8/16/2007

Joe Howard Interview

 
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Joe Howard Interview for Squareonetv

Joe Howard Interview for Squareonetv.org, 1/26/07,

By Joseph N. Schneiderman

1.    How did you get hired for the part of George/what’s your experience in acting?

I grew up in Chatham, NY and I started in Summer Theatre out there, working several seasons at the McHayden Theatre, in the summer after college, from 1971-1974. It was a great experience. In 1973, I started doing dinner theatre in New York, and in 1975 I was in a production on Broadway that eventually failed, but, was later cast in Shenandoah and went with the road company to Los Angeles. I started doing commercials, I debuted in 1980 on Mork and Mindy, and then in 1985, I read for the role of “Man in Baseball Cap” and the woman was interested in me and handed me the script and I read for George. I had two callbacks, one was for how I looked with Beverly [Leech, who portrayed Kate Monday]. The Pilot was shot in one week in August of 1985, it was pieced together with Square One TV and previewed with kids. It was until the spring, about March of 1986, during “hiatus” that Charlie Dubin came on and we were picked up to start filming Mathnet.

2.    Did you actually get to go up on the Hollywood Sign?

No, actually, they built a mock-up and they hired a stuntman to do most of the shots. I thought it was silly based on what they ended up doing. I actually went up about 10 feet and everything higher was the stuntman. Speaking of the First Season, in the Pilot, there were kids in the shot and there were a lot of stage mothers taking seats, and it was a hot day in August, and as an actor, you learn to conserve energy. I realized then why lead actors have named chairs, because I couldn’t ask these women to get up but I also couldn’t sit down. So, I asked for a chair with my name on it, and they would have a chair for me, but without my name on it.

3.    How much is “George Frankly” a part of your own personality and in what ways are you different from George?

Well, George is an exaggerated version of myself. I can be absent-minded, but not quite like him. I bring as much of myself as I can to a role, and ultimately you are playing yourself, so George and I are not very separate. But I didn’t conceptualize it consciously, I just went with it. I also don’t break down a script, I prefer to let the thing happen to me. I am different from George in that I can be tough or hard-nosed when I need to be, like portraying a villain. There was one time on the show when I did that in, in “The Trial of George Frankly”, I made my “double” [George was being impersonated by an ex-convict who was now taking revenge on him in Court] be sterner, hard-edged, I didn’t smile, and not as friendly as George was. At the same time, I reacted very strongly against times when George was supposed to be snide, he didn’t have that side nor did I have that side of me.

4.    Many of us on the Forum have talked about character development during the second season when both Kate and George had near death experiences. What was your impression on that?

Well, I remember the scene when Kate was locked in with a bomb [in View from The Rear Terrace] where she was actually crying, and the producers didn’t want it. Mathnet was on one level and they felt that Kate crying was very out of character. I think it took the production to another level. That being said, George could certainly rise to be a traditional hero when circumstances called for it.

5.    What was a typical day on the Mathnet set like?

We started out early, at about 7AM in the morning, and we would finish in about 12 or 14 hours. In the “Trial of George Frankly”, we spent 18 hours in the Courtroom set, and we actually had a 23-hour day during “Despair in Monterey Bay”. We only had a set for one day and we had to finish the shots in that location then. The unique thing about Mathnet was that the two leads were in every scene and the story unfolded as the leads saw it. It was a very pleasant set, everyone got along, there was no network interference and the two writer-producers [Jim Thurman and David Connell] had total control over production. It was a bit more difficult for Beverly because she is more comedic than Kate and not as matter of fact, so her character needed to be monitored so as not to be overly light-hearted but also not too hard on George because they were friends. [By contrast], by the second or third or episode, there was more latitude for my character. We actually went on location a few times; in “Missing Monkey”, to the Hollywood Sign and to the Old Los Angeles Zoo, which is apparently popular in horror films. We also went to the Paramount Ranch in “The Map With a Gap”, which is now a County or State Park where they filmed “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” In New York, we went to Northern New Jersey for neighborhood shots, we went upstate for “The Case of the Mystery Weekend”, and that was a great house to work in. The [Village] of Sloatsburg [which is incorporated as a Village, not a Town] rings a bell.

