Thursday, August 7, 2014

On Call, Vol. 3, No. 1 - Personnel Profile: Howie Mandel - "Prankster and Pathfinder"


From On Call: The Official Newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club, volume 3, number 1, June, 1999.

"YUCK, YUCK, CANUCK"

Canadian Ham Mandel
In baseball jargon, a "triple threat" is someone who can run, throw, and hit. In the entertainment world that would be anyone who excels on stage, in films, and on television (hats off to Rita Moreno). But there's no catchphrase to describe Howie Mandel. He's a stand-up comic, a comedic film actor, a dramatic television actor, a producer, a voice-over talent, a writer, and, he's been a talk show host. In fact, the only show biz gig he hasn't done is Opera, and if asked, he could probably do that too. Yet with all of this talent, don't look for one, defining moment in his early life at which point he knew what path to take. Mandel's is a life full of quirky twists and turns - each of them leading him down a multi-faceted career path and us to discover why he is truly one of the most gifted performers of his generation.

Howie Mandel was born in Toronto, Canada to Albert and Evy Mandel. His father, now deceased, was a lighting salesman and his mom a real estate agent. He has a brother Steve who is three years his junior.

HOWIE MANDEL ... "I had a great upbringing, a normal, middle-class, Canadian suburban upbringing. Once a year we would drive down to Florida and I would sit for three days of driving, and my parents would sit things between me and my brother so we wouldn't smack each other. And that was the extent of our family outings."

Unfortunately, Howie's parents couldn't monitor his actions 24 hours a day, and, as a result, his career as a student turned prankster was legendary, with his having attended (and subsequently been asked to leave) a myriad of schools, including Don Mills Collegiate, North View Heights, and York Mills Collegiate where he once hired a contractor over the phone to build an addition onto the school library. The contractor showed up and commenced work until halted by an irate Principal.

HOWIE MANDEL (from TV Guide) ... "I was asked to leave three different schools (and never graduated). In retrospect it probably wasn't the right place or time. I was more interested in entertaining myself and being disruptive. I believe that creativity paid off later in life."

ON CALL ... Have you told your children that you were a bad kid?

HOWIE MANDEL ... "No! No, I tell them I was an 'A' student (laughs). If they ask me about it, I kind of just change the subject and move on."

In fact, it seems that Howie is always moving on. After a checkered educational experience, he moved on to the carpet store business. But the one thing that never changed throughout his formative years (and continuing to this day) is his affection for his wife Terry, who he has known since grade school.

Mates for life - Howie, Terry
courtesy People Magazine
HOWIE MANDEL ... "For me, it was love at first sight. For Terry, it took years. It was one-way love at first sight."

ON CALL ... Describe the first meeting.

HOWIE MANDEL ... "I borrowed a quarter because I wanted to buy some french fries from her (pause) and obviously I've been paying her back ever since" (laughs).

ON CALL ... I can't imagine why she wasn't instantly impressed with you.

HOWIE MANDEL ... "I guess I'm not impressive, plus I came up to her shoulder.

ON CALL ... So she's taller than you?

HOWIE MANDEL ... "Yes, and my voice was higher than hers. No she's not taller anymore. She watched me grow... we've known each other forever, since she was eleven."

While in his early twenties, Howie owned two carpet stores, managed two dozen employees, and seemed to be settling into a life without hijinks. That would change in 1979.

"A STAND-UP GUY"

On a fateful trip to Los Angeles, Howie's friends urged him to attend Amateur Night at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood. From there, he landed a spot on Make Me Laugh, a comedy game show. Buoyed by enthusiastic response Howie soon abandoned the carpet business, and he and Terry moved to Los Angeles.

Over the next year the couple struggled as Howie landed stand-up jobs, often for just $25 per night. His career as a comic changed forever when, in 1984, Joan Rivers caught his act while she was substituting for Johnny Carson. Howie was invited on with Joan, and over the years, he has appeared on the Tonight Show twenty-one times. But it was drama, not comedy, that helped him get in front of Rivers in the first place, because several years earlier, Howie was "discovered" as an actor.

