Wednesday, March 14, 2012

curious george: a conversation with mathnet’s joe howard

Did you first learn about the Fibonacci sequence from a squawking parrot? Are you drawn to graphic representations of car robberies in your neighborhood? Have you ever had an itch to climb up the Hollywood sign in a gorilla suit? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you are not alone. In part two of my look back on the legacy of Mathnet, which celebrates its 25th birthday this winter, I speak with Joe Howard, the actor who embodied detective-mathematician George Frankly during the show’s seven-year run on PBS. Among other things, he shares with me his favorite Mathnet zingers, his not-so-secret hobbies, and his role in churning out at least one real-life mathematician. Of course, don't miss part one, with thoughts from Joe’s Mathnet co-star Beverly Leech, and part three, with thoughts from co-star Toni DiBuono.

It’s been 25 years since the Mathnet pilot aired. Had you known about the anniversary?
Somebody pointed it out to me. My lord, 25 years ago. You know, the anniversary I was really thinking of was this May was gonna be exactly 20 years since we shot the last Mathnet. But I did the pilot in August of 1985. They tested it out with kids and did the research and everything, and when it tested well, I think we went into production again in 1986. We shot six more full story lines after the pilot, so I think they had a total of seven to work with. Maybe it was only six, I can’t remember.

As the happy-go-lucky half of the Mathnet duo, did you enjoy getting to be so silly all the time?
It was very natural. I mean, I did basically no preparation for the role of George Frankly; it was just kind of an exaggerated version of myself. And I had fun with it. Beverly [Leech] had to sort of keep within bounds because she was playing a very matter-of-fact, by-the-book kind of person. So I think it was a kind of, you know, it wasn’t really quite who she was. And with a natural inclination to comedy she sort of kind of put a clamp on things in that respect.

You had about a million memorable lines. Are there any that still stick in your head or that you occasionally blurt out?
I used to drive my family crazy with a line that showed up in two of the scripts: “No foolin’, it’s a dandy!” I’d say that. And then probably one of my favorite lines, I think, and the producer really loved it, was: “It’s better to know news than not know news even though the news we know is not nice.” The writers for that show were very, very clever. They were a couple of the original creators of Sesame Street.

Right. And I was sad to hear that they had passed away.
Yeah, yeah. One of them passed away in about ’95, and the other one passed away maybe three or four years ago. I kept in touch with him, we used to have some interesting exchanges over the years—one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. He once had a pet pig that he named Hitler, and he used to take it out walking on a leash until I guess it got to be about 600 pounds. Ha!

How did you originally get into acting?
When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s there were a lot of westerns on television. And I think I very early on wanted to be a cowboy. Then when I realized at a certain point that that wasn’t practical, I wanted to become an actor and play cowboys. That’s really my history with acting. Then there was a summer stock theater in my hometown, and about a full year after I graduated from college, I was hired by them as a member of the company, and I did four seasons there. In between seasons, I started working other theaters. I based myself out of New York, I was doing dinner theater, and a year after I finished a four-year stint⎯summers only⎯I booked a big job. It was a western musical about the life of Charles Russell the western artist. I was hired as the gun-slinging sheriff, my first big union job, at a prestigious place over in East Haddam, CT called the Good Street Opera House. Then a few months later, I got a Broadway show. I went in as a replacement into the Broadway show, Shenandoah. I was in that for a year and a half and then came out west with the national touring company. I stayed in Los Angeles, and mostly, I’ve been here since that time.

Was your ultimate goal to get into TV and movies?
Really more than anything else I wanted to do television. I got a start in my hometown because there was a theater, so it was kind of a logical jumping-off place, and I had a pretty good singing voice, and they were doing musicals. But I found that I got trapped in musical theater because I had all musicals on my resume. It wasn’t until I got out to Los Angeles that I was able to break away from all of that. I hit it big in commercials when I came out here initially, but it was very slow going getting into television. I think I had maybe four or five small roles under my belt when I booked Mathnet, and then after that it was sort of a mix of doing commercials and occasional TV things. Then I moved to Minnesota in 1990 with my family, and we started working out of there. We were sick of Los Angeles. I started doing movies: I was in Grumpy Old Men and The Mighty Ducks, and there was a big movie of the week that they did there. Then we came back to Los Angeles in 1995, and I’ve been here since, doing a mix of occasional films and mainly prime time television shows. So, it’s been a kind of a long career. I’ve been in the business now for 40 years!

