CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” is a great example of nerd and science culture in the TV world. The core group of scientist friends — Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki), Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), and Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) — follow all the stereotypes. Their understanding of social norms are lacking, but don’t even think about questioning their knowledge of the universe or comic book superheroes. Of course, of the four, Howard is a specially curious specimen.
Howard’s actions border on creepy in his attempts to pick up women in bars, his sense of fashion is often questionable, but his talents for magic and impressions give viewers some hilarious scenes through all 12 seasons. Say what you will about Howard as a character, but it’s undeniable that Simon Helberg did a phenomenal job in portraying a geeky, sometimes sleezy, but quirky engineer. And today, we want to learn more about Helberg’s most iconic character, so we’re taking a closer look at the truth behind Howard Wolowitz.
Simon Helberg almost missed out on playing Howard
After 12 laugh-packed seasons of “The Big Bang Theory,” we almost can’t imagine Howard being played by anyone else. But that’s nearly how it all went down, as Helberg has revealed that he tried to pass up his role of Howard when the show first kicked off.
The actor appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in 2016 and explained the reason behind almost turning down “The Big Bang Theory,” saying he had prior commitments with another show he was doing at the time, NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” While “Studio 60” had a potential recipe for success, it was canceled after only one season. Thankfully, Helberg said he was convinced to take a chance on “Big Bang Theory,” and he auditioned for the nerdy role. He admitted he “made the right choice” during his talk with Stephen Colbert after playfully saying he had the instincts of a spooked squirrel (you know, when they have to decide to stay in the middle of the road to get run over or sprint to one side to avoid being demolished?).
In the end, we’re forever grateful for Helberg’s decision, as Howard Wolowitz is key to the show’s core friend group, which ultimately led “The Big Bang Theory” to years of success.
Howard is a mama’s boy
Of Howard’s many characteristics, the fact that he’s the ultimate mama’s boy has to be one his downfalls. It’s one of several geeky tropes that Howard follows. He’s lived with his mother, Debbie Wolowitz (Carol Ann Susi), his entire life until he finally moves out after he and Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) got married in Season 5. But until that happened, Howard’s living situation backfired on him on multiple occasions. In one hilarious example, during a video conference with real-life astronaut Mike Massimino in “The Friendship Contraction,” Howard attempts to earn a cool astronaut nickname but instead ends up as Howard “Froot Loops” Wolowitz after his mother interrupts the call to get her son to eat his cereal.
Not only does his living situation come back to bite Howard in professional contexts, but it derails any semblance of independence on his part. It finally dawns on Howard when his relationship with Bernadette starts getting serious. Like any mama’s boy who hasn’t shouldered the burden of household responsibilities before, Howard is surprised when Bernadette brings up that he doesn’t equally share the chore load. She puts her foot down and says she won’t be a secondary mother to Howard anymore, which leaves him in a position to do some much needed growing up.
Howard Wolowitz is based on a real-life person
A piece of advice that comes from experienced writers goes something like, “Write about what you know.” In the case of Bill Prady, one of the creators of “The Big Bang Theory,” he did exactly that. When it came down to creating the character of Howard Wolowitz, Prady turned to his own life’s experiences for inspiration. In an interview with Slate in 2009, Prady spoke about where he got the idea for Howard, saying, “I was a college dropout in New York City, working at a RadioShack, and I got involved creating the FilePro software for the TRS-80 at my friend Howie’s place in Brooklyn.”
Yep, the fictional Howard was named after this real-life Howard Wolowitz. “The Big Bang Theory” has been hailed for its understanding of geeky culture, and it’s definitely due to these details from showrunners. Not only did Prady’s experiences in the field of computer programming give him insight into the geeky culture and nerdiness needed to make the fictional Howard come to life, they introduced him to the character’s namesake. In 2012, Prady even tweeted a photo of Simon Helberg and the real Howard for a side-by-side comparison.
He has a talent for magic
When Howard isn’t engineering anti-gravity toilets for the International Space Station or teaming up with his buddies for a night of gaming, he spends some of his time honing his talent for magic. In the first few seasons of “The Big Bang Theory,” his slightly dorky illusions are often shown as small one-off acts. In “The Prestidigitation Approximation,” Howard does a card trick that convinces Sheldon he’ll never be able to figure out the secret behind it. It gets a lot of laughs at the expense of Sheldon’s ironic lack of know-how.
Viewers later find out that Howard had dreams in his youth of becoming something more impressive with his hobby. In Season 12, Bernadette finds out that Howard had an opportunity to audition for a prestigious magical society and encourages him to try again. The audition ends with a funny failure as Howard attempts to smash one of the judges watches — the trick being that it will end up perfectly fine — only to pull the cloth away to find it smashed to smithereens.