"WAYNE'S WORLD"

Ask any comic and he or she will tell you that timing is everything, and so it is with careers in television. Thanks to a mistake by Bruce Paltrow and Mark Tinker when casting St. Elsewhere, Howie ended up auditioning for what would become his signature role.

HOWIE MANDEL ... "I was actually a replacement. They had shot the pilot for seven days and then (shut) down, and recast some of us. I came in and auditioned... luckily they had not seen my comedy" (laughs).

NORMAN LLOYD (Dr. Daniel Auschlander) ... "It was an inspiration on the part of the producers that they DID put Howie in the part."

MARK TINKER (Producer/Director, St. Elsewhere - Executive Producer, NYPD Blue) ... "The thing about Howie as an actor is that nobody thought he could do it. As you know, he wasn't our first choice, David Paymer was, and as great an actor as David is, and I don't use that word unadvisedly, he doesn't have the sex appeal that Howie has, and he didn't have the zaniness. There was an element of Howie's Fiscus that was unpredictable. You never really knew how he was going to come at the material."

ON CALL ... How did you know you needed to make the change from Paymer to Mandel?

MARK TINKER ... "We looked at the first few days of dailies. We fired the cameraman too after the first few days, and the director. They all continued to work in town, especially David, and I'm happy for him. It was us picking badly. We chose badly, and for what we wanted for Fiscus we didn't have many choices, and it came down to we had to make a decision, and David is the one we chose. And through no fault of his own--entirely our fault, that was a bad choice."

NORMAN LLOYD ... "I ran into David Paymer one day and he said, 'I've always wanted to write Bruce a letter thanking him for firing me, because it was the only way that I was able to get into a feature, and then, my career took off."

HOWIE MANDEL ... "I was personally intimidated by just being on a dramatic show. This was a 180 degree turn from where I expected to be. I had a meeting with Molly Lopata at MTM which was known for doing great comedies. The only drama they had was Hill Street Blues. At a meeting on a Friday she said 'Can you act?' And I said, 'I don't know.' And she had me read some lines with all this medical jargon. And I read it, and she said, 'That's very good, come with me.' And I went down the hall and went into Bruce's office and (John Masius and Mark Tinker were there) I read for all of them, and they stopped me halfway through, so I thought I had blown it. Then they said, 'Could you come in and meet with Brandon Tartikoff.' And so, later that day I went down to NBC and read for Brandon, and I actually started to work on Monday. So I waked into this show not knowing what it was. I understood it was a drama, but I just felt so out of place, and so intimidated by single camera film work, and seeing these people that I had seen in movies. I was a huge fan of The Graduate, seeing Billy Daniels, and seeing people that I had watched on television do phenomenal work, was also intimidating."

BILL DANIELS (Dr. Mark Craig) ... "Howie's a very good actor, a very good naturalistic actor. I guess he was intimidated by us only because we'd been at it longer. But I think he's a very good natural actor, and he did a lot toward making that (show) work."

ED BEGLEY (Dr. Victor Ehrlich) ... "It's like an actor deciding, 'Yeah, I'm going to do stand up comedy.' It's a different realm. Or an actor deciding 'I'm going to cut an album.' It's new territory for you and you're not entirely comfortable with all the inner workings and nuances of that particular craft. You have SOME preparation because it's all performing, if you will, but having said that, there's a lot of new ground to cover (and) it can be a little unsettling. But Howie took to it. He did a terrific job. His acting class was in front of the Panaflex, if you will."

Trademark cap, smile - Mandel, Sikes, Begley
NORMAN LLOYD ... "Yes, it might have been a gamble (replacing Paymer with Mandel), but the gamble worked. What it comes down to is another way of telling the story. It's not a better actor or a poor actor, it has nothing to do with that, it's about how you tell the story, and Bruce elected to tell it this way. Once we saw Howie with that Red Sox baseball cap, and his reaction, and the way he played certain scenes, we were intrigued and fascinated, because this was an unusual fellow in the Emergency Room. So, we were delighted with Howie, who, by the way, is a charmer."

