Stephen Hawking may have been one of the greatest minds of the 20th and 21st centuries, but to the IMDb, the theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author whose death at age 76 was announced early Wednesday was, for starters, “Actor, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1993).”
Millions knew him, too, as Sheldon Cooper’s idol on CBS’s long-running hit comedy The Big Bang Theory; Hawking made his first appearance on it in the 2012 episode “The Hawking Excitation.”
The best-selling author of A Brief History of Time, who used a wheelchair and an electronic voice synthesizer to compensate for the disabilities caused by the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis with which he’d lived for more than 50 years, was not a bad actor, Star Trek: TNG star Brent Spiner noted in a 1993 interview with the Los Angeles Daily News.
In the show’s sixth-season finale, Hawking appeared as himself, playing in a holographic poker game with Spiner’s android character, Data, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein in a scene that allowed him to display comic timing.
“Under the circumstances, he’s quite wonderful,” Spiner said. “It’s television history. I don’t believe that Einstein did a Bonanza. This is the equivalent of that. I can’t imagine anything like this ever happening before or after.”
Spiner, of course, was wrong about what came after. Some years after that first TV appearance. Hawking went on to lend his voice to episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama, and he became a touchstone for characters on The Big Bang Theory, particularly for Sheldon (Jim Parsons).
In a 2016 piece on Glamour.com, Big Bang Theory cocreator Bill Prady was quoted as saying the show first reached out to Hawking — through a friend of the physicist’s at Cal Tech — after reading an interview in which Hawking said he’d be willing to do the show.
“We now have the ability to call him,” Prady said. “When we do it on Skype, it’s obviously done in England, where he is, so we will send the script there, and they will record Professor Hawking and his half of the dialogue. At this point we’ve got a fun, casual relationship with him.”
— The Big Bang Theory (@bigbangtheory) March 14, 2018
The show’s Twitter account noted Hawking’s death on Wednesday, posting a picture of him with the cast with the words, “In loving memory of Stephen Hawking. It was an honor to have him on The #BigBangTheory. Thank you for inspiring us and the world.”
Though Hawking probably did as much as the hit comedy has done to show that scientists can have a sense of humor, he didn’t limit his TV projects to a series of one-liners delivered in that distinctive electronic voice.
His other TV credits include writing and appearing in numerous documentaries, and on March 4, he was the featured interview on the season finale of National Geographic Channel’s StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, in which astrophysicist Tyson asked Hawking first to name his favorite food.
“Oysters,” replied Hawking, who later said his favorite equation was “the equation I discovered relating the entropy of a black hole to the area of its horizon.”
“How many people get to say their favorite equation is one they came up with?” asked Tyson. “That’s badass.”
Early Wednesday, Tyson posted a picture of himself with Hawking on Twitter, writing, “His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure. Stephen Hawking. RIP 1942-2018.”
His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. But it's not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure. Stephen Hawking, RIP 1942-2018. pic.twitter.com/nAanMySqkt
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) March 14, 2018