Wednesday, March 14, 2012

my name is monday: a conversation with mathnet's beverly leech

Where were you in 1987 when Square One Television, PBS’s beloved math show for children, first took over the airwaves? I know where I was: glued to the tube. A product of the same Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) that launched Sesame Street almost 20 years earlier, Square One was a half-hour comedy show that actually made math fun. With vignettes ranging from the Fat Boys rapping about hamburger patterns to video game superhero Mathman fending off the evil—but somehow still lovable—Mr. Glitch, Square One was a veritable Saturday Night Live for kids, where the focus was on learning and laughing at the same time.

Much like SNL, the show was also packed with delightful parodies, none more enduring than Mathnet, the crown jewel of the Square One series. This winter marks 25 years since the debut of Mathnet, the Dragnet remake that not-so-subtly taught kids that crime investigations can’t be solved without mathematics. The show’s main characters⎯ George Frankly, Kate Monday, and, later, Pat Tuesday⎯were mathematicians in detective suits, carrying calculators in their holsters and working to unravel crimes using the same concepts children were likely to see in their math classes: ratios, averages, number sequences, and the like. Their unforgettable motto? “To Cogitate and To Solve.”

In honor of the anniversary, I decided to catch up with the show’s two original stars, Beverly Leech and Joe Howard, to find out more about their Mathnet experiences, their personal backgrounds, and what they’ve been up to since their Square One days. In this first post, I chat with the inimitable Bev Leech, who took a chunk out of a recent Sunday afternoon to discuss everything from her early dreams of Broadway to the intersection between art and science to her days as a five-tool athlete to the truth behind why she left Mathnet. Of course, don’t forget to stick around for part two, in which I talk with Joe Howard, and part three, in which I chat with Toni DiBuono, who co-starred later in the series!

You grew up in Texas with an eye toward show business at an early age. What originally brought you to the bright lights of Los Angeles?
It’s a strange story about how I ended up in LA, a bit of fate. My dream was to go to New York and be a Broadway star. I was a triple threat: I sang, I danced, I acted, and I really wanted to do the New York thing. But I’d been in regional theater and was a gypsy on the road for a long time. So finally, I had a job set up, my stuff in storage, my bags packed, and tickets to New York in my purse. Literally two weeks before I was supposed to leave, I got a phone call from my agent saying, “I got you a booking for Star Search.” And I went, “Who?” It was such a new show at the time that it didn’t even air where I was. I drove into Dallas, actually, to see the show. And I thought, “Uh, this is like a game show, not a real acting gig.” So I turned it down, and [my agent] said, “No, no, no, you can’t turn it down.” She talked me into doing it because it would be great national exposure, a bit of tape, some money to live on in New York. Four months later, I’m still in Los Angeles, with agents signing me, and there was so much activity that I ended up staying.

So how did the role of Kate Monday on Mathnet fit into the picture?
Well, in the beginning it was just another series of auditions that my agent sent me on. And, you know, they said it was the Jack Webb of Dragnet. I remembered that show, but I wanted it to be fresh, so I rented a bunch of episodes so I could sort of conform to that style. They thought I looked right for the part, they knew I got the gist of the show, so I went through a series of callbacks and ended up getting the role.

Was there anything in particular that drew you to the part?
I think what attracted me was the writing. The writing was beautifully done by Dave Connell and Jim Thurman. Of all the writers I’ve worked for, they’re still my top favorite. They were so precise and so funny. The other thing that attracted me was the setup of a comedy duo. They really had that classic vaudeville straight-man/punch line that influenced all the shows up through the 50s and 60s. My dad was for a time a standup comedian, so comedy and humor was definitely part of the fabric of my experience growing up. And humor has a very important function: It allows the writer to talk about difficult things or complicated concepts. If you do it seriously, people back off from it. But if you do it from the point of view of humor, they can grasp it. People go, “Math? Ugh. Science? Ugh.” But if they think it’s a comedy script, they’ll hear it.

