Romance & Magic are Eternal
An In-depth Look at a Classic Hero
(This interview was originally written for The Romance Reader in 1997.)
Duncan MacLeod is a man. He is a laird and a loner, a warrior and a lover, a teacher and a student. He is also a 400 year old man, an immortal man. He is a hero, a romantic hero in the classical sense. He lives and might die by the sword and I love him.
You won't find Duncan MacLeod in your favorite romance novel, although many authors have created heroes in his image, or that of the wonderful actor who portrays him, Adrian Paul. He is the lead for of a television show - Highlander: The Series, currently in its fifth season.
My interest in this character has grown recently, in response to author Deb Stover's recent definition of a new heroic archetype - the gamma male. After discovering that Romance Readers are often Highlander fans as well, I decided to contact the man responsible for the show, much as I have contacted authors who have written books I have come to love.
As I wrote in a recent column, Deb Stover's definition of the gamma male is: "One who doesn't fit the image of the macho Alpha male, or the easygoing Beta either. He's a combination -- a mutation? - - of both types of man, and makes a hero to die for." She added that, "Tom Selleck. . . comes across as almost Beta at times, though still has enough Alpha to make him appeal to readers who prefer a tougher hero. Also Harrison Ford would fall into this description. He's definitely Gamma material in Star Wars!"
Not all readers agreed either with Deb's definition or the heroes who she listed. In fact, author Suzanne Brockmann has written an exciting Write Byte that describes Harrison Ford/Hans Solo as perfect alpha material. (That topic, btw, will be online at the start of April.)
I believe Duncan MacLeod is the archetypal gamma hero. He is wonderfully complex, filled with passion and pathos. He is not a cardboard cut-out of a super hero, something that the writer who gives Duncan his soul, made sure I understood during our discussion.
I spent some time with David Abramowitz, who has been responsible thus far for the the evolution of Duncan MacLeod and the show for 99 out of 106 episodes. In our discussion, we talked less about the Highlander: The Series in general and more about the character of Duncan MacLeod . The passion felt by avid fans of the show comes directly from the passion felt by actor Adrian Paul and David Abramowitz. Just as authors I have interviewed talk about their heroes as though they are living beings, so does David Abramowitz. Fans of romance will recognize in Duncan aspects of their favorite heroes. He is a hero through and through, and like the best heroes in romantic fiction, at times he can be both morally ambiguous and ruled by passion.
For those readers who are unfamiliar with the show, I will briefly attempt a description. I have left this interview in q&a format rather than try to interpret David's words, which speak for themselves and need no help from me.
The character of Duncan MacLeod was born in the Highlands of Scotland in 1592 and was raised to be laird of his clan, only to be banished as a demon after he awoke from the dead. He has wandered the world since then as an immortal, being taught and teaching other immortals, living lives over and over, loving and losing his mortal lovers time and time again.
As with all immortals in the Highlander mythology, Duncan can only be killed if is head is taken by sword. When he kills another immortal, he experiences the quickening, and receives into his body and soul all the power of the dead immortal.
As a 400-year-old man, he has knowledge and wisdom of a multitude of lifetimes. He also has the pain of loss from a multitude of lifetimes. Duncan MacLeod has done things he is not particularly proud of because he is, after all, human, and filled with the same foibles and passions we all have.
Duncan MacLeod embodies the best qualities of heroes we have come to know and love. A good man, an able warrior, a delicious lover, and a man with a strong moral compass, he nonetheless exudes the aura of danger we love in our heroes. The internal paradoxes that make up Duncan MacLeod are what we find so intriguing in our favorite heroes. Leader but loner. Warrior but lover. Teacher and student. Pragmatic but passionate. Good yet filled with the capacity for great evil.
Before I prattle on endlessly, I'll stop here and let you read on.
--Laurie Likes Books
Your title is Creative Consultant. Can you explain what that title entails?
I am the head writer. I run the writing staff. My title is Creative Consultant because the show is a French-Canadian production and because I'm American, I can't take a executive producer credit, which is what I'd otherwise have. My name can't appear on any of the scripts.
How big is the writing staff?
We have one writer in Canada and, until recently, one writer down here in Los Angeles. And then, all the work is done by free-lancers. We create most of the stories in-house, send out the treatments to writers all over the world, they send us back a script, and then we rewrite their script. Very often we rewrite it completely.
