MacGyver's first name was at first intended to be Stacey, as seen in a press release from Paramount. However, it was never confirmed in any episode, and remained a mystery until the seventh season; whenever he is asked about it, he says he dislikes his first name and quickly changes the subject. His grandfather, Harry Jackson, calls him "Bud" or "Buddy". Most of his friends and colleagues call him by his last name or simply "Mac". His first name is finally canonically revealed in "Good Knight, MacGyver", in which he learns of a 7th-century man named Angus Mac'Iver ("son of Ingmarr") and admits that they share their first name. This revelation is repeated in the series finale, which introduces MacGyver's son as having the middle name Angus, as well as on the packaging of the MacGyver DVD season sets.
He was born on March 23, 1951, and raised in Mission City, Minnesota. When MacGyver was a kid, he was in the Cub Scouts and a Den Mother by the name of Mrs. Fryfogel taught him "backwoods common sense" and the motto "Be prepared." In 1961, when he was a ten-year-old, his grandmother and father (James MacGyver played by actor Martin Sam Milner of ADAM 12 fame) in the MacGyver episode entitled, "Passages", were killed in a car accident in which they both drowned, and MacGyver grew up with his mother. In the episode "Runners"; however, MacGyver states he was 7 years old when the accident occurred. His grandfather, Harry Jackson (who calls him "Bud"), played by actor John Anderson, acted as his father, but moved away in 1967 when MacGyver was sixteen, worked for a period in Alaska, sending money to MacGyver and his mother, and eventually settled down as a farmer in Minnesota after MacGyver had left. When he was ten years old he got his first chemistry set. At about 12 years of age, MacGyver had a traumatic experience with the accidental death of friend Jesse by a bullet from a falling gun. Throughout his childhood, in his youth and in adult age, MacGyver is an active player of ice hockey, having played in his local hockey leagues and coached for a minor league team; he is also a supporter of the Calgary Flames. He feels that he could have made the National Hockey League, but chose to give up before he was good enough. MacGyver also admitted to loving museums as a kid. In his childhood, he met Jack Dalton. MacGyver's mother died of a stroke while he was in Afghanistan.
After high school MacGyver went to Western Tech where he graduated in 1973 with bachelor's degrees in physics and chemistry, having studied under Julian Ryman, a man who also had an ability to fix things with everyday objects and was probably influential on MacGyver. After graduating from college he turns down an offer to work at the nearby nuclear power plant and it is revealed that he had shortly served during the Vietnam War in a bomb defusing team. MacGyver has also been an enthusiastic race car driver and was quite successful before an accident put him out of the business. Eventually he moves to Los Angeles where he has a number of scatter jobs, including working as a taxi driver for Jack, until 1979, when he accidentally meets Peter Thornton, an agent at the Department of External Services (DXS). When MacGyver conveniently saves Thornton's life using a paper clip, a wrench and shoelaces, MacGyver is also offered a job as a field agent at the DXS. He keeps this job until 1986 (season 2 pilot) when Pete is offered a job as Director of Operations at the Phoenix Foundation. MacGyver follows him and works in a similar role for the Foundation for the next six years, finally leaving in 1992.
At the Foundation, MacGyver is hired as a "sort of troubleshooter," involved in a variety of tasks, usually field operations (conducting environmental surveys, testing security systems). In the fifth season, Harry dies of a heart attack, at which point MacGyver believes he has no remaining relatives. In the second last episode of the show, it turns out that MacGyver has a son, Sean "Sam" Angus Malloy. Sean's mother is the photojournalist Kate Malloy who MacGyver had met after college. Kate had been murdered in China several years prior to MacGyver meeting their son for the first time. After discovering and reuniting with Sean, MacGyver decides to resign from the Foundation, as he and his son have a lot of catching-up to do
It is unclear what MacGyver did for a living after leaving the Phoenix Foundation. However, he has clearly kept current with the world of action, as he appears in at least two more adventures. In the first one ("MacGyver: Lost Treasure of Atlantis"), MacGyver teams up with his former college Archaeology instructor, Professor Atticus, to help him prove his theories about ancient Atlantis while dodging the bullets of genocidal Yugoslav troops, a Greek revolutionary and a ruthless treasure hunter. Soon thereafter (in "MacGyver: Trail to Doomsday"), he investigates the murder of a friend in Britain, and eventually traces it to an unscrupulous businessman who sells nuclear arms research for profit. Both adventures occurred in 1994. No mention is made of MacGyver's son, nor of Pete Thornton, Jack Dalton or any of the show's regulars.
MacGyver's most used item was his Swiss Army Knife. In addition to it, MacGyver often carried a roll of duct tape in his back pocket, flattened out to make it fit. Other items he often seemed to have on hand were: an ID card, a watch, strike-anywhere matches, a few paper clips, and a flashlight. It was shown that he also carried a toolbox in his Jeep.
MacGyver initially used a Jeep Cherokee and then a Jeep Wrangler beginning with Season 2. But in Season 5, Episode 3 ("The Black Corsage"), he began driving his grandfather Harry's "classic" 1946 Chevrolet pickup truck.
The character is portrayed as an outspoken advocate of gun control, although the pilot episode shows MacGyver using a gun on a mission shown in the opening gambit, but only as a distraction by rigging it to fire into the ground. Even in cases where his improvised devices are used to attack hostile opponents, he is always doing so in self-defense and, if possible, subduing or disabling rather than killing. He is often suspicious of militaristic attitudes within the government; he sees his Phoenix Foundation employer as an alternative to the more conventional (and violent) means of law enforcement.
MacGyver is also passionate about social causes, having on several occasions volunteered to help the less-privileged. For example, he conducts hearing research at a school for deaf children, and helps out in a mountain excursion for delinquent youths.
MacGyver's persistence and the improvisational nature of his plans make him difficult to thwart, as his nemesis Murdoc pointed out, because not even MacGyver himself knows what he's going to do next. Unlike stereotypical "macho" or stoic action heroes, MacGyver exhibits open fear in perilous situations and shows pain after a fight. A sensitive character; Mac has a tendency of blaming himself for personal losses and tragedies - a trait that caused him to give up sport car racing after his involvement in a fatal crash, and a fatal climbing accident that sent him on a path of depression. However, overcoming challenges and successfully saving lives has given him redemption on several occasions. He also appears to be susceptible to remote temporal retrograde amnesia, which he has experienced more than once after physical head trauma.
MacGyver is proficient to a greater or lesser extent in Russian, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and American Sign Language, and knows how to use international maritime signal flags and Morse code. He's an avid outdoorsman with skills including snow skiing, and outdoor survivalism. And despite his acute fear of heights he's highly skilled at mountain / rock climbing, hand gliding, and parachuting - static line and ripcord / HALO. His other hobbies include ice hockey, racing, and has shown an interest in the arts of painting and guitar, as shown in the episode "The Negotiator". The guitar is an instrument he's played since he was a child, as stated in "The Madonna".
His (iconic) haircut is that of a "mullet", in a clean-cut, lightly gelled variation on the classic hairstyle.
While never being in an actual relationship, he is always on good terms with his past acquaintances, of which there are many.
The term "MacGyver" has now become part of the colloquial American English lexicon. When one "MacGyvers" a solution to a problem, one finds a simple yet elegant solution to something using existing resources. This is in contrast to a kludge, or a Rube Goldberg, which is generally complicated and problematic.