6.    What were your thoughts on the changes that occurred during the show’s production?

Well, there was always a question about the uniforms. We never cared for the light blue blazers that we wore in Los Angeles, and we had some custom made blazers when we came to New York, but they didn’t fit very well. I eventually had a Custom Brooks Brothers Suit[-jacket] made for me which fit very well, and they wanted to make me custom pants, so I brought them a pair of pants that fit me well that they used to make, and the custom ones were too tight. When we moved from Los Angeles to New York, it coincided with my move from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, and working in New York was very pleasant. We had a new producer in New York (because CTW subcontracted Mathnet’s production) and I liked working with him [Howard Meltzer]. Circumstances did change quite a bit, we had longer days and shorter turnaround times (actors typically get 12 hours off between shoots, which is a turnaround time) and we tended to shoot 7 or 8 days per episode. At one time we shot in an old trolley barn as our office, and it was rather cold. We later moved to an abandoned office building, and once we shot where there was only one bathroom in an adjoining store for the entire cast and crew, which was less than glamorous circumstances.  We shot “The Case of the Bermuda Triangle” in Brooklyn on the coast there. The producer-writers said  that my chemistry with Beverly [Leech] really seemed to gel and when she left, I remember reading with six girls at final callbacks, and none of them really seemed right. But Toni [DiBuono] really came into the role [of Pat Tuesday] and worked out fine, and she was a lot of fun. Like Beverly Leech, she wasn’t as matter of fact and was actually quite the comedienne. I remember that myself, Captain Greco [Emilio Del Pozo] and Benny Pill [Bari K. Willerford] were all the same age at the time.

7. What was it like working with James Earl Jones [Chief Thad Greene]?

He only worked with us for a week, but, it was a treat. He’s very soft-spoken (in contrast to him as the voice of Darth Vader), and I enjoyed working with him and I went out of my way to speak with him.

8.    Were there any other memorable guest stars? I enjoyed working with McLean Stevenson [Mike Pliers], he was also a very funny guy and I enjoyed working with him.  Bill Moschitta [Johnny Dollar] was a very funny guy and fun to work with it, Arnold Stang [Pops Bespectackled] I had seen in commercials for Chunky [candy bars] during the 50’s and I got a huge kick out of working with him. William “Bill” Windom [Judge Hoffman] has been active [in acting] since 1960 and I was very excited to see him. Bob Arbogast [Byle Dupe and voices on Dirk Niblick on Square One TV] was a character, I remember that he had the funniest actor composite [advertisement for an actor] that I’ve seen. He had one photo holding a broken tennis racket, and another lying face down in a swimming pool, still another basting a cat on a barbecue, and raking leaves with a bag that contained of leaves and two human hands, as if he had a [human] body in there!  Yeardley Smith [Jane Rice-Burroughs] was 22 at the time playing a twelve-year old and she was very sweet. I remember that she had worked with Helen Slater on a movie and I felt bad that it had bombed, but I also liked Helen Slater as an actress. So, I wrote to Helen Slater through her. I also knew and worked with Jonathan Frakes [Commander William Riker of Star Trek Fame] during the 1970’s, and Mary Watson [Debbie Williams] lives down the street from me, we were represented by the same agent. I saw her at a party five or six years ago and she still looks young.

9.     What was it like to drive the Mathnet car?

We weren’t out in the car often, but, once or twice we drove on the Freeway and got some weird looks when people saw “MATHNET” on a police car, some people recognized it. It was different in New York, because Benny drove us. My experience was that movie cars are in poor repair, they rattle, and you wonder if they are safe to drive or just an accident waiting to happen. The seat belts weren’t functional, so I would have them across and pretend like they were to set an example for the children watching. I didn’t actually drive in “View From the Rear Terrace”, they hired a stunt driver, but I could have done that driving. I can’t remember if I was driving during “The Case of the Great Car Robbery”, I think it was the second unit, but, if you saw me, it probably was me doing the driving.

