Michael Des Barres talks Murdoc’s 'MacGyver' return

Lyndsey Parker

Legendary rocker/actor Michael Des Barres has played many roles — from his big-screen debut at age 17 in the 1967 Sidney Poitier film To Sir, With Love, to frontman of the Led Zeppelin-associated bands Silverhead and Detective and supergroups Chequered Past and the Power Station, to SiriusXM DJ on “Little Steven’s Underground Garage.” But many fans will know him best as the original MacGyver villain, Murdoc — and those fans are in for a treat, when Des Barres/Murdoc returns Friday, Feb. 2 to CBS’s MacGyver reboot (alongside the new Murdoc, played by David Dastmalchian), in the much-anticipated, sure-to-be-epic “Murdoc vs. Murdoc” episode.

Amusingly, Des Barres likens Dastmalchian stepping into the Murdoc role to that time in 1985 when he replaced Robert Palmer in the Power Station. (Des Barres made his onstage debut with that group in front of millions of fans at Live Aid, after only a few days of rehearsal.) “It was very similar to that, because here’s a guy who was really irreplaceable, I thought. I was a huge Robert Palmer fan. This was a similar situation [for Dastmalchian], but in the other way around — with him taking my gig, you know? And he was wonderful. David Dastmalchian is a fabulous actor. So that was really comforting. And then we became friends through social media!”

Des Barres concedes that this MacGyver is very different from the one he starred in from 1987-91 (“It’s much more of an action-oriented show than the initial incarnation”), but when he returned to the show, he found some old habits die hard. “The first day that I walked onto that set, I saw a trailer and it had ‘Murdoc’ on the door. I just automatically went over there, like some machine. I knocked on the door — and David came out. Great. I went to my other trailer.”

So, what’s Des Barres’s craziest memory from the original MacGyver series? “Well, I’m terrified of snakes,” he begins. “There was scene where I had to wade through these snakes to get to MacGyver. I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ What happened was, Richard [Dean Anderson], who was such a great guy, said, ‘Why don’t we just alter this?’ I got on his back, and he carried me through the snakes on his shoulders. Then we cut, and we’re all laughing. ‘Oh, no more snakes!’ But what the crew had done is they put a whole bunch of fake snakes in my trailer. ‘Oh, that’s real funny, guys.’ Then they went back and they told me, ‘There’s two snakes missing. You have to do the scene again. We didn’t quite get the angles, and there’s two snakes. There’s two snakes crawling around the set.’ Yeah, that was pretty horrible.”

As for the onscreen chemistry that Des Barres shared with original MacGyver actor Richard Dean Anderson (“the sweetest man in the world”), he says, ‘I think [MacGyver] is such a good man, and Murdoc was such an evil bastard, that it had a wonderful black and whiteness, which seemed to enmesh. I brought out the bad, the tension, in him, and he brought out some goodness in me perhaps every now and then.”

Murdoc isn’t the only villain role Des Barres has taken on. He has also played obnoxious punk singer Dog on the “Scum of the Earth” episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, a bad-boy womanizer in Allison Anders’s rock ‘n’ roll dramedy Sugar Town, and Amanda Woodward’s slimy corporate nemesis on Melrose Place. What makes him so perfect for malevolent characters?

“There’s only one reason for that: my cheekbones,” Des Barres quips. More seriously, he adds, “No, it’s like the classic British villain. … It goes back to the old Hammer movies, where you had these British actors that were so over-the-top and grandiose. Most American actors try and play it down because of Montgomery Clift and James Dean and Brando; they want to be real. I never wanted to be ‘real.’ I just want to be exciting and entertaining. I think I do bad good.”

Considering how Des Barres has played a rocker all his life, onscreen and off, it makes sense that he was recently enlisted to be a “vibe adviser” on another pop-culture reboot of sorts, the new A Star Is Born starring Lady Gaga (or “Stef,” as Des Barres she’s known on the set) and Bradley Cooper. “Let’s cut to the chase: If it’s a rock ‘n’ roll movie and you’ve got the wrong bracelet, I’m not going to enjoy the movie. The wrong earring, the wrong hat, a terrible wig, has ruined every rock ‘n’ roll movie,” says Des Barres. It was his job, therefore, to give the film rock ‘n’ roll authenticity, whether it was telling the roadies to move with more urgency or that time he “said to an actor, ‘Perhaps you shouldn’t be wearing what you’re wearing. This is 19-whatever it is.’” Des Barres won’t reveal any more details about this fashion faux pas, but says, “It had something to do with flared trousers.”

Des Barres is used to giving these sorts of on-set style pointers, dating back to his aforementioned WKRP episode in 1978: “Scum of the Earth were written as punks, with ripped this and ripped that and dog collars,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Put them in suits. Put them in suits and ties. And let’s see them throw a TV out the window.’ It was so much more interesting.”

Des Barres has certainly led an interesting life. “In my life — I’m 70 years old — anything can happen at any time,” he says, chuckling. In fact, last month, during the week of his septuagenarian birthday, he released a potent new political song, “Living in the USA.” Watch Des Barres’s full, fascinating Facebook Live chat below, in which he discusses the inspiration for that timely track, his groundbreaking role as a gay man on Roseanne, battling and overcoming drug addiction, hanging with Led Zeppelin, co-writing the No. 1 Animotion hit “Obsession,” and how his ex-wife, notorious groupie Pamela Des Barres, was a feminist trailblazer. Murdoc rocks!

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