Wednesday, April 18, 2012

talking with tuesday: a conversation with mathnet's toni di buono

It’s been 25 years since the debut of Square One TV, the PBS series that entertained youngsters in the 1980s and 90s with a unique blend of mathematics and live-action comedy. To mark the anniversary, I spoke last month with two of the original stars of Square One’s Mathnet, Beverly Leech and Joe Howard, whose characters headed up the math-based crime-solving arm of the Los Angles and New York Police Departments. In this third and final look back on Mathnet and Square One, I chat with Mathnet-er Toni Di Buono, who starred as Pat Tuesday from 1991 to the series' end the following year. Toni filled me in on her path to acting; her transition from stage to screen; some hilarious behind-the-scenes Mathnet shenanigans; what she’s been up to since the series ended; and her thoughts on the ultimate impact of Mathnet on children’s entertainment.

Cool to know you’re from the Boston area! Which town do you call home?
Well, I grew up in a little town called Holliston, and I went to a Catholic high school in Framingham⎯Marion High School. It was fine. I’m not really religious,
so . . . I think it was probably to save me from becoming a punk or something!

That’s actually the same high school that astronaut Christa McAuliffe went to. Did you know about that connection at the time of the Challenger accident?
I had no idea she went to Marian. What a tragedy. I'm pretty sure she was younger than I. I graduated in 1974⎯oy.

Yeah, she graduated in 1966. So were you interested in acting even back then?
Well, it was a college prep school, so there was no extracurricular stuff. It was really focused on academics. But they did do a senior musical and a senior talent show. I was always sort of pretty popular⎯at least I pretended to be cool⎯and it was considered uncool to audition for one of the roles. You’d do the ensemble, but only the nerds would have roles in the show. So we all auditioned, and I got a role. Secretly I was really excited, but I couldn’t say that because I didn’t want to be a nerd. And then it turned out that my friends were accepting; they allowed me to do the role without too much ridicule. The director of the show was a graduate student at the Boston Conservatory and he said, “You have a lot of talent, and I think you should audition for the Boston Conservatory.” I thought, oh, no I couldn’t do that. But I did! He and the musical director prepared me for it. And then I ended up going to Westfield State College to be a probation officer!

Wow! How did that happen?
Well, my dad was a judge. So I thought, maybe I’ll follow in his footsteps, very slowly, a step at a time. That seemed to be kind of an in thing that year—social work, probation officer. And within weeks, I was miserable at this school. I didn’t know why I was there. I kept thinking about the audition that I had, and maybe I should just do something that I love. So I thought, you know what? I’m 18 years old, why am I doing this to myself? I wrote to the Boston Conservatory, because I had been accepted, but had chosen not to go. I said, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I’d really like to come to the school.” And I got an answer that they remembered me, and I was still accepted.

What did your dad think when you told him?
He wasn’t so happy. He basically said if you want to go, you’re gonna have to put yourself through. So, I did. Some summers I worked two jobs for my tuition, and after I went for a year I started to get scholarship money and some grant money. One summer I worked at Continental Bakery and I wrapped Suzie Q’s! If ever there was motivation to do well in college and to try to make a better life for yourself, it was working that summer at Continental Bakery. So, I got myself through four years of school.

Did you move right then to New York?
Well, I went to New York for about a minute and thought, I don’t think I’m ready for this. So I went back to Boston.

What was it about New York that was so daunting?
I think I was just really ill prepared. The thing about school is they prepare you for the creative process, but they really don’t prepare you for the logistics. If I was planning a curriculum for college kids, one [course] would be on the business of show business⎯what to expect, realistically. I got there and I was 22 years old, and all I had done in college were the character roles. I would always play women older than myself. But when you move to New York, there are women of that age. Why would they hire a 22-year-old to play a 60-year-old? And I didn’t have a union card, and I thought, what the heck am I doing here? So I went back to Boston and started doing some regional stuff. I was a singing waitress for a couple of years. Then I slowly started to direct some of the shows there and write some of the shows. It was a nice, creative outlet. Then I left ‘cause I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I got a call from a friend of mine who I went to college with. He said, “I’d love for you to come to New York and see this show that I’ve written called Forbidden Broadway.” I saw it and it was hysterical, and I thought he was going to ask me to audition, but he didn’t. I’m like, oh, well it was nice seeing you again . . . So I went back to Boston, and I was bar-tending at the time. But I was also coaching with a singing coach to keep myself somewhat involved. Then I got a call from [my friend] six months later saying, “I’m going to do a Boston company and I want you to audition.” And I got it, and I had a ball. They closed the show in New York for a while, and they were gonna reopen it, and the creator asked me to move to New York to open the show!

