Albert Einstein is one of few scientists to achieve the status of pop culture icon.
Time magazine’s Frederic Golden once said that Albert Einstein was “a cartoonist’s dream come true,” and it’s not hard to see why. The high forehead, bushy eyebrows, walrus mustache, and those famous unruly shocks of electrified white hair – he’s the very image of a mad scientist or absentminded professor. Surely this is a big reason he has become such a staple of the silver screen. Had he looked like, say, Robert Oppenheimer, its hard to imagine he would remain such a movie icon.
But there’s a second aspect to the Albert Einstein persona as popularly imagined, where the man is not only an uber-genius but a genial, avuncular figure, childlike in his playfulness and innocence and yet full of big-hearted wisdom. It’s no accident that the puppet designers creating Yoda based the little green sage’s eyes on those of Einstein.
Here’s brief look at some of the many ways Einstein has been portrayed on screens big and small.
Young Einstein (1988)
One of the stranger fictionalizations of Albert Einstein occurred at the hands of young Australian comic Yahoo Serious in 1988. An irreverent, intentionally inaccurate account of Einstein’s formative years, it has him growing up as the son of an apple farmer in Tasmania. He splits the beer atom, invents the electric guitar and surfing, and has a romance with Madame Curie. Charles Darwin shows up, too. Critics were not impressed, one dismissing the movie as “dumber than a bowling ball” – a charge likely never leveled at Einstein himself.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures (1992)
The success of time travel comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure led to spin-offs and sequels, including the theatrical release Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (where Einstein makes a brief appearance) and both live action and animated TV series. In the final episode of the live action version, the clueless duo from San Dimas, confused about why people always sarcastically call them “Einstein,” go back in time to meet the man himself. They nearly derail the universe by encouraging Einstein to pursue his dream of being a stand-up comedian.
I.Q. (1994) I.Q. casts Walter Matthau as a doting uncle trying to play matchmaker for his mathematically gifted niece, Catherine Boyd (played by Meg Ryan). He hopes she will follow her heart and choose honest mechanic Ed Walters (Tim Robbins), who Einstein and his egghead friends coach to act like a physics wunderkind. The real-life Louis Bamberger appears as a character, even though the movie takes place sometime between 1952-1955 and Bamberger died in 1944. Also in the movie, Einstein bops to Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti (not released until after Einstein’s death), Bamberger operates a stereo system not yet in existence, cable TV lines appear attached to houses and Walters’ coat inexplicably changes colors at one point – but it’s fun to imagine all these anachronisms and continuity errors are actually the result of some kind Einsteinian time travel wormhole rather than slack filmmaking. Oh and there’s one big ‘error’ we almost forgot to mention – Einstein never had a niece.
Einstein and Eddington (2008)
A BBC-produced drama series – and the only work on this list that even attempts historical accuracy – Einstein and Eddington tells a story about Einstein’s theory of special relativity emerging into the world against the backdrop of the First World War. Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington has been hired by Britain’s Cambridge University to discredit the German-Swiss scientist’s theories and defend the physics of fellow Briton Isaac Newton. Despite England and Germany being at war, Eddington begins a clandestine correspondence with Einstein and eventually comes to see that Einstein is right about the mechanics of the universe. The series was critically well received.
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)
Another time travel tale featuring the 20th century’s most popular scientist. Is there any point in trying to summarize what plot machinations occur in order to bring together Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) and Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) inside the Smithsonian Institution, where they seek answers from a team of Einstein bobblehead dolls? Probably not.
Half a century after Einstein’s death, it’s safe to say we haven’t seen the last of Einstein on the big screen. In February, director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) announced that this summer he would be in Europe filming a biopic about the famous physicist for a 2013 release.
Originally published April 2011