Howard is an impressionist
Howard’s magic tricks pale in comparison to the impressionist talents of Simon Helberg. Helberg’s start at impersonations began in high school, he said during Q&A session at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, when he would imitate his teachers. He got more serious about doing it in later years when he would do impressions of actors “who went off the deep end,” as he puts it. Clearly it paid off.
The show’s writers made good use of Helberg’s abilities to mimic other actors’ signature speaking voices. For example, in “The Love Spell Potential,” the group ends up playing a very spirited game of “Dungeons & Dragons,” and Howard’s turn as Dungeon Master makes the experience all the more immersive. During the group’s game, Howard does impressions of Raj, Nicolas Cage, Al Pacino, and Christopher Walken. It’s so impressive that Sheldon ends up with “literal goose bumps.”
He has a master’s degree (and nobody lets him forget it)
“The Big Bang Theory” has no shortage of PhD qualified physicists on the show … unfortunately for Howard Wolowitz. His higher education stops at a master’s degree from MIT. By itself, such an accomplishment is something to be celebrated. However, when Howard is around his friends, a master’s is laughable.
His career and social status can be summed up with a scene from Season 2, Episode 4, “The Griffin Equivalency.” The gang’s boss, Dr. Gablehauser (Mark Harelik), comes to congratulate Raj on finding a new planetary body. During the encounter, Gablehauser goes around the room greeting Dr. Koothrappali, Dr. Hofstadter, and Dr. Cooper. Instead of an equally respectful greeting, Howard receives an emphasized “Mr. Wolowitz.” Later in the interaction, Dr. Gablehauser rubs the top of Howard’s head as a snide way of making fun of both his physical and collegiate stature. After Howard comments woefully, “I have a master’s degree,” Gablehauser goes one step further and retorts, “Who doesn’t?”
In Season 8, Howard toys with the idea of going back to earn a doctorate by taking one of Sheldon’s classes. The idea is quickly abandoned after the two inevitably go head to head.
Howard’s dad left the family when he was 11
“The Big Bang Theory” doesn’t often tackle the subplot of Howard’s earlier life. When it does, there’s a lot of sensitivity around where Howard’s father, Sam, ended up.
Throughout the show, it’s slowly revealed why Howard’s mother was left a single parent. In “The Precious Fragmentation,” viewers learn that Sam took off on the family when Howard was 11. It’s a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment when the group opens a box they bought at yard sale and Howard finds an ALF doll like the one his mother got for him in the immediate aftermath of his father’s abandonment.
The reason why Sam left isn’t explored until Season 6, Episode 19. Here, Sheldon stumbles across a letter sent to Howard from his father on his 18th birthday. It contains Sam’s explanation for leaving his wife and son behind, but viewers — and Howard — are still unsure as to why. How so? Well, Howard explains that he both wants and doesn’t want to know what the letter says so the gang’s solution is to give Howard several false explanations and one true one without telling him which is which. It seems to provide enough closure to put the topic to rest for a few seasons.
Finally, in Season 8, Episode 20, “The Fortification Implementation,” it’s revealed that Howard has a half-brother, Josh (Matt Bennett), explaining that Sam had another family in the years after leaving Debbie and Howard.
He is an astronaut (and lets nobody forget it)
Of Howard’s achievements in his career, traveling to the International Space Station will always have the very top spot, and he makes darn sure that nobody will ever forget it.
After returning to Earth, Howard spends nearly every waking moment in NASA gear, bragging about being the only one of his friends to have been in space, and handing out his official NASA portrait to local businesses like Stuart’s comic book shop, a Walgreens, and his dry cleaner. In “The Holographic Excitation,” Sheldon and Leonard decide to see if Howard can bring any conversation back to the fact that he went to space. Sheldon barely has to mention lemons, and Howard proves them right by going off about how the Soyuz capsule was a mechanical lemon.
Eventually, Bernadette tells Howard to cool it after his comments start invading their intimate life.
Howard has a severe peanut allergy
As nerd tropes go, having an allergy isn’t very far off-base, and it’s a Howard Wolowitz trait that’s been around since the start of the show. In Season 1, Episode 2, “The Big Bran Hypothesis,” Leonard reminds the group during dinner to “keep an eye on Howard in case he starts to swell up” because he forgot to ask if Howard’s dish is made with peanut oil.
Apparently, “every Thai restaurant in town” knows that Howard is allergic, which impacts how the group has to order their food. As Leonard explains in “The Peanut Reaction,” “When they see me coming they go, ‘Ah, no-peanut boy!” We get to see how severe Howard’s allergy is in the same episode when he’s forced to eat a granola bar with nuts in order to keep himself and Leonard at the hospital so Leonard doesn’t ruin his own surprise birthday party. Howard’s face swells to twice its normal size, proving how catastrophic the effects of his anaphylactic shock can truly be.