That’s fantastic.
Yeah, it was great. I remember one of my teachers in college telling me: “Never move to New York until you’re been invited,” and we were all going, who the hell’s gonna invite you? But that’s literally how it happened. I got certainly a lot of notoriety from it, and I won a couple of awards, and I then I had agents courting me, and it was really great.

How soon after that did you become involved with Mathnet?
Well, the funny thing is, I moved to New York with my husband⎯we weren’t married at the time, but we were together. He’s an actor as well, and about six months before my audition for Mathnet, he said, “I got a call for some show called Math Net or something?” I’d never heard of it before. So we watched it, and we thought it was hysterical. We were looking at it through the eyes of adults. There’s a lot of double entendre in it, I’m sure you know that.

Oh, yeah. Looking back now, some of the jokes I definitely wouldn’t have gotten as a kid.
Absolutely. So, my husband was on it; he was in “The Parking Meter Massacre” with Bev [Leech]. He barely had any lines⎯he was the bad guy at the end. And then I get this call to replace the lead, to replace Bev. I thought, if she’s a regular, why would they be replacing her? But, whatever, I’m going in! And it was very last-minute. My audition was on, I want to say, Wednesday; I got cast on Thursday; I went in for fitting on Friday; and I think we started filming on Monday. It was crazy. But it was PBS. They set a very strict schedule because they had a very minimal budget.

So what was it like once you finally started shooting? Bev told me she had gotten in touch with you to help with the transition.
I kind of don’t remember details because it was such a whirlwind. But I remember getting a script on Friday and, being a theater actor, I memorized the script starting from page 1. But that’s not how they’d shoot things. I remember Bev calling and saying, you know, do you need any help, and recommending watching Dragnet to get the style because Charlie Dubin, the original director, was really trying to stay close to that initially. It definitely evolved and sort of loosened up over the years. But I thought it was really sweet that she had reached out. And Joe [Howard], of course, I was in love with because he’s just crazy and sweet and genuine and just a great guy. I think we had very good chemistry from the very beginning. So he was an enormous help. And Charlie was great because I was a stage actor, and you’re used to getting laughs, so you know if something’s funny or not. This whole genre was so bizarre because you have no idea. You just have to trust that what the director is telling you is true, that it really is funny. So I think the first scene was with this fast-talking guy⎯he actually was quite a celebrity back then. He talked a million miles an hour.

The MicroMachines guy?
Yes, exactly. And I don’t even remember what I said or what the scene was about, but I was doing a lot more than I needed to do, reacting-wise and stuff. And Charlie pulled me aside, and he said, “You’re freaking out, I can tell. Don’t worry about it⎯you are funny! I will let you know if you’re not funny. Just be real and do what you do. That’s why we cast you!” So that’s what I did! And I slowly got into the rhythm of it.

