by L. Wayne Hicks
Don Herbert may not have been a household name, but his alter ego
of Mr. Wizard certainly was.
His science program from the early days of television, "Watch
Mr. Wizard," captivated, educated and entertained generations
of school children. The show ran from 1951 to 1964, then returned
to the air in different incarnations in the 1970s and 1980s.
Herbert, who died this week at age 89, submitted to an interview in
January 2000 with TV Party contributor L. Wayne Hicks in which he
reflected on the show, his legacy and his role as an icon.
Q: How many kids went on to study science because of your show?
A: I have no idea. I do know that there have been many people who
supposedly gave "Mr. Wizard" credit for having gone on to
study science. But I think that's an oversimplification. I think they
would have gone on to study science anyway. But they were the type
of kids who watched "Mr. Wizard."
Q: Was there a certain type of kid who watched the show, like the
A: Not necessarily, because whole families watched it. Fathers, mothers
and the kids, all together. Because we had so much of the show that
was sort of based on magic and tricks and that kind of stuff, I think
we appealed to a lot more people than just kids that were interested
Q: I'm sure you helped create a lot of scientists out there.
A: Probably the most graphic example was a bunch of guys who were
at Harvard, I think, in medical school. They were sitting around after
class one day asking how did you get interested in science. All of
them said "Mr. Wizard."
Q: Did you always have an interest in science?
A: Yes, but not strictly the way I began to develop Mr. Wizard. I'm
more a writer; I'm more a creative type person, than I am a scientist.
I'm not a scientist at all, really. I'm a presenter. I'm a person
who enjoys accepting the challenge of making something understandable
and finding ways to do it. When I was doing Mr. Wizard it was done
via demonstrations. I'm more a communicator than I am a scientist,
and that's what I enjoy.
Q: Did the network buy into the idea at first of putting on a show
of science experiments?
A: Not at all. Not alt all. It came about through a strange set of
circumstances. I'd written some radio scripts and a friend of mine
who was a very successful writer read some of them and said, "These
aren't so hot." I said, "Well, I know, but I sold them."
He said, "Well, you'll never write this kind of stuff and compete
with people who write it and think it's good. You must write what
you like to read."
So I took that advice very, very seriously. I write down everything
I like to read, but also what do I like to do. In other words, what
would I probably be best at. I put together a whole list of stuff
and it turned out to be a show based on science with demonstrations.
I know television would always appeal to children and that if you're
going to be any kind of explaining, it had better be to children rather
than to adults.
I originally started out talking directly to the camera. That didn't
work too well. I finally came up with the idea of having a child and
doing the show together.
I tried for almost a year to get somebody to pay me to do the show.
I finally turned it over to a packager that was contacting people.
They contacted an organization known as the Cereal Institute. The
Cereal Institute was made up of various cereal manufacturers, Quaker
Oats, General Foods, General Mills. They were looking for an educational
kind of package so they could put what they called a breakfast story
in the middle of it. "Eat a good breakfast of fruit, cereal,
milk, bread and butter or other foods for variety like eggs or breakfast
meats. "They made a deal with NBC. NBC furnished the time and
the Cereal Institute paid for the facilities and the package, and
that's how it finally got on the air, as a public affairs program
in effect. The Cereal Institute finally bowed out after about five
years and then NBC carried it as a public affairs program in their
news department. It never really had a commercial sponsor. It was
always a public affairs program.
Q: Where did the name come from?
A: The name I originally had was "Our Curious World." I
was doing an audition for a peanut butter company. The advertising
agency guy said, "I don't like your title." I said, "I
don't like it either, but I can't think of a better one."
He said, "Why don't you call it Wizard?" I said, "Well,
I don't like that because it sounds like an old guy with a tall hat
and stars and all that stuff." Then I remembered there was a
show on the air called "Mr. I. Magination." So I thought,
hey, there's an idea. I will put "Mr." in front of it and
that will take away from the guy with the hat. That's how I dreamed
up the name. He thought that was great. They didn't buy the show,
but that's how the name was born.
Q: You have said that the kid wasn't there in the early version. He
was added later.
A: Once it got on the air, we always had a child.
Q: But originally you didn't have a child?
A: Originally in some of the tryouts, some of the tests, I did not
have a child.
Q: It seemed to work better with a child.
A: Oh, much better.
Q: How did you pick the kids you used as your assistants?
