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2009.12.22 Putting on the (Mark) Ritts

posted Dec 22, 2009, 5:38 AM by Troy Cheek   [ updated Feb 11, 2010, 2:53 PM ]
Putting on the (Mark) Ritts

Mark Ritts (June 16, 1946 – December 7, 2009) was an American actor, puppeteer, television producer and director, and author.

Many years back while channel hopping (which is the way we used to watch television back before the days of DVRs and automatic downloads) I stumbled across a program called Beakman's World. I might have just kept on hopping, but something caught my eye: a man in a giant rat suit. I decided to watch for a while. By the end of the episode, I was hooked.

Beakman's World was a bit of educational television which ran from 1992-1998. The show presented scientific facts in a fun and kid-friendly manner. It even included some experiments that you could try at home (with appropriate adult supervision). Yes, this does sound a lot like Bill Nye The Science Guy (1993-1997), except for slightly older children. And, yes, both of them ripped off Don "Mr. Wizard" Herbert (1951-1965, 1971, 1983-1990). Beakman's World even included two puppet characters named Don and Herb.

The main characters of Beakman's World were a stereotypical mad (but in a nice way) scientist named Beakman, a procession of young female sidekicks/assistants, and a man in a giant lab rat suit. That was the funny thing. The actor playing the mad scientist was, in the context of the show, an actual mad scientist. The actress playing the assistant was, in the context of the show, an actual lab assistant. Even the two penguin puppets were, in the context of the show, actual penguins. However, the out of work actor in a giant rat suit was, in the context of the show, an out of work actor in a giant rat suit.

Beakman's World aired on one network for a year, got cancelled, aired on another network for a year, got cancelled, then aired in first-run syndication for a year, and then got cancelled. At least, that's how I remember it. I have vague memories of watching it on at least two different channels, then years later watching reruns on yet another channel. If it was still running today, I wouldn't even know what channel it was on because my DVR would be recording it, and I'd be watching it on my computer screen on alternating Tuesday afternoons anyway.

I think the character we as viewers were supposed to identify with was the mad scientist Beakman. He was the central character, knew all the answers, had most of the lines, etc. Perhaps the younger viewers were supposed to identify with the perky assistant. She was, after all, young and energetic and most of the time at least pretending to be the same age as the viewers. She had "star pupil" written all over her.  I, on the other hand, identified with Lester D. Ratt, the man in a giant rat suit, played by Mark Ritts.

Mark's Lester character pretty much always lost out in any confrontation with Beakman. It wasn't that Lester was stupid or even ignorant. He was simply an everyman character who had a lot of real world experience and common sense and not a lot of formal education. As such, he was likely to make such classic science blunders as confusing mass with weight or failing to realize that an object in motion tends to stay in motion. (Sure, scientifically speaking, weight varies with gravity and objects only slow down when subjected to an outside force such as friction, but here on planet Earth your car is always going to weight about the same and will eventually coast to a stop whether you hit something or not.) Beakman also tended to word his challenges to Lester in the most unbelievable terms possible while leaving out vital information.

"Lester, I bet you can't poke this broom handle through this paper towel."

"Okay, Beakman, I'll take that bet." Poke. Rip. "There. Can I go home now?"

"Not just yet, Lester. Now try it after I rubber band the paper towel over the end of this cardboard tube and fill the tube with common table salt."

"Uh, okay." Poke. Poke. Poke. Hernia. "Oh, my stomach!"

"You see, Lester, the energy of your push goes into crushing the salt crystals against each other and against the sides of the tube. The force is distributed evenly and isn't strong enough to push through at any one point. That's why you couldn't poke the broom handle through to the bottom even though you put so much effort into it that you ruptured your abdominal wall and your intestines are spilling out all over the lab. Now, I challenge you to use this playing card to keep the water in this glass even when it's turned upside down."

"Would you please quit reading your cue cards and call a freaking ambulance!"

In contrast, most of the questions that Beakman threw to his assistants were generally pretty easy to answer. Lester usually only got answers right by guessing the same answer as previous episodes ("Air pressure! It always has something to do with air pressure!") or by reading Beakman's cue cards instead of his own.

Regardless, Lester D. Ratt was my favorite character. I watched the show just for him. Sometimes, I'd miss what the scientist and the assistant were saying because I'd be focussed on something the lab rat was doing in the background. While they were putting water and a fizzy tablet in a plastic film cannister and watching the pressure pop it open, Lester was dropping a two liter soda bottle full of dry ice into a barrel of water. Guess which was more entertaining?

Some years back, I forget exactly when, I stumbled across an email address for Mark Ritts. We sent a few emails back and forth. We didn't correspond very frequently, but I think we developed a rapport. That, or he was very tolerant of his crazy fans/stalkers. We discussed Beakman's World, mostly. As I remember, Mark was actually more educated than the actor who played Beakman, who only sounded as good as he did because of the writers. While the show was intended for kids, Mark confirmed my suspicions that the writers would throw in jokes which were intended for older audiences. I was not the only adult fan of the show. I hope he didn't throw that last part in just to make me feel better. While Beakman's World was currently cancelled, Mark had hopes that it might someday continue as a direct to videotape series. Later, he hoped it might continue as a direct to DVD series. Had I written him more recently, I'm sure he would have held hopes for direct downloads or a webcast.

Just a few days ago, while looking for something else, I saw a reference to Beakman's World. This reminded me of Mark Ritts. I wondered if he'd done any television or movies lately that I could look for. My search revealed that Mark had passed away on December 7, 2009 of kidney failure. I hadn't heard.

Mark Ritts was a husband and a father and doubtless made countless other contributions to the world. I hope he doesn't think any less of me that, in my mind, he'll always be an out of work actor in a giant rat suit.
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