Hollywood's secret celebrity geeks and closet nerds
- 17 March, 2010 15:33
We at Computerworld would be the last to say that science and technology aren't creative pursuits. Still, when most people say, "Oh, she's very creative," they're probably not talking about the subject's ability to perform higher math or engineer a network. Such people might be amazed to learn of the remarkable number of actors, directors, musicians and other celebrities who nurture an inner geek.
We've done some digging and came up with a list of geek stars -- celebrities who work at traditional artistic pursuits to make their way in the world, but have been known to kick back with a little astrophysics or microbiology in their spare time. Some of these headliners do exude a distinct nerdy spark, but others in our list will undoubtedly surprise you.
NerdTube: Geek Television Actors
Alan Alda, photo by Alan Light, Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0
M*A*S*H's Alan Alda is well loved for his efforts to educate the general public about science and its joys, but Hawkeye may not have been the biggest geek at the 4077th -- Larry Linville (Major Burns) studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Colorado (giving it up when he realized he was colorblind) and is said to have built and flown his own gliders.
Wil Wheaton, GNU Free Documentation License 1.2
Some geek TV stars are best known for roles that don't stray too far from type. Star Trek: The Next Generation vet, author and pioneering blogger Wil Wheaton has allegedly said that in his teenage years, "I was such a geek that if I could go back in time, I would kick my own ass."
Numb3rs' geek-friendly FBI agent Dylan Bruno (Colby) has a degree in environmental engineering from MIT. Heroes' every-nerd Masi Oka double-majored in math and computer science at Brown University and after graduation went to work at George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, where as recently as last November, he was still putting in a couple of days a week.
Bill Nye, courtesy of Nye Labs
And what is there to say about Cornell University mechanical engineering grad, former Boeing employee, patent-holder, comedian and TV host Bill Nye other than "Science rules!"?
Other TV celebrities' geekish ways may surprise you. Soap opera heartthrob Drake Hogestyn (John Black/Roman Brady, Days of Our Lives) graduated from the University of South Florida with a double major in microbiology and applied sciences. John Astin (the original Addams Family patriarch) studied math, not theater, at Johns Hopkins University, though he's currently a professor in the latter department. And Lisa Kudrow (spacey Phoebe on Friends) has a biology degree from Vassar College.
In the "it's not TV it's HBO" department, Ally Walker , who currently stars in the racy Tell Me You Love Me, studied biology and chemistry at University of California, Santa Cruz, and was employed on a genetic engineering project until a Hollywood producer spotted her in a restaurant. Meanwhile, Dan Grimaldi (Patsy Parisi, The Sopranos) has a Bachelor of Arts degree in math, a master's in operations research and a Ph.D. in data processing. He teaches in the math and computer sciences department at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn.
Mayim Bialik, photo by Alan Light, cc-by-sa-2.0
But if one is keeping an honor roll of such things -- and we are -- there's a duo that takes the laurel for geek tendencies where one least expects to find them. Were they feeding those child stars of '80s sitcoms something special at the craft table? How else can one explain not one, but two excellent geeks emerging from the era -- Danica McKellar (Winnie, The Wonder Years) and Mayim Bialik (Blossom on, well, Blossom).
Bialik is currently a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at UCLA; McKellar started UCLA as a film major but clicked with calculus and has since co-authored both a statistical mechanics paper that led to getting her name on a theorem (the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem) and a new book for middle schoolers, Math Doesn't Suck .
Rowan Atkinson, photo by Gerhard Heeke, GNU FDL 1.2
Of course, some actors are equally well known for their work in the movies. Bridging the gap between television and film we have Rowan Atkinson , equally geek-beloved as Mr. Bean and Blackadder. Atkinson has a master's in electrical engineering from Queen's College, Oxford, which will lead us in a moment to a disturbing nest of engineering majors that fled for Hollywood.
But first ...
Lights, Camera, Geeks
As we said, actors cross over all the time between television and the movies. Two geek-friendly sitcom stars of the late '70s and early '80s successfully recycled their careers into film superstardom, starting with Tom Hanks , whose passion for the space program brought us From the Earth to the Moon and Apollo 13. Hanks is also on the board of governors of the National Space Society and has said he'd have liked to have gone into the astronaut program but "didn't have the math."
Robin Williams, meanwhile, is a hardcore gamer (he named his daughter Zelda, for Pete's sake!) and has a reputation as a serious gadget hound. He's spoken informally at a number of fun tech firms, including a keynote at Google Inc.