A: Well, we had auditions and tried a whole series of standard experiments
on each of them. We did maybe four demonstrations. We saw how they
would react, because we didn't have a script for them. They were ad-libbing
along with me. That meant we had to have kids who were confident,
presentable, intelligent enough to be able to figure out stuff and
have fun. And once we found them, we hung onto them for dear life
because they were very, very important to show.
Q: Did you try to get a certain age child to help you out?
A: Yes. The minimum age was 11 and the maximum age was 13. That's
the same age as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H Clubs and so forth. That's
when kids are really exploring their world and trying to find out
what goes on around them. Younger than that, they don't have quite
enough information to be able to solve problems and older than that
they begin to worry about their peers. That age group, it doesn't
make too much difference if they don't know because they're not expected
to know everything.
Q: You didn't use a script?
A: No. What we had was a sort of detailed outline, a one-page outline
that outlined each of the demonstrations. But we had worked with them
enough so that we knew what the transitions were. It was strictly
outline and ad-lib.
Q: So you worked with them enough so they knew the transitions.
A: Yeah. Sometimes. Most of the time I sort of posed a problem.
Q: Did you have to rehearse the demonstrations beforehand before you
tried them on the air?
A: Of course. We did it, in effect, about three times. Once at my
office where we ran through them the first time, where the kids saw
them for the first time. They had to remember their reactions. Then
we did it again when we got to the studio. This was primarily for
cameras and for the director, so they could get their angles and so
forth. Then when we finished that, we would sit down with the technical
director and the assistant director and the director and decide what
has to be changed, what has to be improved, what has to be thrown
Q: Your assistants were between 11 and 13. What was your target audience?
A: That was the target audience as well. But we picked up children
much younger than that. I think they just liked to watch older kids
doing stuff. We didn't get too much with the teenagers. But once parents
got children of their own, then they began to watch again, the families.
We had a lot of adults. When we were seen at the right time, when
adults were available, about half of our audiences were adults.
Q: So what can parents and teachers today do to stimulate a child's
interest in science?
A: Well, obviously they should encourage any kind of creativity, any
kind of questions, and encourage them as much as possible. Kids have
a natural curiosity and you don't want to frustrate it. Just encourage,
Q: Were there any experiments that went wrong?
A: A couple. Most of the time when something went wrong we could simply
explain what happened. The most important was when we had what looked
like a bottle blow up in our face. It turned out to be that we had
filled a bottle accidentally with paraffin vapor. It had a coil inside.
It ignited the paraffin vapor and blew the bottle out of the close-up,
but splattered water all over the child and myself. So I picked up
a towel and wiped me off and the child off. It was the only time that
anything was edited from the show. In those days we were doing it
live on tape, which means we started and stopped with no editing.
They edited the laughter of the crew and left everything else.
Q: How did you think of all those experiments? You must have done
thousands over the years.
A: Yes, a lot of them. I have a library now of about 1,000 volumes
and 18 file drawers full of copies of pages and ideas and whatnot
I got from various places. When that's your profession, you soon collect
that kind of stuff. Many times we would only use the idea that we
saw in an illustration and actually illustrate it. For example, if
we saw a picture of a car skidding or slipping or something due to
the fact that it didn't have the kind of friction, we would try to
find a toy car, put in a little mud bath, turn it around and let it
splatter. In other words, we would make the illustration come alive.
Q: How many demonstrations do you think you did over the years?
A: Several thousand at least, because we did anywhere from eight to
10 demonstrations per show. In the early days we did 39 live shows
a year for 15 and a half years. Right there there's a good bunch.
Later on, when we did the show in Canada for Nickelodeon we
repeated many of those demonstrations because they were still sort
of sure-fire, but we added a bunch more because I hired some guys
to work with me and they came up with some ideas as well. So we've
done literally thousands.
Q: Did you have much of a budget to work with back then?
A: No. That's one of the reasons why we ended up using everyday equipment.
In those days, milk bottles were our flasks. A glass was our beaker
and so forth because we didn't have much of a budget. IT turned out
to be a major asset because it meant that people weren't afraid of
our equipment. If we'd had a lot of flasks and beakers, they'd think
it was difficult.
Q: You used things people could find in their own home.
A: Yeah, that was one of the reasons why we did it. We tried to have
something like that in every show where we possibly could. I would
say to the child, "If you want to do this at home, here's what
you can do" and he would repeat the instructions. What we were
really telling was the kids at home how to do it.