Were you good at math and science growing up?
Actually, I wasn’t bad in algebra and geometry. You know what’s interesting? When I was about to graduate high school, the Army Corps came in and gave us one of these tests to help decide what field or type of job we would be best suited for based on our cognitive skills. So I took this test. I got a pretty good score, and they said I would make an excellent office manager. A week later the teacher said, “Oh, the computer screwed up, there’s something wrong with the program, and we have to take this test over again.” So, I went, and just as an experiment, I put myself down as a male. I took the test again, but this time Beverly Leech was a guy, and I got the same score. And you know what I was supposed to be then? A civil engineer. So based on my gender, I could only aspire to be a damned good office manager. But as a man, I could have been a civil engineer building bridges. Which I thought was completely interesting. But I think if I hadn’t been a civil engineer, it was probably fitting that I became an artist. There is a very specific place where art and math and science collide, and that is through the use of creative imagination. I watch a lot of documentaries on scientists and mathematicians who used their curiosity and imagination, engaged in that kind of roaming, either on foot or in their minds, and made new discoveries. I mean, without the creative imagination, Einstein never would have come up with the theory of relativity—he engaged his mind in free-range exploration for hours, weeks, even years at a time. And that’s exactly what an artist does.


In Mathnet, you played the straight man to Joe Howard’s happy-go-lucky George Frankly. Did you ever break out of character and crack up on set?
All the time. The problem was, every time we cracked up we ruined the take, and it made for some very long days, because they would have to reset the shot, start again, and reshoot the whole thing. So we learned very quickly that unless we wanted to be there for 20 hours, we had to hold it in until they yelled “cut.”

Aside from the calculators you kept in your holsters, were there any math references or props hidden on the sets?
As I remember, everything was pretty straightforward. Except for the calculator and the holster, all of it was regular classroom teaching materials. We were just trying to wrap our minds around the mathematic concepts that were given to us. I think that was always the challenge: trying to make them fresh, like a mystery we were trying to solve instead of a math class.

What was it like working with the kid guest stars on the Mathnet set?
The kids we worked with were largely very professional⎯they always had their lines off. In terms of eliciting a good performance out of them, [director] Charlie Dubin really knew how to break down fear, break down all those walls that actors have, and put it in a humorous way so that it was more effortless for the kids. He was the most gentile, most wonderful director. But working with kids was really great. Sometimes they didn’t have a lot of set experience; if they were newbies to the profession it could be a long day. But I always kept in mind that I didn’t have a lot of set experience, either. So, it was a learning curve for both of us.

The show moved to New York from its original Los Angles location after two seasons. What precipitated the move?
Well, I can’t really say I’m the authority on that. I’m guessing it was because the writers and most of the production team was from New York. And PBS and CTW were headquartered there. So I’m guessing they thought it would be less expensive and more comfortable for everyone involved if they kept it close to home and just flew the actors in if they didn’t hire local.

Many Mathnet fans were surprised and saddened when you left the show after season 3. Can you talk a little about why you left?
It broke my heart to leave the show. And you know, I’ve never answered anyone with a straight answer about why. I’m very protective of the show’s image. But, it’s been 20 years, and it’s not that it’s some deep dark secret, it’s just long and complicated. The short answer is: After several years of working under the same contract, they changed the shooting schedule and the terms in such a way that I literally could not afford to do it.

At the time, public broadcasting was going through a hard budgetary crisis. So they changed the contract to help with their budget. Now, I really loved shooting that show. But let’s face it, the salary was meager. But it wasn’t about the money, it was a labor of love. And PBS/CTW had the wisdom at that time to shoot it on hiatus. Hiatus is a rest period in the industry, and it made everybody available to do this kind of labor of love. However short the salary fell, I made enough money in the other seasons to cover all of my expenses and my bills, and during the hiatus, I was able to afford to work on Mathnet. For a couple of years it was in LA, and then they did it in New York, and that was fine.

