Dana Elcar, 77; Veteran Actor Lost His Sight But Kept His Focus on Performing

Times Staff Writer

Dana Elcar, whose struggle with glaucoma and blindness was written into the character he was best known for portraying -- Peter Thornton on ABC’s “MacGyver” -- has died. He was 77.

Elcar died of complications from pneumonia Monday at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, his family announced.

Four seasons into playing a character on the adventure series that debuted in 1985, Elcar told producers he was going blind.

They told him, “The fact that you are losing your eyesight does not mean you have forgotten how to act,” Elcar recounted in a 1991 speech to the National Federation of the Blind.


Elcar played the role of the think tank director on “MacGyver” until the series ended in 1992.

Richard Dean Anderson, who starred as MacGyver, recalled that there “were no bumpy roads with Dana.”

“At a time when I had very little business being called an actor, he made things so easy for me,” he told The Times on Thursday. “It was a learning experience that was very warm and loving for all seven years.”

Elcar appeared in many off-Broadway plays, including the first American productions of Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter” and “The Caretaker,” Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

He appeared in at least 40 films, including “The Sting” (1973), “2010" (1984), “All of Me” (1984) and “The Learning Tree” (1969).

“ ‘The Learning Tree’ was a big turning point for him, and a good performance in his mind,” said his son, Dane Elcar. “He played a really bad guy really well.”

Elcar was a mainstay in television drama for 50 years, often playing good, solid guys you could count on. He starred in three other series, including as the problem-solving boss in the late 1970s Robert Blake series “Baretta” on ABC and the Robert Conrad series “Black Sheep Squadron” on NBC, and as Judge Hart in the 1978 miniseries “Centennial.” He guest-starred on dozens of TV shows from 1959 through 2002.

Ibson Dana Elcar was born Oct. 10, 1927, to Danish immigrants who lived on a farm in Ferndale, Mich. His father was a butcher and his mother a nanny.

At 13, he unsuccessfully ran away from home, which he liked to say led to his becoming an actor.

When he and a friend tried to hop a train to Detroit, Elcar couldn’t run fast enough and missed it. Stuck in a town far from home, he called his father and asked him to wire money so he could get back home. He had to spend the night in an all-night theater that was showing “Citizen Kane.”

“That kind of sparked him to be an actor. He watched it four or five times in one night,” said his son.

At age 18, Elcar joined the Navy and was stationed in Newfoundland.

While a student at the University of Michigan, he founded the Ann Arbor Theatre, but he “got kicked out” of school for appearing in off-campus professional productions, his son said.

Elcar moved to Los Angeles in 1968.

With actor friends, he founded the L.A. Actors’ Theatre in the mid-1970s, which later became the Los Angeles Theatre Center and closed in 1991. He also founded the Santa Paula Theatre Center in 1987 after he moved to that town.

After he went blind from glaucoma, Elcar acted mainly on stage, including in one of his favorite plays, “Waiting for Godot,” at the Santa Paula Theatre Center.

“You could barely tell he couldn’t see,” his son said. “I heard someone in the front row say, ‘I thought he was blind.’ ”

Elcar married and divorced three times.

In addition to his son, he is survived by three daughters, Nora Elcar Verdon, Chandra Elcar and Marin Elcar; a stepdaughter, Emily Prager; a sister, Marie E. Hewitt; a half-sister, Janet K. Melville; longtime companion Thelma M. Garcia; and a granddaughter.