How many of the writers are men? Women?
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One of the executive producers of the show is a woman. Marla Ginsberg. About 80 percent of the free-lance writers are men. But my in-house staff is all women, so while the credits would say 80 percent of the shows are written by men, the percentage of women who really write the show and create the show is closer to 50 percent women.
How did the television show and the character of Duncan McLeod evolve from the three Highlander films?
Duncan was a spin-off, created by William Panzer, who was the original producer of the movies. He decided there should be a kinsman to Connor MacLeod, the movies' protagonist, and created Duncan and cast Adrian Paul.
When did your involvement with the series begin?
There have been 106 hours of the show. I came on the show on show number seven. The character has developed over the past 106 episodes. The reason it's different than the movies is that we've had 106 hours to define and create his character.
In my mind, there is a connection between these immortals and vampires. (I've also wondered about the parallel between Anne Rice's Talamasca and The Watchers from the series.) Is there any connection between vampire lore and your immortals?
There is no connection with vampire lore , although, in some ways, they are similar. They're immortal, they can be killed only in particular ways, and there is a sense of tragic loneliness that exists with vampires and immortals. They will see all that they have loved, if they continue to live, all that they love will die.
What about the violence? My main focus is on the character of Duncan MacLeod, but he comes part and parcel with the mythology of the series. Talk about that for us.
Because there can be only one, at the end there will be only one. If that one is good, the world will see a golden age. If evil, the world will fall into anarchy. There are basic myths that go to the core of man. There is violence because the movies were violent. This is a classic battle between good and evil. MacLeod is a classical kind of hero, with human flaws, with great humanity, with passions, with pride, with all of those things.
One of the things I most enjoy about the show and the character of Duncan MacLeod (and all the immortals) is the moral ambiguity.
Just as there is in all of us.
Is that something you've purposely injected as the show has progressed?
Absolutely. It makes the character more interesting. It gives the character more to play. What we like to do on occasion is take a basic moral question and spin it. Our best shows are the shows that deal in gray areas.
For example, one recent show featured a wonderful woman character who failed in an attempt to kill Hitler. That is a classic Highlander in terms of who's right, who's wrong, and the pain that MacLeod feels for making certain choices. There is moral ambiguity. And sometimes he acts out of passion and not totally out of his sense of justice, but he pays the price emotionally. He is not a simple hero. He is extremely complex who sometimes is not totally consistent, just as we are all not totally consistent.
Several of the shows have featured plot-lines without the immortal connection. These are not my favorites, and, from what I hear from other fans, are not their favorites either. How do you respond?
They are not my favorites either. You know, every show finds its legs and tries to figure out what the show is . What we didn't want to fall into was "The evil immortal of the week". We tried a number of times to do shows without immortals, but that wasn't our show. We tried comedy, which is also not our show, but we still do it on occasion. We try all different kinds of things and we are constantly trying to keep the show fresh, so it's not the guy with the biggest sword each week, it's the moral dilemma, and emotional question.
What's the difference between pride and honor? What does a 400 year old man think about God? How does he love? When does he tell someone he's immortal? Who does he trust? When is it appropriate to kill? Who gives him the right to kill? What is justice? What is justice over time? If something is socially abhorrent, does that mean it's evil? Is redemption possible? Those are the things we like to deal with. But you can't do that every week because we don't come up w/enough ideas.
Which are your favorite episodes?
One favorite is Valkyrie, the episode I mentioned a moment ago. Another would be the duo of Comes a Horseman and Revelations. Those were very intense and very different. Also, Legacy, which introduced Amanda and went back to medieval times.
What about Dark Quickening, which showed the immense power and possibility for evil the immortals have inside? What I enjoyed so much about that particular two-parter was that the writers didn't flinch from showing Duncan as consumed by evil and didn't try to manipulate the viewer.
Great show. That is another favorite. Adrian wanted to play darker in some part of his life. But we needed to create a manner that would play into the mythology and so that the audience wouldn't hate him and view him as a tragic character, which is what he was. I believe that we found a way, which is the cup fills and runneth over and he can't control it. He was wonderful and very excited about doing it. I think they are two of the best episodes he's done.