Then the following year, I got a call from my agent. The deal that was presented to me was that the shooting schedule was going to be moved into pilot season, which would effectively take me out of the market. In those days, you were exclusively tied to a show: you had to be available at all times [during shooting season], and you couldn’t do anything else. So I would not have had the ability to earn any money. The other huge surprise was that they wanted me to literally move to New York. If I moved to New York, I’d be considered a local hire, and then they wouldn’t have to pay for my airfare, or housing, or any grocery money. But since I wasn’t asking for a raise to offset that, it seemed kind of impossible to do. The other thing, too, was that my husband at that time was only licensed to practice in California, not in New York. So if I moved to New York, I would either have to leave my family completely behind⎯and I had a baby then⎯or they’d come to New York and we’d effectively cut off two sources of income. Now, it does come down to math! After taxes and commissions to agents and managers, it left me with 200 bucks a week. Can anybody live in New York on $200 a week? [Laughs] We explained the situation in contract negotiations over and over again, you know. I was willing to take the part, and I was willing to take the money, but there had to be some kind of compromise that would allow me to take it. If they had kept the shooting schedule, for instance, and did it during hiatus as they had traditionally done, I doubt there would have been a problem⎯I’d have taken it in a heartbeat. But there wasn’t any compromise, and we all know what happened next. It was very, very hard to make that phone call. The producer and I both cried on the phone. I loved those people, and I had a really hard time stepping away from that. But CTW/PBS did what they had to do to meet their budget, and I did what I had to do to meet mine. Now, it’s been 20 years, it’s water under the bridge. I don’t have any hard feelings about it at all, and I’m sure they don’t either.


So what did you do after that?
Well, literally within a couple of weeks I got a call from New York offering me the role of Alaura Kingsley in City of Angels on Broadway. In hindsight that was probably fate again. I had been in the rotation for the Los Angeles company, but they had an immediate need for someone in the New York company. So, here I was, fulfilling a lifelong ambition. I’d spent a lot of hard years training and grooming myself for Broadway, and I was finally able to do it. If I’d done the Mathnet contract I would have signed that exclusivity clause, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it. So it’s sort of that whole, “One door closes and another one opens.” I was quite, quite down about leaving Mathnet, for a long, long time. But good fortune opened up for me, and it opened up for Toni DiBuono, who replaced me as Pat Tuesday. And I gotta tell you, I’m a big, big fan of Toni. I had seen her the year before in Forbidden Broadway, which was a wildly popular show running off-Broadway. She was so funny, I cried! So a year later I was very, very pleased that they had cast someone so deeply talented. I think she did the segue beautifully. And in fact, I got in touch with her and said if there’s anything that you need, anything I can provide to help you with this transition, please feel free. So she got in touch right away, and I helped with whatever resources and materials I had to help her fill those shoes. And I think she did a great job.

You’ve had quite a few roles since leaving Mathnet. Are there any that you’ve particularly enjoyed?
There are many television roles that have transpired since Mathnet that I’m particularly fond of. For LAX, I was playing a pilot whose plane was going to crash, and I took flying lessons to understand what it was about. That was a thrilling experience. I flew a Cessna several times, then the flight instructor put me in a commercial cockpit matching the one in the episode. He drilled me on the landing procedure about a thousand times because it had to look as if I’d been in that seat for years. I couldn’t look like a blonde dum-dum, you know? And pretty much all of my scenes were in the cockpit, so I knew I had to at least have that inner knowledge. I worked with James Garner a few times, I worked with Dick Van Dyke. Gosh, he’s my hero . . . talk about brilliant comedy guy! There was Star Trek Voyager and Quantum Leap. I had this really great tango number in Quantum Leap, and I finally got to use all those years of classical ballet training! Also, I loved doing this wonderful movie-of-the-week series called Midnight Runaround, where I played a redneck pregnant bartender.

Nice.
Yeah. But the stuff I absolutely loved more had to do with stage. I loved doing City of Angels⎯that was a big highlight. And I loved playing Sarah Bernhardt at Denver Center Theater. It was a great play called Ladies of the Camellias by Lillian Groag and directed beautifully by Casey Stangl. My current love is that I’ve been working with Bobby Moresco’s Actors Gym. Our purpose is humble: We come together to serve the playwright. There’s a group of actors and there’s a group of writers. These writers bring in 10 pages at a time of developing screenplays, new plays, and television pilots, things like that, and the actors cold-read the writers’ work. But, you know, I’ve worked with really famous people, and I’ve had some experiences in life that not a lot of people have gotten to have. I’m always grateful for everything—even the parts where I really suck out loud. I think it’s an important life lesson to fail. There’s so much to be developed as a human being that, without failure, you can’t really have a clear picture of your whole self.


