Don Herbert; Mr. Wizard Of Children's Television

Don Herbert used showmanship and imagination to help popularize the study of science for several generations of young TV viewers. His first show aired in 1951.
Don Herbert used showmanship and imagination to help popularize the study of science for several generations of young TV viewers. His first show aired in 1951. (Cbs)
By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Don Herbert, 89, who as television's Mr. Wizard was for many years one of the nation's foremost popularizers of science, particularly noted for his ability to attract, inspire and hold the interest of children, died June 11 at his home in the Los Angeles area.

A son-in-law, Tom Nikosey, said Mr. Herbert died of cancer.

Once an aspiring actor, Mr. Herbert used gifts of showmanship, imagination and manual dexterity to create demonstrations that satisfied the senses, expanded the mind and provided insight into the workings of nature.

People of all ages remained enthralled by his television appearances, which included brief science news flashes for adults, a number of TV science specials and "Watch Mr. Wizard," the long-running children's show that transfixed the baby-boom generation.

His instructional legacy, begun in the days of small-screen black-and-white television, has continued into the computer age, with the Web site http://www.mrwizardstudios.com.

Of all his achievements, his son-in-law said, Mr. Herbert probably considered his most important legacy to be "communicating science to children." Nikosey said thousands, and perhaps millions, were influenced by his TV show.

A significant figure in television history, Mr. Herbert brought his first show to the air on NBC on March 3, 1951. Television was still in its infancy in terms of the number of viewers and the effect it had on American culture.

Mr. Herbert's 30-minute show seemed to symbolize the potential of the new medium to instruct and entertain and to unite a mass audience around a common interest.

Within three years, almost 100 stations carried the show and science clubs inspired by it sprung up around the United States. In contrast with the modern admonition "don't try this at home," Mr. Wizard's viewers were prompted to do just that: that is, to reproduce the experiments and demonstrations they watched on the show.

Mr. Herbert had served in World War II as the pilot of a heavy bomber, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and holding the rank of captain, and was unfazed by the challenges of performing live in the days before the modern TV prompter.

However, he prepared himself with "18 file cabinets full of notes," he once told the New York Times, and kept reminders to himself posted around the studio, out of sight of the camera, for emergency use.

Another of his secrets: "Even when things went wrong, we could always explain why."

With almost 550 live broadcasts, the show ran through 1965, winning praise from scientific organizations and earning Mr. Wizard the image of a permanent ambassador from the world of science.

After being revived on NBC, the show came to life again on the Nickelodeon cable channel from 1983 to 1990.

Donald Jeffrey Herbert was born in Waconia, Minn., on July 10, 1917, and studied at Lacrosse State Teachers College, now a branch of the University of Wisconsin. He studied drama and science in college and once performed in summer theater opposite Nancy Davis, the future wife of President Ronald Reagan.

In Chicago, where Mr. Herbert acted on radio, he presented broadcasters with the idea that combined his interests in theatrical performance and in the hard facts of scientific truth.

His first marriage ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife and three children.

The "wizard" of the title of Mr. Herbert's trademark show might seem to be the antithesis of science, but Mr. Herbert knew its value.

"We thought we needed it to seem like magic to hook the audience," he said, "but then we realized that viewers would be engaged with just a simple scientific question, like, why do birds fly and not humans?"


© 2007 The Washington Post Company