Duncan is both a laird and a loner. In romantic fiction, these seemingly contradictory facets are often combined in a hero. Talk about this and Duncan.
He's a clan leader because he believes he is responsible. Even if you are an immortal, who you are as a child in many ways is who you become. Duncan's father was a clan leader and so Duncan was raised to be a clan leader. He was raised to make decisions on right and wrong and to be responsible for other people.
The loner part in him comes from the responsibility, the burden of carrying that responsibility, the burden of the responsibility and truth of being immortal, and the knowledge that evil can attack at any moment and that people around him die. So that leaves him with a sense of great pain in his heart. Tess is gone. Deborah Campbell is gone. The great loves of his live are all gone.
The other thing is because he carries this burden of leadership and this burden where he holds himself up to the highest scrutiny, it always leaves him with a sense of not having done enough and yet at the same time, he's lived all these years, he thinks to himself, "Why doesn't life just let me be?" But he pushes himself to be heroic. There is a sense in him that won't let go, that says, "You are responsible. You have to make these choices. You have to make these decisions."
Is there a woman immortal who is Duncan's equal in any sense?
I think there have been women immortals who have been probably greater than Duncan, in some areas. Different people have different skills and different beliefs. There was an immortal named Kierdwin who was a great fighter. Different characters have different strengths. Was there a woman immortal as good with a sword? It's hard for me to find an actress who is 6'3" and weighs 200 pounds. Amanda is smart and quick. I think she and Duncan keep each other guessing. I think their morality is different.
That's what I mean. Most of the immortal women are not portrayed as good guys. Tracy Scoggins (the Bronze Age immortal who recently appeared in Comes a Horseman and Revelations), I liked her a lot . In the one sense, yes, I'm talking about the physical, but in the other, I'm talking about goodness.
You have to be realistic. Women survive in a warrior's game by being different kinds of warriors. Just as when we had an immortal named Kenny who was an 800 year-old child, he survived using different tools. You can't expect a woman who is 5'4" and 130 pounds to survive in the same way. To do otherwise would defeat the essence of the show. Immortals are not super powered. It's not like saying this is Wonder Woman. They're just us, . . . and they happen to live longer. So it's hard for me to understand, no matter how good she is with a blade, that a woman could take on a great athlete and survive. Amanda has survived, and taken heads, but she's used different skills to survive.
She is very morally ambiguous.
Hell, she's a thief! But MacLeod still loves her. Her ethics are immoral but she's a remarkable character and we and I love her.
Two questions that may be related, or may not, depending on the rumors you listen to. Why oh why did Duncan/Adrian cut his hair? And, has he signed for a sixth season?
(After much hesitation. . . )
Yes, he will be on the show. He'll be on the show next year.
Is it still going to be his show?
Yes, it is still going to be his show.
Yes, it is still going to be his show.
But times change.
Okay, tell me about that.
I can't tell you about that. Let's let that be a surprise. That part has to be a surprise.
Can you give me any specific generalizations for the direction of the show next season?
Some of the moral ambiguity will become, Duncan will be clearer about the nature of good and evil. Some of the ambiguity will be gone.
I think Adrian Paul is wonderful in this part. He can play the gamut of emotions, is great to look at, and has that balletic athleticism a swordsman requires. (And, I'm glad the sort of swordplay the immortals engage in is not of the prissy Erroll Flynn variety swordplay and is more of the medieval knight with chain mail variety).) Are there any plans to take this series to the big screen?
I think Adrian is physical, a good guy, a consummate professional, great talent, a star. I foresee movies, but that is a question for Bill Panzer and Peter Davis. They are working on it now./p>
Any final words to Highlander fans who are also romance readers?
I am passionate about this character. I love this character. Romance and magic are not dead.
About David Abramowitz:
David began his career as a musician and singer, at one point working for the National Endowment for the Arts as a sort of wandering minstrel, writing and performing musical children's fairy tales from school to school. He came to Los Angeles to sell his fairy tales, instead found work playing piano, then parlayed a $25,000 win on game show Tic Tac Dough into a sabbatical that allowed him to write for a year.
He sold a series to PBS on Indo-Chinese children, wrote episodic television for such shows as Cagney & Lacey and Murder, She Wrote, then went on to produce Jake & the Fatman before being hired for Highlander: The Series.