Very true. Well, you seem to have become the consummate character actor...
I studied to be a character actor. When I was in my 20s I really saw the writing on the wall. A lot of the TV stars at the height of their series were absolutely gorgeous⎯I mean, really gorgeous. Then as they aged, less and less was offered to them, and their efforts to stay in the news became a little more desperate. I didn’t want to be like that. And I went to study with the iconic, late, great Stella Adler. She really was tough on actors—especially blonde television actresses, hello! [Laughs] But she knew how to approach a script in such a way that she saw it through the character’s point of view. So I studied with her to get monster acting training, with the focus of developing my character skills, so that when my butt dropped and my ankles got thick, I’d have something to offer. Look, I just want to grow old gracefully. And here I am.

So you’re still acting, but you’re also now an experienced teacher. I love the fact that you offer acting classes in person and via Skype! How did that all come about?
Well, about the year 2000, the Stella Adler studio here in Los Angeles recruited me to teach Adler technique and scene study because I studied directly with her. At the time, there was a part of me that went, “Nooooo! I will not teach!” They said, well, why don’t you just give it a try because you really do know what you’re doing and we could use that here. And it turned out I was good at it. So, since then I taught at the Adler studio for six years, then at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, at South Coast Rep, and others. I take exception to that saying, “Those who can do, those who can’t teach,” mainly because actors have taught actors for hundreds of years. In recent years, I started teaching privately, simply because it gave me a lot more free time to attend auditions with a lot less stress. The name of the business is called Actor Muscle, and it’s been great. Working with Skype is absolutely wonderful since most auditions are put “to tape” nowadays. I’m able to hone their camera technique while digging out the character and script. A lot of people are a little suspicious of this because it’s relatively new and they do prefer the human touch. But I have to tell ya, I’ve got a client in the UK; a client in Florida; Texas; one from Italy⎯I get inquiries all the time from people of out state.


You seem to be very well-rounded in terms of your interests and hobbies. I saw somewhere that you’re into softball, and all this other great, random stuff...
Yeah, I’m a tomboy. I don’t play sports anymore, I had some shoulder surgery a few years ago and things are pretty limited for me now. But I was, once upon a time, a big athlete. I played a lot of softball, water skied, swam a lot, ran two miles a day, took ballet or dance classes two or three times a week. I was the only girl in my family, so there were always sports going on somewhere. My current husband and I met when we were both poor as rats, just trying to make it in the world. And our first date came from the fact that I still had a bag of softball equipment in my trunk. He said, “I knew there was a reason I liked you,” and we went to the park and played ball!

Sounds like my kind of date! You know, speaking of your family, I couldn’t help but notice that your daughter’s name is Kate. Any connection to Ms. Monday?
[Laughs] No, that’s a family name. My grandmother’s name was Katherine, so we named her after my dad’s mother.

Got it. Is she a student?
My daughter just left Berklee School of Music in Boston. She got her act together and just put it on the road. She recently mixed an album, and they moved to the San Francisco area to get their lives started as a band. She’s a really great singer and also plays guitar and some percussion instruments and things like that. But mostly singing. There are a lot of musicians in my family, so it runs in the bloodline.

I’ve also read that you’re a strong supporter of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Can you tell me more about that?
I’m a big believer in what they do. I was born and raised in the South, and I can’t remember a time that I felt like there was a true difference between me and someone else because of skin color. I just didn’t see it. But I do remember countless times where I personally felt threatened, or that it was dangerous for me to have, say, an African-American friend. Now, I credit my parents with providing me with a mind and an environment free of racial prejudice, so I understand that racism is taught. I think I’ve also always had an instinctive fear of the KKK. I’m not sure where that comes from because I don’t know anybody that’s really associated with them. But, you know, the KKK is still alive and still capable of random violence. Now, there were two things that really led me to the Southern Poverty Law Center. One was I came across this powerful article in a magazine, talking about this political party back in the 50s and 60s called the Dixiecrats. It was a very powerful voting bloc at the time, mostly Southern, and a lot of members of the KKK were part of this. But then the civil rights movement came around, and it wasn’t PC anymore to be open about this affiliation. So the Dixiecrats disbanded and they went underground, assimilating into another political party. I think it’s probably safe to say it wasn’t the Democrats, because it was the Democrats who were promoting the civil rights movement. Just because they went underground, doesn’t mean they’ve gone away⎯I think they’re still in D.C. I certainly don’t think that all Republicans are racist, by the way. I’m a Democrat, but my parents were Republicans, and they obviously provided me with the environment and the mindset that did not promote racism in any way, shape, or form. That’s just my understanding of where the Dixiecrats went when they went underground. The second thing that led me to the SPLC was coming across an article on the lynching of Michael Donald in Alabama. The Alabama KKK had a long history of violence toward blacks, but the SPLC literally bankrupted them. They represented Michael Donald’s mother and family, and the court awarded Michael’s family with all of the KKK’s assets and monies, including the building where they used to have their meetings. I was so blown away by that kind of courage. I’m sure the SPLC went through all sorts of death threats while they were doing it⎯and the KKK is fully capable of implementing them. So anybody who has the balls to do that deserves my money and my attention.