I know you’re from New York, but where is your hometown, exactly?
I was born in Yonkers, but I was raised for about five years in Commack, Long Island. I also spent my fourth grade year in Burma, of all places. My father was an engineer and was rebuilding a dam that had been bombed out during World War II. That was a very exotic experience⎯I remember it vividly. Then I lived in Yonkers for two years after that, and then we moved to Chatham, which is about two and a quarter hours north of New York City. And I was there from seventh grade through college. I consider Chatham to be my hometown. We’ve always had some strong ties there, so it’s been a vacation place for the extended family who was sort of based in Yonkers. I try to get back there for about two weeks every year, particularly during the fall ‘cause the leaves are so beautiful. It’s gorgeous countryside.

So can you tell me about how you got involved with Mathnet?
It was just another audition. My agent had submitted me for the part of George Frankly, but the casting director didn’t think I was right for it. So I went in and I read for the part of the Man in the Baseball Cap [laughs]. And then she kind of looked at me funny, and she handed me the part of George Frankly and asked me to read for that. I read it, and I could see she was really interested. Then I had a callback, and I was hired. She told me some years later that there was never anybody else under serious consideration for the role. I mean, that was just it when I walked in. I was just floored because I’ve never had a bit of serendipity like that. Well, maybe I have, but I mean, that was really unusual. But I understand that among the people who auditioned for it was Phil Hartman.

That’s a fun story. And so you worked on Mathnet for seven or eight years?
It was from August of 1985 to May of 1992. So it’s about seven years.

The show was shot in LA for the first two years, and then it moved to New York. What were your thoughts about the move?
I like Los Angeles better than New York, but when you’re working in New York, it’s usually under the best circumstances, so I was fine with it. It sort of coincided with me and my family leaving for Minnesota, so I was closer to New York at that point, and they used to fly me in from Minneapolis. It was a relatively short flight, so it was fine as far as I was concerned.

What was it like when you found out that Beverly was leaving the show?
I knew she was under a lot of pressure from her agent to get out of the show because he wanted her to be getting into other stuff. And I actually experienced some of the same things. I switched agents while I was in the show, and the first thing the new agents that I got with wanted me to do was to leave the show so I’d be available to do other stuff. I just said no. I said, look, you know, I really like this thing, I’m not giving this job up. If you can get me another job in the meanwhile that’s better than this, by all means, but I’m not walking out of the show. Now Beverly, you know, she was at a point where she was probably around 30 years old. She knew that she had to make moves while she was still younger, so I think it was very difficult for her. And she did end up getting a Broadway show about a year or two later, that she probably wouldn’t have gotten if she’d stayed with the show.

How did the process to replace the Kate Monday character go? Did you have any kind of say in who would take over as your new partner, Pat Tuesday?
Well, I read with the girls being considered at the final callback audition for the part. They had two or three girls—maybe four, I can’t remember—as possible replacements, and they had me read with each of them. So they asked, "Who do you feel the best with?" And I said, candidly, that I didn’t think any of them were really right [laughs]. But I had occasion to rethink that, because I thought the replacement, Toni DiBuono, was very good. And we got to be very good friends. That worked out nicely.

You and Toni had some fun episodes in the New York segments. Are there any experiences from that latter half of the series that you particularly enjoyed?
One of the things that was advantageous was they took more time to shoot the shows. We were shooting the shows in six days in Los Angeles. When we were in New York, they were generally allowing us seven or eight days. So the producer wanted to up the production values on it, and I guess he accomplished that. But there was very good chemistry on the set. You know, Bari Willerford, who came on as the detective who helped us out—Benny the cab driver—I remained friends with him. And I thought Emilio Del Pozo, who was Captain Greco, was very good. I enjoyed him.

Do have an overall favorite episode?
I think “The Case of the Mystery Weekend” is one of my favorites, although I didn’t think the ending of it was enough of a payoff. That was a fun show where I was dressed up as Sherlock Holmes. We shot it in this great, big mansion outside of New York City. But I think among the California shows, the second episode we actually shot was “The Mystery of the Maltese Pigeon.” That had probably some of the least math of any of them in it, which was . . . I always found the math kind of a distraction. I mean, obviously that was the point of the show, but I always thought it could have been a good show if they took the math out and just took the funny kids’ cop drama.

Have you ever heard of the adult crime drama, NUMB3RS, which came out maybe six or seven years ago? I thought it was pretty similar to Mathnet in a lot of ways.
I never saw it. What was the basis of them calling it NUMB3RS? Were they doing statistical calculations?

Yeah, it was a crime show with two detectives, and one of the detectives had a brother who was a genius mathematician at Caltech. And the brother ended up coming in to solve all the cases, essentially. None of the cases would get solved without math. So, you know, it was a little more detailed, and much more for an adult audience, but it was interesting to see. I do think they owed you a debt of gratitude...
Interesting. Well, there might well be some connection there that the writers had seen Mathnet and figured, woah, there’s something here.