There’s a reason we never see his mother
Howard’s mother, Mrs. Debbie Wolowitz, is famously known for smothering her son in a mix of overly affectionate love and guilt-tripping comments. However, viewers never actually got to see her face, but they can definitely hear her, with her heavily New Jersey-accented voice courtesy of actor Carol Ann Susi.
The decision to leave her on the sidelines was an creative one made by co-creator Chuck Lorre. Lorre’s choice was meant to reference the show “Rhoda” where the doorman Carlton (played by Lorenzo Music) is also voiced but never seen (via Cleveland.com). But there’s an extra bit of comedy that comes from never being able to see a character as prominent as Mrs. Wolowitz. Howard often teases about her numerous health concerns, her size, her ability to make his life miserable, and it’s hinted that she’s probably not the most attractive person. Perhaps it was best to keep her off-screen seeing as Carol Ann Susi was a remarkably good-looking woman and seeing her would have broken the mystery behind voice.
When Carol Ann Susi passed away in 2014, “The Big Bang Theory” wrote in Mrs. Wolowitz’s death because showrunners felt nobody could replace Susi in the show.
Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar are friends in real life
How does the saying go? Bros before — well, you know. It’s a mantra that Raj and Howard live by, even after they find their significant others. But the real question is can two people who portray a bromance on TV be like that in real life? Are Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar actually friends? Yes! To this day, followers of Nayyar can often see throwback photos of the pair’s time together on “The Big Bang Theory” on his Instagram feed.
It’s hilarious to watch the two actors talk about their on-set friendship. Panels and interviews where Helberg and Nayyar are prompted to talk about their experiences get a lot of laughs and happy faces from audiences. In 2014, the cast did a Q&A at The Paley Center for Media where the two bantered back and forth about how they have fun with each other off-screen. Nayyar brought up a discussion the two were having backstage one day, and it is peak bromance material. Helberg had said to Nayyar, “I love our relationship … because you’re the only person that I can just walk up to and say, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ and walk away, and we’ll still be friends.”
Howard had over 100 belt buckles
Howard’s awkward color combinations, unbelievably tight pants, astounding collection of belt buckles, and the tiny little alien pin that keeps popping up are all a wonderful homage to his dorky personality. There are some very interesting behind-scenes-facts about the character’s outfit choices.
Fans got some insight about Howard’s fashion sensibilities when Simon Helberg live-tweeted a new episode as it aired in 2011 (via TV Guide). He answered questions that everyone was dying to get answers to. At one point he said there were “more than 100 giant belt buckles” for Howard to pick from. It does, in fact, seem like Howard has a new buckle for every outfit on the show. And in “The Hawking Excitation,” viewers get a close-up look at how expansive the collection really is. These themed buckles range from comic book superheroes to 8-bit video game characters to simple symbols, but they all remain right in the nerd-sphere.
On the other hand, Howard’s little alien pin holds a secret that Helberg has promised to take to the grave. During his live-tweeting session, he said, “Only our costumer and I know its meaning. Ha-ha-ha. It’s not a dirty secret, just a juicy one.”
Simon Helberg and Mark Hamill have known each other for years
We dare any true geek to not freak out if they were to meet Mark Hamill, the actor famed for his portrayal of Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” franchise. In Season 11, Episode 24 of “The Big Bang Theory,” “The Bow Tie Asymmetry,” Hamill made a guest appearance as himself. The plot goes that Howard finds a lost dog whose owner turns out to be the one and only Mark Hamill. Naturally, Howard goes into a frenzy when he opens his front door to return the dog.
In reality, Simon Helberg probably wouldn’t have had that exact reaction to seeing Hamill. Helberg and Hamill’s son, Nathan, actually went to school together and were friends, so the two have known each other since Helberg was about 12. After his episode aired, Hamill took to Twitter with a funny story about the two boys when they were school-aged. He said he caught the pair prank-calling during one of their sleepovers and tried to lecture them about why it was wrong. When he actually listened to the prank recording, he said “couldn’t stop laughing,” thus failing to convey his lesson.
Simon Helberg had to perform his Stephen Hawking impression in front of Stephen Hawking
When it came to bringing on guest stars, the team behind “The Big Bang Theory” weren’t ones to skimp. In fact, even the great Stephen Hawking made a small appearance during the episode “The Hawking Excitation.”
This episode’s plot offered Howard an opportunity to mimic Hawking’s signature robotic voice. Helberg’s imitations are flawless and a fun character quirk so it was only a matter of time before that impression was utilized. Helberg went on “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” and talked about how daunting it was to not only meet the esteemed professor but how scary it was to do his impression of Hawking right in front of him.
Helberg said Hawking requested he be on set to watch a rehearsal of the episode in which he appeared. Helberg mentioned that he made specific requests to clear the impression with Hawking and his crew because “he’s severely disabled, and I am kind of making fun of his voice.” But he did the impression as seen in the episode, and according to Helberg during his chat with Conan, his rendition of the scientist earned Hawking’s stamp of approval with a smile.
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