Getting back to Mathnet, how does it feel to know that 25 years have come and gone since the show first aired?
Has it really been 25 years? It seems like 25 minutes ago.

Well, you certainly became an inspiration to a lot of kids. Have you been getting an influx of fan mail now that you’re on Twitter, now that there’s Facebook, and all of that?
I’ve actually always had people get in touch with me. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of letters and emails I got from people who were influenced by the show and actually segued later in their adult life into fields related to science and math. But yes, I have gotten a lot more interplay between the Mathnet and Square One TV fans as technological improvements have allowed easier access. There are a couple of die-hards that have been around for years and years, and it’s more like an ongoing acquaintance. I’ve had some bizarre experiences, too. Like when I teach at the Academy, there’s always at least one in the class who practically faints because Kate Monday is teaching! Every once in a while I’ll be on the road in a play with public question-and-answer after the performance, and it either appalls or simply surprises the rest of the cast that a whole bloc of the audience are Mathnet fans. They want to ask me questions about Mathnet, so [my colleagues] feel kinda left out.


The media landscape has changed quite a bit since 1987. Do you think an educational math show like Square One or Mathnet would have a hard time finding a place in television today?
No, I don’t. I think the fact that you had to ask that question means there’s a need for that kind of programming. What is of concern to me, especially because I teach, is that many of my students are truly lacking in reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. They can’t spell, they can’t cognitively figure things out. They don’t want to logically think things through to the end, they want the answer to be given to them. I’ve actually witnessed kids using their cell phone calculators in math classes. And how many times have you gone into a grocery store, and they don’t know how to count back change? They’re waiting for the machine to tell them what it is. Technology has great tools to keep the accounting books up, but it can also be a crutch that keeps a person from really being able to be an independent thinker, self reliant, self sufficient. So, yes, I think there’s a huge need for it.

I’ve been having a lot of fun watching some of the old Mathnet episodes on YouTube. Do you ever go back and watch the recordings?
Yeah, I have the original tapes, but they’re all on VHS. I’ve had some difficulty finding DVDs, but one of the people on the Square One TV Facebook page led me to a site where I could order those. I can only get five, but they’re five good ones. And yeah, I do watch them every once in a while. It’s really fun! My husband loves to poke fun at my 80s hair.

Do you have a favorite episode?
Every single one of them was an absolute delight to do, but I do have a favorite. In addition to vaudeville, I’m also a huge film noir buff. So I really, really loved “The Trial of George Frankly,” simply because it’s an homage to The Maltese Falcon. It’s just a personal favorite of mine, and Joe did a great job in that.

Okay, last question: Have you guys ever talked about a reunion show?
You know, there’s always some talk about that, and Joe and I are more than willing to be a part of it. But it never quite forms. Maybe with this 25th anniversary thing, it’ll happen!

Continue to Curious George: An interview with Mathnet’s Joe Howard

Continue to Talking With Tuesday: A Conversation with Mathnet’s Toni DiBuono

Cast painting by Jim Auckland. “Crime Scene” cartoon by XKCD. LEGO “Mathnet” by pixbymaia.

1 comment:

  1. Michael Glickman8:03 PM

    Of course, Ms. Leech wasn't the only actress to be screwed over when "Mathnet" moved to New York City. Poor Mary Watson had it even worse, not even being included with Ms. Leech and Mr. Howard.

    ReplyDelete