About 30 years ago, Lt. Col. John Till worked in quality control for a television series. Only nobody on the show knew about it.
"My nickname was ‘MacGyver,’ back then," says Till, who began his Army career around the time the drama of the same name debuted. "Of course, thousands of people across the country were nicknamed ‘MacGyver.’ … I used to watch every one of them, and I would test out the stuff he was doing on TV, back then, just to see if it actually worked."
Fast-forward about three decades, and Till remains in uniform. His son, Lucas, has picked up the ‘MacGyver’ mantle in grand fashion — an actor since childhood, he’s taken on the title role in the reboot of the series, which premiered Sept. 23 on CBS and reportedly brought the network more eyes to its Friday-night time slot than any show in the last 11 years.
"When he got this role, as he describes it, ‘My dad flipped out,’" says the elder Till, who saw the premiere early with several hundred soldiers and families at a special screening Sept. 11 at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia. "I said, ‘Really? They’re going to pay you to do this stuff? That’s incredible!’"
Lucas Till steps into the shoes, long hair and Swiss Army Knife of Richard Dean Anderson, who played the title character during the seven-year run of the initial series, which wrapped in 1992. And he's got company in the cast when it comes to a military upbringing: George Eads ("CSI"), who plays fellow do-gooder Jack Dalton, is the son of a Marine Corps veteran, and Tristin Mays, who plays computer hacker Riley Davis, is the daughter of a retired Coast Guard warrant officer.
"I think it's something that's unspoken but worth noticing and mentioning, speaking of the common military connections we all share," Lucas Till said in an emailed response to questions, composed in between marathon taping sessions. "There's a work ethic that's instilled in you when you have a parent who is in the [military], whether they mean to teach that way or not."
John Till says he was far from the stereotypical stage parent, telling his pre-teen son to pursue his passion only as long as he enjoyed it … and promised not to change his name. What started as a simple class offered by an Atlanta acting/modeling agency progressed to a shopping-mall talent show, then interest from agents, then commercial and independent film work.
"And then, before long, he was doing Johnny Cash, 'Walk the Line.'" Till says.
Lucas Till played Jack Cash, whose tragic fate set the movie's troubled tone. Follow-up performances were a bit less gut-wrenching — a role in "Hannah Montana: The Movie" and a recurring spot as Havok in the X-Men film franchise.
Aside from some guest spots, "MacGyver" marks the actor's first foray into series television, which requires some rapid line-learning. According to his dad, it's not much of a stretch.
"We learned pretty quickly to quit asking him if he'd studied his lines," John Till says. "We lived 20 miles north of Atlanta, we'd pick him up from school and drive him to an audition. We'd say, 'Did you learn your lines?' and he'd say, 'I'm getting ready to.' So he'd read the script on the way to the audition, a 20-minute drive, and he'd have it memorized by the time we got there.
"I could never do that. I have a hard enough time remembering phone numbers."
Lucas Till, right, and fellow "MacGyver" cast members appeared at a premiere party at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, where his father, Lt. Col. John Till, left, works with the Georgia National Guard.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sunshine Sachs
Till served on active duty until the early 1990s, deploying with an Apache helicopter unit — 5th Battalion, 229th Aviation Regiment — during Operation Desert Storm. He had a break in service before entering the Georgia National Guard 1998, where he’s enjoying his role as a safety officer.
"I get to jump with all these snake-eaters now," he says. "It’s a blast."
He showed off some of the Guard's equipment to the stars of the show who visited for the premiere event, including Justin Hires, who plays MacGyver's best friend, Wilt Bozer:
The younger Till also has a military backstory, of sorts — his character spent time in uniform, and he’s been exposed to the Hollywood version of military training via flashback sequences.
"I'm doing my best as far as authenticity, but there's only so much I can do and have to bend," he said via email. "For instance, there's a flashback scene where I'm in the Army doing training for bomb defusal and I freaked out a little bit because my hair was way too long to be in the Army. But we couldn't cut it, because it had to match. We made sure the ordnance was accurate though. Ended up covering the hair with a bandanna."
Not all critics have been kindto the show, but its ratings have it on solid ground in the early going. John Till says he’s been following the industry news more with this project than with his son’s previous work — he says he particularly enjoyed talk show host James Corden’s take on the show, which came in lieu of presidential debate coverage:
"I think he’s doing a great job, and I’m just praying that everybody else is thinking the same thing I’m thinking," Till said of his son.