting than if you think it’s just that stuff that some expert knows and you can do some things with it, but it’s a fixed dead thing. The truth is it’s the exact opposite. Science is changing all the time, and we are always discovering that what we thought to be the case was not actually or entirely the case.

Q: You have this quote here: “I am convinced that given the current pressures on national and global resources such as food, water, and energy, etc. certainly this country if not the world needs a hero like MacGyver now.” What makes this kind of hero so timely in 2013? Why now?

A: In addition to not simply resorting to violence, MacGyver represented the idea of “how do I take what I have and turn it into what I need?” As a global civilization, we can no longer sit around and say we all want everything. Because we all can’t have everything. Even the essentials are getting harder and harder to come by. So, as an effective approach, it might be better to ask, “what do I have and how can I find a way to turn what I have into what I need?” Which, like it or not, is something we are all going to need to do going forward.

Anyone who pays attention knows the resource issues are becoming literally more critical by the day. Food resources, water resources, energy resources, waste management — whether its CO2 or other forms of pollution, these are problems that affect all of us . . . And it’s not governments who are going to resolve these issues. Governments are just reflections of people. If and when the people are ready to resolve it, then governments will really act decisively. But before that, the governments will, I’m afraid, just talk and not do anything substantial.