'Numb3rs' Counts Down to Apollo 11
On this bright November day of filming on the bridge at the show's studios in a former office building in downtown L.A., there's a buzz in the air 8 ... literally.
In production is "Killer Chat," the episode of "Numb3rs" airing Friday, Dec. 15, and the guest star shooting his cameo appearances is Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who followed Neil Armstrong onto the surface of the moon in 1969.
The occasion is the departure of Cal Sci (the show's fictional version of Cal Tech) astrophysicist Dr. Larry Fleinhardt (Peter MacNichol) to take his place among the crew of an upcoming space shuttle mission.
"We were thinking," says Cheryl Heuton, who co-created the show with husband Nick Falacci, "how can we send Larry off so that it's special? And somebody said, 'You should get a real astronaut.'"
The producers put out feelers to Aldrin, Armstrong and Capt. Jim Lovell, whose trip to the moon on Apollo 13 went awry in dramatic fashion.
"They sent back that Neil hardly ever does anything," Heuton says. "Jim hardly ever does anything, but Jim did say that he likes the show. He passed only because of scheduling issues. Buzz said he'd do it, so we put Buzz in here."
Aldrin, who says he mainly watches The History Channel and Fox News, had not seen "Numb3rs," but says, "I've talked to a lot of people who have [watched the show], and they think it's a really great show."
Asked what his role is in the episode, Aldrin says, "Larry's been waiting for some indication that he's been selected for a spaceflight. Then it looked like there was some reason in his background where maybe he wouldn't be eligible. So there's disappointment -- typical up-and-down. They reversed the decision. Somebody wrote in a letter or something like that.
"So he was selected, and I guess they're going to have a countdown. When I come to pick him up, we walk off together."
"Memorable," MacNichol says of shooting the scene. "Somewhere he's been is somewhere I've never been and never am likely to get to. Most memorable. He's a sweet man with an elfin smile, and I loved every minute of it."
Larry is the mentor and best friend of Cal Sci mathematician Charlie Eppes (David Krumholtz), who uses his math skills to help his brother Don (Rob Morrow), an FBI agent, figure out difficult crimes. While Charlie initially scoffed at Larry's space ambitions, they're something that Judd Hirsch, who plays Don and Charlie's father, Alan, understands very well.
"I wanted to be an astronomer when I was a kid," Hirsch says. "I used to have scrapbooks of the planets. If I was about to go to college [then], and knew about the space program, I'm telling you, I would have been in it. I would have at least been trying."
"What was going on in your life that you didn't know about the space program?" asks Dylan Bruno, who plays FBI Agent Colby Granger.
"I did know about the space program when I grew up," Hirsch says, "but I was already too old. I almost joined the Air Force. I took the test for flying jets off Air Force carriers, but then I chickened out, went home and didn't go back."
Outside Aldrin's dressing room earlier in the day, Hirsch made a point of stopping him on the steps to say hello.
"You know what I really thought?" he says. 'I thought I'd get it wrong. I thought, 'If it's not him, I'm going to look like the prime dope of all time.'… But who else answers to the name of Buzz around here?"
For Krumholtz -- who made a point of greeting Aldrin on the bridge -- the astronaut's appearance is another feather in "Numb3rs'" cap.
"We're attracting some very cool people," Krumholtz says. "It's further proof that the math and science community approves of this show. All our fans will just eat that kind of stuff up.
"I'm sure he wouldn't have done it if he hadn't done his research or had his people do research about the validity of our program, how valid it is as a math show. We've got a good reputation out there."
During shooting of their scene, MacNichol and Aldrin have to work on synchronizing putting on aviator sunglasses, then turning to walk away shoulder-to-shoulder in true "The Right Stuff" style.
Even though he rode to the moon aboard a rocket and walked on its surface, Aldrin is glad that he didn't have dialogue to learn as well.
"That makes me a lot more nervous," he says.