Hanks and Williams are, of course, both multiple Oscar winners. Other actors with both gold statuettes and tech chops include Jack Lemmon (Mister Roberts, Save the Tiger), who majored in War Services Sciences (a subdivision of the physics department) at Harvard University, and supporting player par excellence Walter Brennan (The Westerner, Kentucky, Come and Get It), who majored in engineering at the Rindge School of Technical Arts in Cambridge, Mass.
Terrence Howard, U.S. Air Force photo/Jet Fabara
Our three-person honor roll includes an additional Oscar winner, along with a Fulbright awardee and a self-educated player who almost definitely makes it possible for you to be reading this very article. First up is Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow, the upcoming Iron Man), who has a chemical engineering degree from Pratt University and has declared his intention to eventually go back to school for a doctorate in physics.
Action star and fellow chemical engineering degree-holder Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV, The Punisher), meanwhile, was attending grad school at MIT on a Fulbright when he decided to drop out and try the acting thing. Finally, beauty queen Hedy Lamarr (Ecstasy, Samson and Delilah) owns us all for her pioneering work on spread spectrum technology , which makes both Ethernet and your cell phone tick.
Direct to the Engineering Department
What is it about directors and engineering degrees? All but one of the directors we found in our search had either an engineering degree or extensive study in the field ... or, in one case, the kind of real-world experience that cannot be denied.
Alfred Hitchcock studied art at the University of London, but he also put in time in the School of Engineering and Navigation at St. Ignatius College in London, eventually working as a draftsman. The master of suspense studied mechanics, electricity, acoustics and navigation.
California's nerd troops include Frank Capra (It's A Wonderful Life), about whom fellow director Mack Sennett noted, "Capra had a degree in [chemical] engineering from the California Institute of Technology, but he had so much sheer ability that he was able to conceal it," and Terry Gilliam (Monty Python, Brazil) who dabbled in the Occidental College physics department before, he claims, concluding that political science had fewer graduation requirements.
Up the coast, one wonders if the efficiencies taught in Stanford University's industrial engineering program enabled Roger Corman to bring in movies such as Little Shop of Horrors and The Raven famously fast, cheap and under control. Back in New York, master-of-all-genres Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Rio Bravo and the original Scarface) gained a mechanical engineering degree from Cornell after early studies at Throop Polytechnic Institute (better known as Caltech) and worked for a while as an aircraft designer and aviator.
What's that? You say you've heard of another Howard with a flair for both directing and aviation? But, of course, our directorial honor roll choice is Howard Hughes , whose film credits as a director include The Outlaw and Hell's Angels. Hughes merely audited math and engineering courses at Caltech and dropped out of Rice University, but anyone who designs and builds giant wooden aircraft for fun (and acquires an airline along the way) is simply more geek than you are.
Geeks Scale the Musical Heights
There's an innate geek appeal in music, where everyone has to at least be able to count to four. (Insert your own drummer joke here.) Entire categories of music, such as nerdcore and minimalist, are heavily populated by techish types. Other singers and musicians may surprise you with their tech chops.
Some of the leading lights in this category will be no surprise at all, especially to those who enjoy a good synthesizer riff. Moog pioneer Wendy Carlos is an astronomy buff -- a coronaphile, specifically -- recognized for her remarkable eclipse photos . She double-majored in music and physics at Brown.
Herbie Hancock, photo by Sjaaks, cc-by-sa-2.0
"Rockit" jazzman Herbie Hancock double-majored in music and electrical engineering at Grinnell College. Erstwhile Thompson Twins ("Hold Me Now") lead Michael White became that most blessed of creatures: a top-notch science writer and novelist, spending time in addition as a science lecturer at d'Overbroeck's College in Oxford.
Thomas Dolby, photo by Steve Jurvetson, cc-by-sa-2.0
It's not all plinky synths and asymmetric haircuts, though: Huey Lewis also majored in engineering before dropping out of Cornell. It's not entirely about the '80s, either (though again, clearly something about the youth of the slacker generation made us geektastic).
Backing up to the '70s, we find Tom Scholz, lead musician for Boston ("More Than a Feeling"), with a mechanical engineering master's from MIT; he worked as a product design engineer at Polaroid Corp. while developing the musical tech he needed to produce the band's particular sound and holds a couple of dozen patents so far. And '60s folk rock icon Art Garfunkel has a master's in math from Columbia University.
Stretching way back to the early years of recorded music, superstar singer, comedian and Broadway pioneer Bert Williams ("Nobody") was on his way to Stanford to begin a civil engineering major when he decided to drop out and join a minstrel show. (Not the first time San Francisco has distracted a would-be nerd.)