Well, there are definitely plenty of kids from my generation who remember you, and it was a terrific role.
It’s funny, the first time I realized that more people were watching it than I was aware of, my husband and I were living in Gramercy Park and there was a school near there. So I walked by this group, and I could tell there was something weird going on. It was all these teens, and there was screaming. I sort of forced my way in, and I see these kids fighting, and the other kids are kind of egging them on. I immediately said, “Knock it off, now, come on,” and they sort of spread apart. And one guy started giving me attitude, but then he stopped. He sort of looked at me⎯he was a tough kid, he was definitely lookin’ for a fight. And he says, “Hey! I know you.” I said, “I don’t think we’ve ever met.” I was being sort of stern with him. And he says, “You’re Pat Tuesday—I love you!” [Laughs] Never in a million years did I expect that this kid would have any connection to Mathnet! But he was a riot, and we talked for a while; we must have talked for 10 or 15 minutes. And I was like, boy, I guess I’m really connecting to kids. And I felt an enormous responsibility at that point. But I mean, I run into people to this day. In fact, the last show I did, the first day of rehearsal I was walking out of the studio, and the writer, Keith Varney, said, “I just wanted to tell you I was really excited when I found out you were doing the show⎯I’m such a fan of yours.” And, you know, I expected him to talk about some show I had done, some play or whatever, and he said, “Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been a fan, ever since Mathnet.” I was like, thank you . . . kind of? [Laughs] It was humbling to say the least. But he actually has become a really good friend of mine. So that’s my Mathnet story.

I’ve been having great fun watching the various episodes on YouTube for the first time since I was a kid myself.
Oh, they have them on YouTube?

Oh, yeah. Some of them have been separated from the rest of Square One, and others are shown with the full shows.
You know, I’m so touched by how big the fan base is. I mean, when you’re doing something you’re so proud of⎯and obviously with Mathnet I was incredibly proud. I really thought it was such smart writing. Not to get too corny, but it was making a tremendous difference in kids’ lives as far as just the educational value of it. They tested it in schools, and it was unbelievable. They did this one school in Texas, and the math scores rose across the board like 80 percent. It was a failing school. So it made a tremendous difference educationally.

To that end, what were your thoughts on the cancellation of Mathnet and Square One?
When they decided to take it off they air, they brought in new business people. They were saying, “We can’t afford to do it, it’s too expensive.” People were in tears, saying, “But you don’t understand, we’re having tremendous results in the educational field!” And they were just like, well, it’s just too expensive. So the pro-Mathnet people were like, okay, we won’t do any more locations, we’ll do everything in studio. And it was like, no, forget it, we’ve got our own stuff. So the first thing these new people brought in was this show called Ghostwriter, and they spent a fortune developing it—I mean, a fortune. They could have done five Mathnet's. But, they wanted to do their own thing. And you know, it was really a shame. The whole Square One franchise was really successful, and it was the only show that had live action heroes. Everything else was animated. Not to mention the fact that it gave a lot of New York actors work! That was another really good thing.

Well, I’ve asked Joe and Bev whether they think a show like Mathnet or Square One would have a place on PBS or any other network today. How do you feel about that?
Oh, I don’t think so. I think things have gotten so visual, and I think it’s too cerebral for today, unfortunately, which makes me really sad. I think people think that because kids love video games, that’s all they want. And what ends up happening is⎯and I’ve seen it in kids; my daughter’s 16 now, but I certainly watched her from first grade on⎯kids are bored easily. It’s really hard to keep their attention and hold their attention. They can’t sit still to read, or they’ll say, “Lemme see, lemme see, lemme see!” They have to have constant visual stimulation, and I think that’s a mistake. I think they get enough of that in other areas. It would be really nice if they would offer something like a Mathnet that was slower for older kids. I mean, not pre-K kids, but kids in grammar school or even junior high. Things that sort of let kids sit with it. But they think, well, that’s what kids like, so that’s all we’re going to give them. So I don’t think a show like that could work. I really don’t. Even adult shows are so crazy-visual.

True. You know, they had a similar show for adults not too long ago called NUMB3RS. It was basically a crime drama, and it lasted several years, but then I guess it died.
Yeah, I think I saw it. Well, I think things die because I think they lose the initial vision. What ends up happening is you’ll get a great show with great writing, but then the writers leave. And then they get freelance writers. The business is so different now . . . I wonder how much longer we’re even really going to have network television. I mainly do commercial work, and I’ve noticed that the commercial industry is completely different now. They do so much in-programming commercials, merchandising. You know, they used to do product placement? Well now it’s just blatant commercials within the shows. All you have to do is watch something like The Biggest Loser; whomever is sponsoring the show just gets 30-second commercials throughout the show. So it has changed.