Q: Did you have a favorite demonstration?
A: Yes, my favorite demonstration is a variation of the hardboiled
egg in the bottle. Everybody seems to know that one because it's been
around since way back in the 1800s. We originally did it with a hardboiled
egg into a milk bottle, but milk bottles aren't available anymore
so we found a new version of it that's far better than the original
and that was to use a bottle cranberry juice comes in. It has a fairly
decent sized mouth but a nice bottom. Fill a balloon with water about
the size of an orange. You put a piece of burning paper in the bottom
and put the balloon on top. As the fire goes out, the air expands
and the air inside cools. The outside air pushes it in with a real
pop. It's spectacular. I've done it hundreds of times. It never fails.
That's my favorite.
Q: Were you thinking when you were writing it you would be the host
of this long-running show or were you planning to give it to somebody
A: No. No. It was designed with me in mind. I didn't plan it for anybody
else at all. Besides, when you're ad-libbing like this, when you do
all the research, when you do all the planning, I'm the only one who
could do it. You couldn't turn it over to somebody else without a
tremendous amount of rehearsal and whatnot for them to be able to
do the ad-lib too. The other way to do it would be to write a script,
change the whole feeling of the show. I think people knew we were
ad-libbing because of the way both the child and I talked. That added
an element of suspense because you never knew for sure what was coming
Q: Did you think it would be on for so long?
A: No, of course not. Never. Nothing is every on that long on television.
But one of the reasons it was on that long is because it was a public
Q: There wasn't a push for ratings?
A: Right. If it had been a client they'd be checking sales, sales,
sales and the minute sales dropped off, that would be the end. But
NBC evidently considered it a worthwhile public affairs program as
a service to their affiliates. We had roughly 130 to 140 stations
that carried the show in spite of the fact they didn't get any money.
So evidently a lot of program managers around the country thought
it was an important thing to carry for their local audience.
Q: How would you describe your style?
A: It was very soft, very quiet, very gentle without a lot of bang,
bang, crash. And emphasizing the intellectual aspect, which is what
most kids shows don't do
Q: Do you think it would work today if you were just starting out?
A: I don't know. I certainly wouldn't want to try it. I doubt it.
Q: Because kids don't have the attention span?
A: Television has changed tremendously, I think as the result of MTV.
Because of the influence of that, it has influenced commercials. Bang,
crash. Fast editing. I get so sick and tired of watching some of that
stuff because they cut, cut, cut, cut all over the place. Fast. I
think somebody's going to run a picture and make no cut at all and
everybody's going to say what was that? I think television itself,
the programming, has moved in that direction as well. There's a whole
new television language that people are accustomed to and I think
motion pictures are also doing that. We saw something the other day,
which I won't mention, in which they cut all over the place. Cut backwards
and forwards and whatnot. You couldn't follow what was happening.
But it's part of a young group I think who are doing the editing who
feel you can't let anything last for too long. You've got to cut and
do something else.
Q: What do you enjoy watching today?
A: Mostly PBS. Discovery Channel. CNN. I never watch situation comedies.
Especially with the laugh track. That drives me absolutely crazy.
Q: What do you think of Bill Nye?
A: Both Bill Nye and "Beakman's World," it's a different
approach entirely. A lot of fast cuts and a lot of attempts at comedy.
A lot of creativity has gone into the shows, but they're not engaging
the kid at home, I don't think. They're working directly to camera,
so they don't have anybody to bounce ideas off. They don't have any
sort of cooperation from the child. That's why most people don't realize
how important the child was on "Mr. Wizard." They were the
surrogate audience. And when the child was posed a problem, the child
at home was posed a problem. When the child came up with an answer,
the child at home either agreed or disagreed.
Q: Was it fun, because it seemed like it was a fun program. Was it
work or was it fun?
A: It was fun. I enjoyed it very much. After 10 years, however, after
14 and a half years, when NBC finally cancelled it, I was ready for
a change. That's a long time.
Q: What did you do at first when it went off the air?
A: As a matter of fact, about six months before we found it was going
off the air, I came up with an idea for doing a show called "Experiment"
in which we'd pick a scientist and make him or her a protagonist of
a dramatic story. A real story. In other words, find out what his
objectives were, what his problems. Try to get the audience involved
and finally at the end of the half-hour understand what he achieved.