"Weird Al" Yankovic, photo by Dion Gillard, cc-by-sa-2.0
Moving forward in time, '90s alternative rock god and current "forget the record labels" online hero Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails was in pursuit of a computer engineering degree from Pennsylvania's Allegheny College before moving to Cleveland to start a series of bands. The ineffably nerdical "Weird Al" Yankovic was actually an architecture major, but his body of work ("It's All About The Pentiums," baby) speaks for itself, as does NSYNC star Lance Bass ' spirited pursuit of his cosmonaut certification.
Brian May, photo by Thomas Steffan, GNU FDL 1.2
Our honor roll is in tune with three remarkable nerds. Todd Rundgren ("Hello It's Me") is legendary for developing the Utopia Graphics System, one of the very first paint programs, and has remained profoundly engaged with technology throughout his recording and producing career. Queen guitarist Brian May received his Ph.D. in astrophysics from Imperial College in London in 2007 and is now chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University as well as a successful popular science writer.
Finally, song parodist and Dr. Demento favorite Tom Lehrer left show business to focus on mathematics; he has a bachelor's and a master's in math from Harvard and is reputed to occasionally burst into song during lectures for his students at UC Santa Cruz.
And So On
Very occasionally, geeks slip into celebrity where you least expect them. It's no surprise that the ranks of science fiction writers are full of nerdy types, but Sandra Tsing Loh (physics, Caltech) and Norman Mailer (engineering studies, Harvard) are doing just fine on the more mainstream bookshelves, respectively.
The late Kurt Vonnegut was, of course, passionately concerned with technology and its discontents; he started his college career at Cornell in biochemistry and switched to mechanical engineering at the "invitation" of the U.S. Army, which sent him to the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and the University of Tennessee before shipping him to Europe for World War II.
Montel Williams, photo by Kitt Amaritnant
And our free-form entry to the honor roll? Talk show host Montel Williams has an engineering degree from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and served as a special duty intelligence officer specializing in cryptology, making him a rare security-focused celebrity geek.
Hey, What About...?
We had to draw the line somewhere, and your favorite geek(ish) celeb may have fallen on the other side of it. For instance, Prince and David Bowie were both early Net adopters, but one suspects neither was so much geeking as using technology they borrowed from the spaceships that brought them to our world.
Natalie Portman, photo by Erik Vanden, cc-by-sa-2.0
Likewise, Natalie Portman -- beloved of geek fanboys worldwide since long before her Star Wars turns -- is an accomplished psychology student with two published papers under her belt, but psych isn't strictly a science or tech pursuit. (Waaahbulances will please park in the designated Comments section.)
Michael J. Fox, photo by Alan Light, cc-by-sa-2.0
A number of big name stars have taken seriously their celebrity-spokesperson role for various diseases and medical conditions, including the late Christopher Reeve (spinal cord injury, stem cell research), Michael J. Fox (Parkinson's disease), Elizabeth Taylor (AIDS/HIV), and the late Danny Thomas (cancer research; Thomas founded St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis). Such folks have educated themselves and kept abreast of developments -- an honorable near-geek choice, but not quite what we were looking for in this article.
Red Sox ace pitcher Curt Schilling is a notorious EverQuest and Advanced Squad Leader junkie who has gone so far as to found his very own MMORPG firm and blog, but without more sports stars on our list, he was simply too much of an outlier. (We must admit, though, that the prospect of the man picking up a bat and beating the stuffing out of a defective QuesTec umpire-monitoring machine does provide an argument that Schilling is a technology Everyman ... or at least that he has exactly the same moments of frustration the rest of us do with our work gear.)
Frank Zappa, photo by Helge Øverås, GNU FDL 1.2
Finally, a few celebrities are geeky, but not as geeky as their reputations. Will Smith, for instance, is known to be a thorough math and chess nerd, but the rumor that he turned down MIT to pursue his Fresh Prince rap career is only that -- a rumor. The late Frank Zappa has an asteroid , various animal species and a bacterium gene named after him, but despite a keen interest in the mathematics of music he was mainly self-taught.
Actress, blogger and environmentalist Daryl Hannah exhibits a distinctly geekish personality, but even her role as Blade Runner's Pris doesn't quite bump her to the top of the list. Neither does fellow environmentalist Ed Begley Jr.'s stint as Greenbean on the original Battlestar Galactica. And Dilbert creator Scott Adams? He worked closely with engineers and the like at Crocker National Bank and Pacific Bell, but his appreciation for nerddom is mainly observational -- he's an MBA with an undergraduate degree in economics.