HOWIE MANDEL ... "I cannot remember whether wardrobe gave me the cap - I've always been a hat guy, but I wouldn't say that I came up with the idea. I know my first day on the set I was awestruck and felt out of my realm, so I can't imagine that I said 'I think this character would wear a cap.' I imagine it was handed to me."

And in Howie's mind, perhaps the ROLE was handed to him as well, but he sustained it with hard work and on-the-job training.

HOWIE MANDEL ... "I think I attended the best 'college' anybody could ever attend."

And so, Howie finally made it to "college" after all, and he was on his way to graduating with honors. But along the way, he never abandoned his love of school pranks.

Partying down with Brandon
SAGAN LEWIS (Jackie Wade) ... "Howie was imitating a movie producer, and called up Ed (Begley) and offered him a huge role in a movie for a fortune (laughs), and Ed came to the set and said, 'God, this guy just offered me a zillion dollars to play this role in this movie'. They were always doing crazy things together. And I'm sure Ed and Howie were behind pushing Brandon Tartikoff's face into the 100th episode cake at our celebration for St. Elsewhere ... Brandon was suddenly laying in this cake. But Howie, I just really love him, he's a sweetheart."

LOUIE NOVOA (Howie's stand-in, then and now) ... "He's an incredible human being. He's warm and nice, and he's very loyal to his friends, he's great. The guy is really awesome."

JOHN MASIUS (Writer/Producer, St. Elsewhere - Creator of Providence) ... "I really like Howie, he's a sweet man, and he's got a good heart. He was always a pleasure to work with, always prepared."

ELLEN BRY MASIUS (Nurse Daniels) ... "Howie's cute, lovable, friendly. He's also very charming, very boyish, very playful. He's got a lot of incredible energy, and he's extremely sharp."

SAGAN LEWIS ... "I was always envious of him because I think he had a photographic memory. So, he'd come to the set, peek at his script, and get the lines down, it was amazing!  I had just spent a week working on my lines, and he spent ten minutes!" (laughs)

MARK TINKER ... "Howie was always in good humor, always open to trying stuff, and terrifically improvisational. Not with the words so much, he knew that we wanted him to stick to the words, but with the verve of the character, and the willingness to sort of monkey around with it in rehearsals."

Checking out of the E.R. - Mandel, Morse, Lewis
STEPHEN FURST (Dr. Elliot Axelrod) ... "I think he's a terrific dramatic actor."

And the St. Elsewhere producers agreed. In fact, in season five, they created an entire episode around Howie. In "Afterlife", Fiscus is shot and critically wounded in the ER, then proceeds on a "tour de farce" of heaven and hell, before eventually returning to the here and now.

SAGAN LEWIS ... "Remember 'Afterlife'? Wasn't he good in that? I was disappointed that he didn't get an Emmy nomination for that."

In fact, Howie never won an Emmy during his six seasons on St. Elsewhere. Still, he and Fiscus both experienced tremendous growth in character.

HOWIE MANDEL ... "It was a huge metamorphosis I think for a lot of people on the show, but I can only speak for myself. I had not been an actor before I got St. Elsewhere, so I entered a brand new profession, and learned. It was the best college anybody could ever attend, and surrounded by the best possible people, in the way of writing, directing, and acting. I was playing with the best, and, at the same time, you know, I had my first child (Jackie). In 1984, in the midst of the show, I became a parent. So I grew up professionally and personally, and that's why it was a real important time in my life."

And his growth reflected a crossover talent from comedy to drama that didn't go unnoticed or unappreciated.

TOM FONTANA (Writer/Producer, St. Elsewhere - Producer, Homicide, Oz) ... "Here's the absolute truth about Howie, which is, he's a terrific dramatic actor. And it was so easy to write for him, and I'm not just saying the funny stuff, I'm really talking about the dramatic stuff. We wrote 'Afterlife' for him because we knew he could play it. And I still think he is one of the undiscovered talents from St. Elsewhere, I mean, I can't believe he hasn't done more dramatic work. I think it's a great loss (for the audience)."