Can you talk a little bit about why Mathnet ended?
I know that the ownership of Children’s Television Workshop changed hands. The woman who ran the workshop, who’d been there since, I’m gonna guess, the late 60s, moved on. So the ownership changed hands, and the new people that came in weren’t interested in doing Mathnet. They had some new show called Ghostwriter that they were working on. Now, I was told that that was the reason the show ended; I had been told that there was plenty of money for it and we could have continued, but the ownership just wasn’t interested. Then I was subsequently told that that was not the case, that the funding had run out. So, I don’t know. But I do know one thing: There was a producer who was subcontracting all the production for Mathnet in New York, and he told me that they had an offer from ABC. If they would cut the Mathnet episodes into full-hour episodes, they would run them on ABC, and then if they were successful, they would put in an order for more. But they were only offering Children’s Television Workshop enough money to basically cover the cost of doing the re-cutting. The Children’s Television Workshop turned them down because they were only paying them cost. Now, Children’s Television Workshop is supposed to be a non-profit organization, so it seems to me they could’ve done that. It just seems kind of stupid that they didn’t; you’d think they’d want to prolong their shows. And when I heard about that, I was really disappointed. I mean, we only did 30 full story lines during the seven years that we worked on it, so it wasn’t like we had run out of ideas by any means. There was plenty fertile ground left. But I think there was no question about the fact that it had to do with the change in ownership and the people weren’t interested in it.

What have been some of your favorite roles after Mathnet?
Well, I think one of the best jobs I’ve had was working on a film called The World’s Fastest Indian with Anthony Hopkins. It was nice, and he was really nice to spend time with. He was a very engaging fellow⎯he went out of his way to talk to everybody. Could not have been nicer.

Did you get to actually ride any motorcycles when you were out there?
Oh, no, I didn’t do any of that. What’s interesting: They were at that time of year having actual races and tests on the salt flats at the same time that we were shooting the movie. It was a very unusual experience, being out on that salt lake. It was just weird . . . it looked like a frozen-over lake except it was all salt. But the thing is, most of the work that I’ve done since then has basically been small parts in movies and television. So there hasn’t been a lot of opportunity to kick up my heels. Probably the most satisfying stuff I’ve been doing for the past 10 years or so is I write my own material and I showcase myself for casting people. And I get jobs out of doing that. I find the stuff that I do in these showcases infinitely more interesting than the work that I’m actually paid for.

How does that work, exactly?
This is a small stage, and they have showcases where actors put together scenes. They’ll have maybe six monologues and you know, 13 scenes, and they’ll have a group of maybe four to seven casting directors there to watch them. It’s just a way of presenting ourselves to the people who cast various shows around town. And hopefully they’ll like our work and bring us in and have us read for their shows. Now, you either have an A-list agent, which is very hard to come by, or you have to find access on your own to the casting people in order to get hired. A lot of small agents out here don’t have an awful lot of power⎯there’s about four or five big agencies that control most of the trade. So it tends to be very exclusionary. There’s a gross super-saturation of the market with actors out here: If two-thirds of the would-be actors left this town, you would still have an overcrowded market. So, it’s quite difficult to get things going, and to keep things going, unless you’re playing all kinds of angles or unless you have a really good agent.

That segues very nicely into my next question, which is about your son, Jeremy, who is also an actor. As you were saying, it’s very competitive. So did you encourage him? Or did you sort of stay out of it and let him do his own thing?
Well, my wife and I, we used to take him to auditions with us when we went to auditions. A lot of times it was just, rather than get a babysitter, it was convenient to take him with us. The casting people would see him and he was a real natural, he was very comfortable in front of the camera. And they put him on camera and he’d know exactly what to do. So it was kind of a natural thing that they got to know him, and they started casting him. He was extremely talented with no training. I remember in Minnesota, he did a show at this big children’s theater, and the artistic director said that he had the most natural instinct of any child actor he had ever encountered. He would book probably about half the stuff that he auditioned for, which is a very high booking rate. And it kind of continued through school and so forth, and he continued doing a lot of commercials, occasional film, and television. Then spring of his senior year in high school he had two auditions, and he booked both of them for about six months’ work on two major films: Galaxy Quest and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And that was kind of the end of college for him; he never stopped working. He has very little training. He spent probably less energy on his career than anybody that I know. But he has a very good agent, they get him in the door for good stuff. He literally had a good career dropped in his lap! Sometimes that’s just the way of it. So many people out here, you know, they’ve trained, and they struggle and this and that, and it’s hard for them to get anything going, and he literally had it dropped in his lap.

I guess I’d take it!

Another question for you: Do you have any non-acting hobbies or pastimes?
Well, I’m a folk singer. I own five guitars and a banjo! I play them avidly. I don’t do much public performance; it’s mainly something that I do for myself. But I was on The West Wing once as a folk singer, doing a piece that they asked me to prepare for them. And, let’s see, I also have a collection of silver coins, and I also collect antique pocket revolvers from the 1870s and 80s. So I do have various hobbies. I like to fish a lot, and I fish whenever I get a chance. Mainly trout.

