Geek Trivia: Men of Mystery (Science Theater 3000)

Who were the only two true guest stars in the history of <i>Mystery Science Theater 3000</i>?

Two years ago this week, one of the great revolutionary concepts in science fiction, comedy, and television history dropped off the small screen for the last time. On Jan. 31, 2004, Mystery Science Theater 3000 aired its last episode on the Sci Fi Channel, closing out a treasured 15-year legacy of skewering all that was great and god-awful about schlock television, B movies, and people who talk at the theater.

For those readers who've never heard of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (both of you), the idea of the oft-abbreviated MST3K was to mock some of the worst afternoon-feature B-movie atrocities ever committed to the medium of film. What made MST3K great—and greatly beloved—was the format it employed to breathe new life into the low-budget movies that all too many Americans remember polluting the local television daytime airwaves.

A disgruntled janitor and two surly robots sat silhouetted at the base of the screen, cracking wise at the inanities and low production values of the films they were watching—as the films were running. Think of it as the precursor to DVD commentaries—only far more snarky, acidic, and quotable.

Beyond the hilarious concept, MST3K also endeared itself to fans in part by being every bit as low-budget and embattled as the films that the show mocked. The sets' construction sported cheap, at-hand materials; in fact, the production team purportedly constructed the original MST3K sets for a mere $200. The effects (to use the term generously) were obviously and intentionally low-grade, and the kitschy theme song had all the hi-fi production quality of a self-playing Casio keyboard background track.

Perhaps most evocative of MST3K's cheese-ball motif, the writing staff also served as the onscreen talent for short frame stories set around the viewing of the movie. Series creator Joel Hodgson played the original imprisoned janitor, and a parade of show writers provided voice talent and puppetry for the sidekick robots—while simultaneously playing the parts of mad scientist antagonists subjecting the viewers to the awful movies and appearing in costume as a host of guest characters also riffing on (and often excerpted from) the schlock films.

Indeed, across more than fifteen years and three networks, only twice in the history of Mystery Science Theater 3000 did the show boast actual guest stars—persons from outside the regular cast playing characters within the context of the show—and neither of them were actually actors.


Who were the only two true guest stars in the 15-year history of Mystery Science Theater 3000—two non-actors who hold the obscure distinction of being the only duo on earth to portray characters on MST3K without actually being members of the regular writing and production staff?

In episode #803, "The Mole People," then-running back for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings Robert Smith made a guest appearance as Howard, a "mute hunk" (as described by series host Mike Nelson) presented to the antagonizing Pearl as a gift from her enslaved sentient apes. Smith claimed to have been a fan of MST3K since his college days at Ohio State and volunteered to become the show's first actual guest star.

The episode aired on Feb. 15, 1997. Smith was still a starter on the Viking's roster, and he was cultivating a reputation as one of pro football's most intelligent if slightly eccentric players. (Smith first made headlines in 1991, when he volunteered to sit out a season of college ball to concentrate on his academic pursuits.)

It took almost a year and a half for MST3K to rate another true guest star. On July 18, 1998, episode #909, "Gorgo," first aired, featuring an appearance by noted film critic Leonard Maltin playing noted film critic Leonard Maltin (that's just good casting, people).

In the show, Pearl enlists Maltin to help choose horrible films to force her prisoners to endure. Maltin suggests Gorgo—sort of an Irish version of Godzilla (I'm not making this up)—and then proceeds to spat with Pearl about going to lunch.

Now, MST3K purists could argue for additional guest stars, depending on how finely you like your hairs split. For example, in episode #706, "Laserblast," cast member Trace Beaulieu enlisted his father Jack to play an older version of Beaulieu's character, Dr. Clayton Forrester.

Most—at least the cast and crew—don't generally regard cases such as this as "true" guest stars, as they were culled from the friends, family, and coworkers of the MST3K production team, rather than conventional casting efforts. So while these fine individuals may not register as a rarefied guest in the annals of Mystery Science Theater 3000, they will always have a place in Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the December 7 edition of Geek Trivia, "Worth a thousand worlds." TechRepublic member Ehartwell offered some illuminating details of the Hasselblad camera that took the famous Blue Marble photo of planet earth.

"If you look at the original transposition, docking, and extraction photos [on the Lunar and Planetary Institute's Web site], you'll see that all of the pictures are 'upside down' relative to the camera. So it's more likely to say that the camera was upside down.

"The Apollo Hasselblad didn't have a viewfinder (except for an external ring sight used with the 500mm lens). So they would have held the camera in whatever orientation was most convenient, given the location in the cabin and the orientation of the window."

Thanks for the details, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.