NORMAN LLOYD ... "It's the old thing of 'Laugh, Clown, laugh', isn't it? Howie is a man of enormous talent, and where the situation presents itself, he'll be able to rise to the occasion."

"LIFE AFTER 'GRADUATION'"

In the years following St. Elsewhere, many situations DID present themselves to Howie. As was referenced earlier, his stand-up career went into high gear with him playing as many as 200 dates a year. In 1989 Howie created Bobby's World, an animated, Emmy-winning children's series in which he also supplies the voice for the title character.

(AOL Chat, December 14, 1996)

HOWIE MANDEL ... "Bobby was a character that I did in my live act. I was approached by my two friends, Jim Fisher and Jim Stahl (who had a deal to do animation), about taking my character and working with me to create a Saturday morning show. At first I said 'No, I like to sleep in on Saturday mornings.' But they said we could make it late in the afternoon and that they would just AIR it on Saturday mornings." (Laughs)

Question: How does it feel to be a cartoon character?

MANDEL: "Some days I feel a little drawn."

Question: How did you come up with the character (voice) for Bobby?

MANDEL: "I was eleven years old at a birthday part. I began to choke on a piece of cake. My air supply was so constricted that that is the sound that came out. The real talent is not just doing the voice. It's doing the voice without vomiting. I'm actually the Sibyl of the '90's. But seriously, the voice of Bobby is recorded separately than my own voice, so they're not actually done at the same time. But please don't tell anyone, you'll ruin the magic."

In 1990 Howie and Terry had their own little boy, Alex, giving them a real son to go along with the animated one.

Before leaving St. Elsewhere, Howie had tried his hand at comedic acting for the big screen in A Fine Mess, co-starring Ted Danson. Later, in 1989, he appeared in Little Monsters.

In 1990 he returned to television, this time in a comedy. Good Grief ran for just one season on the then-fledgling Fox network, and the series starred Howie as a former con artist who married into a family of morticians (no doubt inspired by Wayne and Cathy's romp in the morgue). In 1992 Mandel made a pilot for ABC titled Howie and Rose, in which he played a radio talk show host who suddenly finds himself with sole custody of his young daughter. Stephen Furst co-starred in the pilot which never made it to air. That same year, Howie starred in the CBS summer comedy series Howie, which included highlights from his stage performances as well as new comedy sketches.

In 1993 his third child Riley was born, and the next year, the former Fiscus reunited with some of his old St. Elsewhere alum for a cameo in The Magic Kid, Part 2. Kid was Stephen Furst's directorial debut.

STEPHEN FURST ... "In one scene we're all playing poker (Bill Daniels, David Morse, Howie, and me) ... we're all Hollywood agents, and a dog is sitting there at the table next to Bill who says he thinks the dog is cheating. Howie tells Bill he is being paranoid, then David Morse comments, 'We're agents, we're supposed to be paranoid.' And Howie says, 'Maybe we should have been doctors.' That was sort of an inside joke." (Laughs)

For the record, Jennifer Savidge (Nurse Lucy) also appeared in Magic Kid, Part 2, making it the only on-screen reunion of five St. Elsewhere actors). In 1995, Furst returned the favor and appeared on Howie Mandel's Sunny Skies, a sketch comedy series for Showtime. Later, Howie starred in a cable special for HBO titled Howie Mandel on Ice, and he continued a furious pace of stand-up. He also made a cameo appearance for Tom Fontana on an episode of Homicide. In the scene, Howie plays an interior decorator who is faced with challenge of re-doing a bar which has an all brick wall, something Fiscus had spent years to uncover behind a mystery door at St. Eligius.