Have you ever fished Nomanissan Island? Just kidding. That was one of my favorite episodes.
That was a good episode. I remember that well. I remember James Earl Jones was on that, and he was a lot of fun to work with. He was available one week, when we were shooting in California, and they put him into two episodes. And we sort of shot around him. Then I think they sort of shot a couple of responses of him off camera during one of the ones we did in New York, the Monterey Bay mystery one. He was only in three episodes total for the whole thing.

I actually heard a rumor that one of the writers or someone hid a little Darth Vader on the set. Did you guys do pranks like that?
I remember hearing something about that, but I was not aware of it at the time. Somebody mentioned it later. Maybe the figure shows up in one of the shots or something, I don’t know. I kind of expected the voice of Darth Vader when he came on the set, but he was a very soft-spoken fellow.

Do people recognize you as George Frankly on the street?
Yup, yeah. One of my favorite things that happened was I was in the school where my kids were going. I think it was in the class where my daughter was in, maybe second grade or third grade. And my wife and I were in this classroom, and she was talking to a little boy and she said, “Do you recognize my husband, here?” He said, “Yeah, he’s on Mathnet.” And he said, “I don’t like that show.” Ha! He didn’t care much for it, and he wasn’t hesitant to say anything about it. [Laughs] But then, when I was in my hometown a year and a half ago I had a girl⎯I would say she was probably 30 years old⎯come up to me in a restaurant in my hometown. And she said, “Are you the guy from Mathnet?” I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “I just wanted to thank you. Because of watching your show, I became a mathematician.” I said, “Woah.” Talk about the power of the media!

Speaking of that, you know, there’s quite a bit of interest right now in ramping up educational math offerings. There’s a new Museum of Mathematics opening up in New York later this year, and this past weekend the Smithsonian opened an exhibit geared toward kids about math in everyday life. And BrainPOP, the company I work for, produces short educational videos that sort of do what some of the vignettes on Square One did. But it’s weird to think that in 25 years, there hasn’t really been anything quite like Square One. Do you think a show like Square One or Mathnet would be as successful today?
I think that it probably would. I mean the whole measure of it is whether it would be entertaining to the kids. I think also that, particularly in terms of the needs it was trying to address, those needs were just as strong as ever, and they are now, and so from that standpoint it was silly for them to cancel the show. Because if they’re trying to increase literacy in mathematics, you kind of need a constant stream of that. And they can show it in reruns up to a point, but there are some notable absences, like we didn’t have cell phones in those days. But my daughter is a second grade teacher, and she’s been showing Mathnet to her kids. They’re a little below the target age, but the kids love them.

I just have one last question. Would you ever be interested in doing a Mathnet reunion?
Well, as a matter of fact, around the year 2000, I got together a Mathnet reunion for people who are out here, who had been associated with a show. We got together for like a pancake breakfast or something, and we had a lot of the people involved. Toni DiBuono was here at the time, and Beverly was here, and I was there, and we had one of our directors, and some people who had worked on the show in various capacities, and the producer of the Los Angeles segments. So it was a very nice time. And I think Bari Willerford was there—yes, he was there. So we had quite a few people. I’d always be interested in a Mathnet reunion.

Would you ever consider doing like a 25th anniversary special show, if someone wrote that for you and would put it on?
Oh, I’d be glad to, yeah! I’d definitely be interested in doing something like that.

Continue to My Name is Monday: A Conversation with Mathnet’s Beverly Leech

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

Cartoon by Jacob Chabot. “Mathnet Logo” by TJJohn12. LEGO “Mathnet” by pixbymaia.


  1. This is a great series of interviews.
    I think you've even eclipsed my work.
    You've also gotten some outstanding answers to difficult questions, like why Beverly Leech left, and the relationship between her and Toni DiBuono.
    If the Square One forum was online, I'd say that you should integrate it into the Mathnet mythos and information that was there.
    All of this information should be preserved, somehow, regardless.
    Thank you.

  2. And...check this out:

  3. Thanks for the nice comments - your interview was great as well! And cute t-shirt. I think some folks are looking into reviving at least the Mathnet fan site... There's a Square One Facebook page, too, now, which you should check out if you haven't already :)

  4. Anonymous11:47 AM

    I have enjoyed reading your wonderful interviews with the cast. I am a big fan of the series!


  5. Dear Maia / 20Tauri,
    Thank you so much for writing these interviews. I came across them purely by accident, but I'm a huge fan of the series and I found your Mathnet star trilogy of interviews fascinating. Thanks again!



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