Finding an actress who holds a real-life Ph.D. in neuroscience to play a neuroscientist might be harder than solving cosmic inflation, but when it came time to find someone to portray Amy Farrah Fowler on CBS' Caltech comedy, The Big Bang Theory, the answer was as easy as a quantum mechanical fluctuation: Mayim Bialik.
As Sheldon's (Jim Parsons) perfect female foil, Bialik, 36, has seen her character go from a guest star to series regular with a host of nerd-tastic storylines of her own. "I maybe had four lines," Bialik recalls of her first episode, a scene in which the sexually uninterested Sheldon offers to buy her a drink. "I basically just had to facilitate that sort of revelation happening for him. We didn't know anything really about my character—what she did, where she was from, or where this relationship was going to go."
Sporting an uncharacteristically severe look of straightened hair, heavy-rimmed glasses and padding to disguise her curves, Bialik turned this new character into an immediate popular favorite. Big Bang's writers began to bring back Sheldon's awkward amour more and more frequently, feeding our fascination with all things Amy—and Bialik's as well. "Once they made her a neurobiologist, that was a little bit of a window into her persona. We started seeing more what her research is and what her interests are," the actress explains. "I think it's funny that she studies human emotion. It gives more layers to the character." And it gives Bialik more and more comically bizarre ways to nail every scene she's in.
The result of adding amazing guest stars to the already outstanding cast—as well as moving the top-rated comedy from Mondays to Thursdays—has been consistently stellar ratings. In February, after going head to head for weeks, Big Bang finally whupped American Idol by no small measure—16.1 million viewers to Idol's 15.4 million.
"It's solidified Big Bang as a monster hit," says TVLine.com editor in-chief Michael Ausiello. "[Big Bang is proving] a good old-fashioned sitcom can have a broad audience, which is good news for all the actors and writers out there who have seen so many hours get eaten up by reality fare."
From Blossom to Bunsen Burners
As the title character of NBC's Blossom, Bialik had been her generation's most famous TV teen. Now, even the most serious scientists among her thirtysomething peers must be excited to spy her in the halls of Caltech.
"I have been a fan of Mayim's from the time I was a kid," says Bialik's Big Bang co-star Melissa Rauch, who plays perky microbiology whiz Dr. Bernadette Rostenkowski. Growing up, Rauch and her equally TV-obsessed brother "would re-create episodes of our favorite shows in the living room. I think there just might be a video of me in a [Blossom-like] floppy hat and tights. I might have to dig through some footage—but then again, I think Mayim might be scared to talk to me after that."
Born in San Diego to parents who were teachers and filmmakers of antiwar documentaries, Bialik got her big acting break in the film Beaches, at age 11, and was headlining her own sitcom at 14. Then, after five seasons, she hung up her trademark '90s shmattes for good.
"I was two years out of high school and wanted a normal-ish life," Bialik explains. "I felt if I wanted any hope of having a real, grown-up career, I had to let people forget me a little bit. So I basically walked off your TV screen and onto the UCLA campus."
Although, as the daughter of English teachers, Bialik remembers being initially "more of a humanities brainiac," she actually credits her time on Blossom for sending her in a new academic direction. "I had a really incredible on-set science tutor, a young woman who made science accessible and beautiful."
A True Geek Finds Her Calling
As she pursued her Ph.D. in neuroscience, Bialik married fellow doctoral student Michael Stone and had two boys. The couple believes in the "attachment parenting" method of child care—in fact, Bialik's book on the subject, Beyond the Sling, was released in March. Shortly after the birth of their second son, they realized that a showbiz job would offer the devoted mom more time to spend with the family than would academia. And so the then-former actress opted to return to the soundstage.
Throughout her grad school years, Bialik had continued to make sporadic appearances on shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and even played versions of herself in cameos on Fat Actress and 'Til Death. But now, she recalls, "this was like starting over. My dad had always told me every day [back on Blossom], ‘This could all go away in a second, and then you'll be no one again.' So that's always what I assumed. Not to say that I'm no one, but I was happy doing three lines on Bones. I started going on whatever audition would have me, and just doing my best."
And then, in 2010, came Bialik's fateful audition for Big Bang, at which the show's producers instantly recognized the perfect confluence of actress and role. Now, even among her hilariously geeky co-stars on the hit sitcom's set, "I'm the real nerd," she says with a mix of pride and sheepishness. "As Jim Parsons once said, I'm the only one who really knows what everyone is saying in the script." -Jim Colucci
BIG BANG'S EXPANDING UNIVERSE
CBS' No. 1 comedy may have a supertightknit crew in its lead characters, but often the guest stars shine just as brightly. A few examples:
PRIYA KOOTHRAPPALI (Aarti Mann)
Raj's sister, a lawyer who graduated from Cambridge and had an on-again, off-again relationship with Leonard. (Remember the episode when they tried to have webcam sex?)
MRS. WOLOWITZ (Carol Ann Susi)
Although she has never appeared onscreen, Howard's overprotective, codependent Jewish mother often engages in shouting matches with her son. Bernadette does a mean impression of her Brooklyn accent.
ANTAGONISTIC WIL WHEATON (Wil Wheaton)
Has ongoing beef with Sheldon, who was disappointed when he traveled to a Star Trek fan convention and Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, failed to show up.
DR. BEVERLY HOFSTADTER (Christine Baranski)
Baranski has been nominated for two Emmys for her role as Leonard's overly analytic mother. She once shared an awkward, drunken kiss with Sheldon.
STUART BLOOM (Kevin Sussman)
Owns the local comic book store. A talented artist, he's a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design. Not surprisingly, he's in love with Penny.