HOWIE MANDEL ... "I didn't even realize the symbolism, nor did even remember. I just happened to be in Baltimore on tour, and I knew that Tom was in town, and that that's where they shot, and we met for lunch. And Tom said, 'You want to drop down on the set and do a cameo?' And I did this quick little cameo. I didn't wear make-up, those are my clothes, and I was on-set for probably as long as you saw me, and I left. That was my lunch (in Baltimore) - you saw my desert, and I was out of there." (Laughs)

From sub to solo - Mandel with Gifford
courtesy TV Guide
"HEEEERE'S HOWIE"

And so, Howie was still on the move, trying new things. But it was his stint as a substitute for Regis Philbin that launched him into yet another direction. Paramount liked what they saw on Regis and Kathy Lee, and offered Howie his own syndicated daytime show. It was an opportunity for the comic turned actor turned comic to finally just be himself.

HOWIE MANDEL (from Broadcasting & Cable, June 15, 1998) ... "This is the first time I get to be Howie. I've played different characters, been a comedian, but this is the first time America gets to see who Howie really is. I've never been myself on camera. I'm a real person, a married guy with three kids. I'm the guy who is sitting here and talking to you right now. It's up to the audience whether they want to tune me in and spend an hour with me. That's why it would be so hurtful if it doesn't work out. It's just me this time."

ED BEGLEY ... "Doing the talk show, it was a new area for Howie, but if you've seen his act, you know he loves to interface with the audience, with people. Admittedly, it's different with a guest, and it's certainly different from a talk show format, but he loves people, and he's very quick on his feet, to take questions and turn them around, and tie them in a know, and do all the verbal gymnastics that he does. It's not an act, Howie is a people person."

Unfortunately, The Howie Mandel Show was recently canceled, a victim of low ratings awash in a sea of trash talk and mindless, syndicated reality programs. But Howie shouldn't feel hurt because he produced a good show and resisted the temptation to move toward sleaze (as Donahue had done in the late '80's, giving birth to the Springers of today).

HOWIE MANDEL ... "I am somewhat of a student of variety television, you know, from Jack Paar, to Steve Allen, to Johnny Carson. I also watch Jerry Springer, I admit it, that it entertains me. But the truth of the matter is, I could not do that kind of television. I think what makes any television work or not work is by virtue of who is sitting with the microphone, whether it be behind the desk, standing in the audience, or whatever. And you have to be true to yourself when you're on each and every day because the television audience will see through that. I'm just me, and I'm not somebody that can sit down and have a serious talk about (or has any interest in talking about) somebody's relationship with someone else's wife, or why they've chosen to be a transvestite."

And so, with cancellation of his talk show, perhaps Howie feels as though he has hit the proverbial brick wall behind St. Eligius' mystery door, but friends and fans see this transition as a golden opportunity for his other talents to shine.

SAGAN LEWIS ... "I think Howie is incredibly gifted, and if he put his mind to something, I think he can do anything. He's very special, and he's got this sensitivity about him that's so loveable. I always thought he was a terrific dramatic actor, and after St. Elsewhere, I was surprised that he didn't do more dramatic acting."

STEPHEN FURST ... "If I were Howie's agent, I would put Howie in maybe a co-starring role in something other than a comedy."

ON CALL ... So if you have an opening in a dramatic film that you're directing, you would put Howie in it?

STEPHEN FURST ... "Immediately."

BONNIE BARTLETT DANIELS (Ellen Craig) ... "Our business tends to pigeonhole you... they shouldn't think of Howie as just a comedian, because he's very interesting, and the camera picks that up. He conveys sensitivity and humanity. As Bill said, Howie is genuinely one of the sweet people we've met in the business (and a good natural actor). He could be good in an Altman film, he could be good in a lot of different (dramatic) things."

And what does Howie think about taking another stab at dramatic acting?

HOWIE MANDEL ... "Doing St. Elsewhere is something I thoroughly enjoyed. I enjoy dramatic acting. Acting is a process you continually learn and never quite master, because with each new role and each new scene you have something to learn and something take away from it. I don't rule anything out, and, as far as my career is concerned, I've never tried to blaze a trail, I've just kind of followed this path."

And rest assured, Howie, we'll all continue to go down that path with you.

Originally produced by Longworth Communications.

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