Thursday, July 10, 2014

Summer Nose-talgia #16: Don "Mr. Wizard" Herbert -- Born This Date in 1917!

Science on TV is making a comeback of late, what with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Seth MacFarlane wowing audiences with their new version of Carl Sagan's classic Cosmos series, Bill Nye the Science Guy popping up everywhere, and PBS continuing its excellent science series NOVA and presenting specials including the recent Your Inner Fish with Neil Shubin.  Several cable networks -- Science, Discovery, History among them -- also regularly feature terrific science programs.  Television's past was also filled with a assortment of science-slinging personalities, not the least among them and probably the best remembered being Don Herbert a.k.a. Mr. Wizard, a non-egghead type who in his shirtsleeves would eagerly unveil the wonders of the universe to several generations of American kids.  (Though my favorite was Prof. Julius Sumner Miller, a real physics professor who was dynamite on camera.)

Don Herbert was born on July 10, 1917 in Minnesota, and studied English and science in college but developed an interest in drama, too.  His budding acting aspirations were interrupted by his service in the Air Force during World War II where he amassed an impressive record including being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the war Herbert started his career in radio in the Chicago market where he saw an opportunity to meld his interest in science with his show business yearnings.  He had an idea for a weekly show where he would appear as science enthusiast and educator "Mr. Wizard" who does experiments in his lab with real kids -- or at least kid actors -- as his helpers. It sounded like a good idea to the local NBC-TV affiliate and they picked up the show.  Watch Mr. Wizard starring Don Herbert made its live debut on March 3, 1951, followed not long after by more station pick-ups both live and on kinescope.  The growing nationwide popularity of Watch Mr. Wizard to NBC prompted the show to move production to New York in 1955 and it would continue as a network Saturday morning mainstay until its cancellation in 1965 after over 500 broadcasts.

Watch Mr. Wizard became a phenomenon, spawning thousands of Mr. Wizard Science Clubs throughout the U.S., populated by kids entranced by the wonders of modern science as elucidated by Mr. Wizard.

After being cancelled by NBC Herbert kept his Mr. Wizard persona alive through his clubs and books and other TV projects, finally getting the chance to revive the show for children's cable network Nickelodeon in 1983 with Mr. Wizard's World.  Same format, just about the same show as Watch Mr. Wizard but of course a little snappier with better graphics.  Mr. Wizard's World aired in first run through 1990 and then for another decade in repeats and is now available on DVD.

Somebody put together a crudely-titled compilation reel of what they deemed Mr. Wizard being curt to his kid co-stars, but he's far from a martinet.  He dares to call the kids out on mistakes or inaccurate ideas, and maybe that's something which has been missing from the kid show vibe lately.  He doesn't berate them but he doesn't coddle them either.  I don't think he's a d*ck, I think he's being the adult in the room.

Don Herbert passed away in 2007 at the age of 89 after a long career dedicated to the advancement of science and the passing on of scientific curiosity to the younger generation.  His Mr. Wizard legacy lives on in the Mr. Wizard Studios, a company which continues to release Mr. Wizard videos and keep the spirit of scientific discovery alive in kids everywhere.  They also have a very active YouTube Channel.  He did a long sit-down interview with the Archives of American Television, available here.

We salute the scientific curiosity of Don "Mr. Wizard" Herbert, one of the people making TV smart!

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