10.Why did Mathnet end/ Was there discussion of a revival?

Well, it’s my understanding that Joan Ganz Cooney and David Connell were the “old guard” at CTW and they left, and the management completely changed and the people no longer interested in Square One TV, rather, Ghostwriter, even though the money was there.  There was talk of making Mathnet into its own show; the producer of Mathnet in New York [the aforementioned Howard Meltzer] pitched Mathnet to ABC, and they wanted to cut them into 1 hour episodes. When Howard Meltzer went to CTW, they refused to allow Mathnet to be aired because they wouldn’t make any money on it. ABC though said if the episodes were popular, they would air and produce more. Although David Connell died in 1995, I constantly talked with Jim Thurman about doing Mathnet outside of CTW with some things changed around. The question was always if CTW would cut it loose so that if we couldn’t do Mathnet [per se], we could at least do something related. And there was no definite answer, it went on for several years. Most of what I know about that is second hand information, it would not surprise me if funding cuts led to Mathnet’s end [Author’s Note: According to an interview Joan Ganz Cooney, Square One TV was cut because of funding cuts and lack of popularity.]. I heard though from Mary West [the casting director] that there was a production meeting in 1988 or 1989 about making a Mathnet Western movie; a remake of “Destry Rides Again” with Beverly Leech and myself to boost Mathnet’s popularity.

11.What have you done since Mathnet?

I’ve had mainly smaller parts in Television and Movies. I did an independent film from 1998-2000 that was never sold about two lifelong friends who were implicated in a murder and an undercover policewoman was sent in to drive a wedge between them and my character fell in love with her. At preview-houses, it played well with girls aged 10-13 years, they eventually changed the movie around the audience, like re-shooting the ending and they changed the title; from “Jack and Gordon”, “Mystery at Sam’s”, and the title I suggested, “Fish House”. The weakness was that there were over the top villains. It was actually released in Israel. I did a film with Anthony Hopkins, “The World’s Fastest Indian”, which was nice, I think I had about 15 lines. I also did “Murder One” with Dick Van Dyke. I would lover to do another series regular, but, it’s like pulling teeth.

12.Have you worked with/seen the cast since Mathnet?

No I haven’t, but, I worked with a fellow who played a store-owner from the very first episode [The Case of the Missing Baseball] together at a Casting Director Shoot about 4 years ago. We did have a Mathnet reunion in 2001 or 2002 with Bari Willerford [Benny Pill], Mary Watson [Debbie Williams], Beverly Leech [Kate Monday] and Toni DiBuono [Pat Tuesday], and Jesus Trevino, who has gone on to a very successful career, among other things, directing Star Trek.

13.What are your thoughts on Math and how do you use it today?  

I was always good at Math, and I took Advanced Math in High School, but I’ve never been interesting in pursuing it. I also had a roommate in college who is a true “math person” and now is a professor at CalTech who could really talk about Math. I am good with numbers on a business basis [Mr. Howard runs a tax business for actors in addition to acting] and I use ratios and proportions more often than most people. [Oddly], my two favorite episodes are the least math-oriented, “The Case of the Maltese Pigeon” where there was the line that we had hardly used mathematics although we had gone about the problem in a mathematical way. And my other favorite is the Case of the Mystery Weekend, which we took some flak for because it wasn’t math-oriented enough.

14.What special message do you have for the fans of Mathnet today?

I appreciate that the show is being kept alive, it was fun doing it. I also remember how important it was to me to have Children’s Heroes on TV. It seems a shame that programs aren’t geared for children with messages of character and moral development. I also liked changing attitudes about Math, I once had a woman come up to and said “My daughter was doing poorly in Math, after seeing your show, she is now getting A’s.”

Joe Howard, Thank You kindly for your time, attention, and resources and knowledge! We look forward to seeing you on the East Coast!