Do you have a favorite Mathnet episode?
I enjoyed all of them, but “Despair in Monterey Bay” was really fun just because we were on location. Joe and I had a good time walking around Monterey, and I think we drove the 17-mile coast highway and had a good time. But it was hard. With Mathnet it was cheaper for them to add extra hours than add an extra day⎯that’s just the way it worked out monetarily through the union. So every day we would work about 12 hours, and Joe and I were in almost every scene, so it wasn’t like we could relax. This one day it was really hard because we had an older actor who was terrific, but he was having some memory issues. We were on the beach with this guy, who was giving us clues as to how we could go deeper than human divers could go, and he was having a hard time, so we were standing on the beach for a really long time, and it was really cold. I would have to feed him a line, and then we would break, and then he would say the line, and then I’d feed him the next line, and I mean it just went on forever. Then we had this scene where we were on the top of a dune and we had to run down to ostensibly catch the bad guy. It went on and on. The next morning my call was like 4:30, and when I went to get up, and I couldn’t move. I literally couldn’t move. I thought, I’m in big trouble here, I can’t get out of bed. The day before, Joe and I went shopping for gifts, and I bought this weird little hand massager thing that you could put on your neck⎯it would heat up and vibrate, and thank god I bought some batteries to go with it. I was like a fish out of water⎯I just sort of flipped myself off the side of the bed and was kind of crawling to my suitcase [laughs] and I managed to somehow get this little massager out of that powerful shrink-wrap! And I get the batteries in there, and I put it on the floor and sort of laid my neck down on top of it, and I laid there for about 10 minutes, just enough to be able to get myself into a seated position. It was crazy!

And this was your favorite experience?!
[Laughs] It was my favorite because it was so funny. It being California, there were massage therapists working as [personal assistants]. And this massage therapist worked with me for maybe a half hour, so I was able to shoot that day. But it’s funny because there’s one shot of us out at the pool, figuring out the triangulation, and you can see when I turn to see Joe coming toward me, I still couldn’t turn my neck. But actually the funniest part was when we were out on the research vessel, everyone was getting sick because it had been storming for days. It was the first clear day that they had, and we had to re-loop all of the scenes on the boat. All you could hear was heaving!

Oh, man!
I was the only one who didn’t vomit. I think it was out of whatever pride or dignity I had left. But everybody⎯Dave Sperling, the cinematographer, was just green he was so ill, and he kept running away from the camera and going off the side. So that’s the one I remember the most details from because it was so crazy. But I don’t know, maybe the one with John Sayles, the robot baseball player. I think that’s because we had a lot of outdoor scenes, and we just laughed. John Sayles was such a great guy, and Paul Dooley, who played the coach, was hysterical, and Maddie Corman played the girl. It was a great bunch of people. I remember Jim Thurman and I playing catch out in the field. It was a really nice, happy time.

But probably the one that I laughed at the most was the haunted house one just because it was so silly. We had many guest stars, and one of our guest stars was a particularly difficult person to deal with. Joe and I kept getting the giggles, and we couldn’t stop because she was being very sort of grand. When you’re doing off-camera stuff, you have to get in the right eye line for the person doing their close-up so it matches when they do the wide shot or whatever. But it was so crowded in there because we were literally in a house. So we were doing our voices behind the cinematographer, and she had to look at a piece of cardboard that they had propped up for her. She kept going up on her lines, and she was blaming it on the fact that Joe and I weren’t in the proper place. So we had to go into the tiniest spot possible, with Joe crammed up against the top of my head, and my head was sort of at an angle, and she stopped and said, “They’re not giving me enough emotion!” [Laughs] Joe and I laughed, and we couldn’t stop. We knew she was going to get really mad, but we couldn’t stop! It was so preposterous that she was being such a diva, and we were in this ridiculous position. So we just sort of lost it and had to take a break. We were absolutely punch drunk at that one.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve been up to since Mathnet?
What I’ve been doing lately is teaching and doing commercials. And I was in South Korea recently doing the Daegu Musical Theater Festival, which is a sister festival to NYMF. I was doing that show that Keith Varney wrote, the little boy who enjoyed me on Mathnet who’s now thirty-something. We went to South Korea, and it won best musical. And I just did a performance with my friend Fred Barton. He and I wrote a musical. He does these monthly shows at the Metropolitan Room, and he asked me to sing a couple of songs for that show. That was nerve-wracking! I kind of don’t miss being on stage anymore. I’ve always preferred television. I like the pace of it, which is weird because most people hate the pace of it; you work for a half hour and then you sit for six. But I like the quietness of it. With theater, you have to be on⎯you can’t fake it, ever, you just have to be there. My husband loves it; I think he would shrivel up and die if he couldn’t do it anymore. He’s actually in rehearsal right now for a new Broadway show called Nice Work if You Can Get It, with Matthew Broderick, and he absolutely loves it. And I’m like, eight shows a week? Are you kidding? It’s a lot of work. So maybe I’m lazy, maybe that’s the problem.