We finally took it to the Sloan Foundation. a guy named Warren Weaver,
who was in charge of their science aspects, said that he would be
happy to head a committee of scientists to help us choose the subjects
and suggest that PBS, which was then known as NET back in those days,
would put up some of the money. Maybe we should go to the NSF [National
Science Foundation] to get the other half. So we put a proposal together
and sent it off to the NSF. The very week that NBC called and said,
"Sorry, Don." We heard from the NSF that our grant had gone
through. So immediately we went to work on the "Experiment"
series. I never looked back.
How long did "Experiment" last?
That lasted only one season, for various reasons. Then when we did
the how about series, the 90-second things that went on the air that
were on the newscasts, the salesmen were going around trying to get
it placed on stations. They got a lot of comments from program directors
saying, "Why doesn't he do ‘Mr. Wizard' again? I'd
like my kids to see it. That was a good show." So they finally
came back to their bosses and told them that. Their bosses finally
came to us and said why don't we put a new pilot together. So we did.
[My wife] Norma and I were not particularly happy with it, but a production
company showed it to Nickelodeon and a guy by the name of Cy Schneider
saw it. He said, "I see what you've got in mind. It's a new format.
I think it will work very well. Let's talk about doing something for
Nickelodeon." That's how we wound up on Nickelodeon. We did a
total of 78 half-hours.
Q: Were you looking to get back on TV?
A: I think so. Back in those days, Nickelodeon was interested in a
sort of noncommercial sort of approach because they were seen only
on cable stations and sort of to fill the cable stations requirement
for children's programming. They tried to make it sort of very non-commercial
in the very beginning so cable operators would carry it. Since then,
they've become much more commercial. They repeated "Mr. Wizard's
World" over and over.
Q: Do you ever keep in touch with any of your former assistants?
A: Yes. The first boy who was ever on "Mr. Wizard" back
in 1951, we had lunch with him last year. I keep very close touch
with the last girl who was on "Mr. Wizard." She's now a
mother of three children in New Jersey. The first boy who was on the
show, I think is now a grandfather.
Q" Did you do a lot of guest appearances and speeches when doing
A: No, not when we were doing the show because we were too busy. If
you're doing a half-hour show a week, 39 weeks, you don't fool around.
You put your nose to the grindstone and you keep working. We'd have
13 weeks off in the summer and I would sometimes work ahead to be
able to go on safari to Africa or live in England for a while. Since
then, I've made speeches at various places and the reaction has been
pretty much the same. The reaction is sort of a smile. They remember
things very vividly. They remember this experiment or that demonstration.
Q: Do people still recognize you?
A" It depends on the age group. Almost everybody recognizes the
name "Mr. Wizard," especially if they're adults because,
after all, the show was on from 1951 through '65 back in the NBC days.
Very often people say, "You look familiar. Are you a salesman?
" When I finally say "Mr. Wizard," they say, "Of
course." Quite a few people recognize me by my voice, which is
unusual, I think. I didn't think I had that unusual a voice. But I
remember standing in a camera shop in Switzerland one time and someone
tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Are you Mr. Wizard?"
I said, "Yes, why?" He said, "I recognized your voice."
The same thing happened one time at Windsor Castle.
Q: Did you get many letters from kids when you were on the show?
A: We'd have whole piles of letters. Most wanted something. "Dear
Mr. Wizard. Please send me everything you have on electricity and
keep sending it until I tell you to stop." Or a question: "How
far is to the moon?" or some thing they should have gone to the
library to find out.
Q: What was the largest audience you had? How many people were watching
A" We were usually on around noon on Saturday. Sometimes on Sunday,
but mostly around noon or 1 o'clock. Three or 4 million was probably
our maximum audience. For a kids' show at that hour is not too bad.
When I was on the "GE Theater," for example, they were talking
30 million, 33 million. So it depends on when you're on, what kind
of an audience is available. But the fact that two, three million
would watch a show based on science to me was a complement in itself.
It affected people. That's the thing that seems strange. Such a quiet
little show with no razzmatazz, no this, no that. A guy and a kid
having fun experimenting with stuff would have such an effect.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: As somebody who had fun doing science on television and hopefully
had a lot of other people who enjoyed it and learned something.
Q: You are an icon.
A: Yes, I keep telling my wife that all the time.
Q: What does she say?
A: She says you can still take out the garbage.