The Story Behind The Time ‘MacGyver’ Went To War With ‘MacGruber’

After years of struggling with a failed movie project at New Line Cinema and a potential lawsuitMacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff is finally getting his way with the new series reboot over at CBSCSI alum George Eads joined the cast earlier this month, and on Monday X-Men: First Class star Lucas Till was announced as the new series lead. So, it sounds like things are going well in the land of nuclear bomb-dismantling paper clips and the unending magic of duct tape, but it didn’t always seem like the future of MacGyver would be anything more than a joke. A well-executed joke in the form of the Saturday Night Live skit-turned-movie MacGruber that cast Will Forte as a MacGyver knock-off.

With a projected budget of $10 million and a worldwide box office gross of $9.3 million, though, the film was a commercial failure despite the MacGyver parody’s popularity as a sketch. MacGruber is a cult favorite now with rumors about a sequel. Prior to its release, one of its biggest claims to fame was Zlotoff’s attempt to stop production, and upon realizing that they’d already made the film, threaten to sue everyone involved for copyright infringement.

News of the possible MacGyver v. MacGruber litigation surfaced with a rumor from Latino Review (that is no longer online) and a full report by the Hollywood Reporter, who posted a story on its legal blog about Zlotoff’s lawyers sending the production a cease-and-desist letter. According to The New York Times:

Paul Mayersohn, a lawyer for Mr. Zlotoff, told The Hollywood Reporter, “We feel they’re infringing our rights.” Mr. Mayersohn added that the legal team could seek a copyright or trademark lawsuit or an injunction against the film’s release in the coming days.

A few weeks after the news broke in February 2010, Lifehacker spoke to Zlotoff about his legal complaints against MacGruber. The outlet was especially curious as to why the MacGyver creator was only now threatening to sue the parody, as it was already a long-running SNL sketch at the time. Turns out Zlotoff loved the skit and Forte’s titular parody character, but what concerned him about the film was the fact that — aside from the possible copyright issues — it would saturate the same market he was then trying to get a MacGyver movie made for:

“When I discovered this project was in the works, we basically informed them we thought they were infringing on our copyright. They basically said, well, we don’t think we are. Now it’s kind of in the hands of the lawyers, and I’ve been advised, sort of, not to discuss this. But it’s one thing to do a skit on Saturday Night Live, it’s another thing to enter the exact same marketplace, with a feature-length movie, while we’re in the process of trying to put together a real MacGyver movie… one of the companies, Relativity, was interested in our MacGyver movie a year or two ago, but is now involved in doing the MacGruber movie.”

After that, little was said in public about the matter. MacGruber, which was set to hit theaters later that same year on May 21, was still flooding everyone’s eyeballs and ear ducts with advertising. And when the premiere date finally arrived, Forte and the filmmakers hit the interview circuit with little to say about their legal matters with Zlotoff. Not so much because there was any ill will between the two creative sets, but because mum’s the word in all things pertaining to lawsuits — potential or otherwise.

Forte, director Jorma Taccone, and writer John Solomon didn’t say much when they spoke with Collider while doing press for MacGruber. However, The A.V. Club managed to get Forte to open up during a one-on-one interview around the same time. Not in any detail, of course, but just enough for the comic actor to acknowledge Zlotoff’s issues and the fact that there had been any legal trouble at all:

“I don’t know how all that stuff works. I know that the creator had a problem with us making a movie, but we actually haven’t had to deal with it too much. Other people deal with that stuff, thank God, because we had enough just thinking about the movie. I don’t know where that’s at. [Pauses.] We love Richard Dean Anderson.”

Love him he did, as Anderson had already appeared in character as Angus MacGyver with Forte’s MacGruber in a pair of SNL skits and Pepsi commercials the previous year. When asked whether or not he considered this an “olive-branch thing,” Forte agreed because he’d felt that Anderson’s presence felt “like we were getting his blessing.” This purported blessing was absorbed into the sketch, as the veteran television actor’s famous role was incorporated into MacGruber‘s mythos when MacGyver was revealed to be MacGruber’s long-lost father.

Forte admitted that he and his collaborators had originally written Anderson into the film, but nothing ever came of their proposed venture. It’s interesting to ponder what Zlotoff’s response would have been had “MacGyver” himself appeared. For one, maybe he would have actually watched the film.

From a 2015 interview with The Observer:

“I read a draft of the script and that’s all I needed to see of that. What they tried to do in translating it to a movie was a mistake. They made the character the antithesis of MacGyver – he was dumb and vain and foul mouthed. I think people were tickled that they were having fun with the character in the skit but when they put it into the movie and were sort of pissing on the character, people clearly didn’t like seeing the character mocked in that way and they stayed away in droves.”

Whether people will respond to the new Zlotoff-produced MacGyver and its more sacrosanct take on the character is an open question, but what we do know is that it will be interesting to see if Zlotoff has a vocal response should a MacGruber sequel come to be while this new project is also in the marketplace.