LOS ANGELES – Ron Howard is such a historic figure himself, it’s hard to believe that “Genius,” the Albert Einstein miniseries that premieres on Tuesday, marks his debut as a director for scripted television.
But if any subject was going to lure the former “Happy Days” star to return to his roots, it’d be a cool-a-mundo scientist.
In the first of 10 episodes (Howard directed only the first hour), any illusions about Einstein as an egghead are quickly superseded by the vision of him as a more resilient Holden Caulfield, defying schoolteachers, cycling across cobblestone streets, making love in an open field. The classic photo of Einstein sticking out his tongue will now seem entirely appropriate.
“There’s a kind of deep-rooted Yiddish spirit and level of wit to him,” said Geoffrey Rush, who plays Einstein from his 40s to his 70s. “When you look at footage of when he first went to America and got off the boat, you see that within seconds he’d have a group of newfound friends or reporters cackling around him. As I was reading the script, I could hear Groucho Marx delivering the lines.”
Rush has a talent for cracking the shell of eggheads, earning an Academy Award as a brilliant but disturbed pianist in 1997’s “Shine.” So does Howard. His big Oscar night came in 2001, when best picture honors went to “A Beautiful Mind,” about a mathematician.
“We talked a lot about pressure,” said Howard, who may feel some heat himself after a string of big-screen flops with producing partner Brian Grazer. “I think the suspense [in the series] comes from the fact that in retrospect, we came very close to not benefiting from Albert Einstein. Sometimes it was his own doings, his own foibles. But very often it was society — an old, rigid way of thinking, or plain bigotry.
“Going all the way back to ‘Apollo 13,’ Brian and I have found that honest portrayals of these fascinating characters, including scientists, mathematicians and people like that, offer a lot of human drama, both emotional and sometimes physical.”
Other filmmakers seem to have been scared off by the challenge. Despite Einstein’s legacy — Time magazine named him Person of the Century in 1999 — few respectable films have put him front and center. “Young Einstein,” the 1988 comedy starring Yahoo Serious, is not one of them.
“I had to quickly try and forget as much of that as possible,” said Johnny Flynn, who plays the physicist in his younger years. He and Rush lead a cast that includes a couple of Minnesotans, Vincent Kartheiser as a U.S. diplomat in Berlin and T.R. Knight as J. Edgar Hoover.
Despite the obstacles — how do you bring up the theory of relativity without intimidating viewers? — Grazer has been circling some kind of Einstein project for years. Doing research for his 2015 book “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life” strengthened his resolve.
“I think the driving mystery of Einstein’s life and the failures he encountered will be quite relatable to kids,” Grazer said. “Ultimately this will become kind of an aspirational piece.”
Viewers of all ages can agree that Howard and Grazer did at least one thing right. They didn’t cast Yahoo Serious.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays.
Where: National Geographic Channel.