Geek stars: The secret (nerdy) life of celebrities

Who says all the big stars are brainless?

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Lights, camera, geeks

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As we said, actors cross over all the time between television and the movies. Two geek-friendly sitcom stars of the late '70s and early '80s successfully recycled their careers into film superstardom, starting with Tom Hanks, whose passion for the space program brought us From the Earth to the Moon and Apollo 13. Hanks is also on the board of governors of the National Space Society and has said he'd have liked to have gone into the astronaut program but "didn't have the math."

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Robin Williams
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Robin Williams, photo by Milosz Reterski

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Robin Williams, meanwhile, is a hardcore gamer (he named his daughter Zelda, for Pete's sake!) and has a reputation as a serious gadget hound. He's spoken informally at a number of fun tech firms, including a keynote at Google Inc.

Hanks and Williams are, of course, both multiple Oscar winners. Other actors with both gold statuettes and tech chops include Jack Lemmon (Mister Roberts, Save the Tiger), who majored in War Services Sciences (a subdivision of the physics department) at Harvard University, and supporting player par excellence Walter Brennan (The Westerner, Kentucky, Come and Get It), who majored in engineering at the Rindge School of Technical Arts in Cambridge, Mass.

 
Terrence Howard
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Terrence Howard, U.S. Air Force photo/Jet Fabara

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Our three-person honor roll includes an additional Oscar winner, along with a Fulbright awardee and a self-educated player who almost definitely makes it possible for you to be reading this very article. First up is Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow, the upcoming Iron Man), who has a chemical engineering degree from Pratt University and has declared his intention to eventually go back to school for a doctorate in physics.

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Hedy Lamarr
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Hedy Lamarr

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Action star and fellow chemical engineering degree-holder Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV, The Punisher), meanwhile, was attending grad school at MIT on a Fulbright when he decided to drop out and try the acting thing. Finally, beauty queen Hedy Lamarr (Ecstasy, Samson and Delilah) owns us all for her pioneering work on spread spectrum technology, which makes both Ethernet and your cell phone tick.

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Direct to the engineering department

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What is it about directors and engineering degrees? All but one of the directors we found in our search had either an engineering degree or extensive study in the field ... or, in one case, the kind of real-world experience that cannot be denied.

 
Alfred Hitchcock
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Alfred Hitchcock, photo by Fred Palumbo

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Alfred Hitchcock studied art at the University of London, but he also put in time in the School of Engineering and Navigation at St. Ignatius College in London, eventually working as a draftsman. The master of suspense studied mechanics, electricity, acoustics and navigation.

Frank Capra
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Frank Capra

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California's nerd troops include Frank Capra (It's A Wonderful Life), about whom fellow director Mack Sennett noted, "Capra had a degree in [chemical] engineering from the California Institute of Technology, but he had so much sheer ability that he was able to conceal it," and Terry Gilliam (Monty Python, Brazil) who dabbled in the Occidental College physics department before, he claims, concluding that political science had fewer graduation requirements.

Up the coast, one wonders if the efficiencies taught in Stanford University's industrial engineering program enabled Roger Corman to bring in movies such as Little Shop of Horrors and The Raven famously fast, cheap and under control. Back in New York, master-of-all-genres Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Rio Bravo and the original Scarface) gained a mechanical engineering degree from Cornell after early studies at Throop Polytechnic Institute (better known as Caltech) and worked for a while as an aircraft designer and aviator.

What's that? You say you've heard of another Howard with a flair for both directing and aviation? But, of course, our directorial honor roll choice is Howard Hughes, whose film credits as a director include The Outlaw and Hell's Angels. Hughes merely audited math and engineering courses at Caltech and dropped out of Rice University, but anyone who designs and builds giant wooden aircraft for fun (and acquires an airline along the way) is simply more geek than you are.

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