Nah. That sounds pretty tiring.
It’s not family-friendly. After we had our daughter I did try to go back. I did a Broadway show when she was seven. It was horrible. Michael was working, and we had a sitter, and we tried to get my in-laws to watch her for a couple of weeks. They were great, and it was better while they were here, but when you’re a kid and you’re used to having one parent with you every night and suddenly they’re both gone, it gets really hard. I did another Broadway show when Kathleen was 10, and it wasn’t a whole lot better, and I thought, I don’t really want to be away from her. I was kind of old when I had her⎯I was almost 39⎯so I just didn’t want to miss any of it. Of course now that she’s a teenager I’m thinking, gee, it would be great to do a show to get a little break! [laughs] She’s actually a really good kid, but, you know, she’s a teenager. And a female teenager. Not to be a misogynist, but I remember how I was, and I don’t know how my mother survived.

Is she looking toward college now?
Well, yeah, but she wants to go into theater⎯unfortunately. My husband and I, we’re not encouraging it. We weren’t discouraging it ‘cause, you know, you don’t want to discourage any passion a kid has. But when she had her first lead in a show we were thinking oh, this’ll be the end of it. And at intermission we both looked at each other and went, “Oh, crap.” She was really good. I think she’s better off than we were . . . we moved to New York not knowing a soul. So at least she knows us, and we know people, so we’ll help out as much as we can. Although I guess there’s not a ton of job security in any field right now so, you know, you might as well be doing something you really love.

You mentioned that you’re also teaching right now. How’s that going?
I love teaching. I teach voice. I teach privately and I also teach at a friend’s school in Jersey called the New Jersey School of Dramatic Arts. I teach teens⎯I won’t teach anything younger than that. Tweens are really difficult. They haven’t gotten to the point where you can intimidate them into behaving. They’ll do anything they want! But I just love teens. There’s just something about the age that I really love witnessing. I think they’re brave souls for even attempting to sing in front of people they don’t know, and it’s a struggle, and when they succeed at it, it’s so uplifting. I also teach adult voice, and that is my favorite. If I only could do one thing, that would be what it would be. Even if they have no or very little talent, there’s something about singing—it’s such an abstract art. Even though it’s a performing art, you can’t demonstrate exactly what’s happening. Like if you’re dancing, you can show somebody how to do a pliĆ© or a turn step or whatever. Even with painting or visual arts you can show people how to do it. But I can’t really show you what my vocal chords are doing or say, “Look at how deep my breath goes.” You can’t show them that stuff. So, so much of it is visualization and trust. And it’s hard for people to trust; let’s face it, you don’t want to make a fool of yourself. But once it clicks, once they hit that perfect note, that relaxed sort of spinning note, 9 times out of 10 they get tears in their eyes, and it’s kind of magical. It’s really very uplifting and it’s very inspirational. Not to get too weird, but on a selfish level, it really makes me feel good.

Anything else you’d like to tell the world about your experience with Mathnet?
I have nothing but fond memories. And it was just a great group of people. If it could have gone on forever, if I never did another job, I would be fine with that as long as I could do Mathnet!

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

Continue to Curious George: A Conversation with Mathnet's Joe Howard

LEGO "mathnet mystery weekend" by pixbymaia.