Don Herbert, who as television’s “Mr. Wizard” introduced generations of young viewers to the joys of science, died Tuesday of bone cancer in Bell Canyon, Calif. He was 89.
“He really taught kids how to use the thinking skills of a scientist,” said former colleague Steve Jacobs. He worked with Herbert on a 1980s show that echoed the original 1950s “Watch Mr. Wizard” series, which became a fond baby boomer memory.
In “Watch Mr. Wizard,” which was produced from 1951 to 1964 and received a Peabody Award in 1954, Herbert turned TV into an entertaining classroom. On a simple, workshop-like set, he demonstrated experiments using household items.
“He modeled how to predict and measure and analyze. … The show today might seem slow, but it was in-depth and forced you to think along,” Jacobs said. “You were learning about the forces of nature.”
Herbert encouraged children to duplicate experiments at home, said Jacobs, who recounted serving as a behind-the-scenes “science sidekick” to Herbert on the ’80s “Mr. Wizard’s World” that aired on the Nickelodeon channel.
When Jacobs would reach for beakers and flasks, Herbert would remind him that science didn’t require special tools.
“‘You could use a mayonnaise jar for that,'” Jacobs recalled being chided by Herbert. “He tried to bust the image of scientists and that science wasn’t just for special people and places.”
Herbert’s place in TV history was acknowledged by later stars. When “Late Night with David Letterman” debuted in 1982, Herbert was among the first-night guests.
Born in Waconia, Minn., Herbert graduated LaCrosse State Teachers College and served as a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot during World War II. He worked as an actor, model and radio writer before starting “Watch Mr. Wizard” in Chicago on NBC.
The show moved to New York after several years.
He is survived by six children and stepchildren and by his second wife, Norma.