Actor Tom Cavanagh, 45, is host of the Smithsonian Channel’s award-winning series, “Stories from the Vaults.” Cavanagh, best known for his role in the TV series, “Ed,” spoke to Beth Py-Lieberman.
What’s the goal of the program?
To entertain, simply that.
How does it feel to get access to parts of the Smithsonian that most people don’t?
I take that responsibility very seriously because it’s not just a pleasure jaunt. I want to bring a unique experience to viewers and track down artifacts that they would find especially interesting. What we're aiming to do is to bring that behind-the-scenes experience to the visitor that can’t go backstage.
You have degrees in English, biology and education. Do you draw on this expertise in the show?
Funny guys can be smart. At least, sometimes. I can hold my own when we’re discussing the environment, invertebrate zoology or biodiversity. I think it sometimes surprises the museums’ curators that I have an accurate or working knowledge of say, photosynthesis. It’s not a prerequisite, though, for the job.
You do your own research?
Yeah. On the nights before filming, it’s like cramming for a college exam all over again. I might not know much about mummification, but I’m going to spend three or four hours finding out everything I can. That way, I can ask pertinent questions—and show that I respect the curators’ expertise.
Have you become a practiced detective in ferreting out great behind-the-scenes Smithsonian tales?
You know if you have anything close to a curious mind this kind of opportunity is a boon.
What is your behind the scenes role in the show? Do you get to decide what topics will be covered?
Yes sure, absolutely. It’s a very small group that works on the show. We have myself, and a producer, a director of photography and a sound person; and we all work on it together. We all pitch in.
You seem to enjoy joking around with the curators?
The easiest way to make a difficult topic accessible is through humor. I think there was some trepidation at the beginning -- you know, "Who's this actor?" But once they found we were taking the subject matter seriously they began to enjoy it. There is no rule against having fun while learning.
Is the humor improvised?
I never script it. It just comes to me. I have to say, the curators are more than an even match for me.
How did you become involved in the issue of malaria eradication?
I spent part of my childhood in Africa, and I had malaria. Not a severe case, but my sister had a pretty severe case. So it was a natural fit for me. Also, I played basketball in college. My work for this foundation started when I read an article in Sports Illustrated about how we can save lives by buying these mosquito nets. It was a foundation called it “Nothing but Nets,” which is a basketball expression. Today, seeing the results just spurs me to do more. When you look at how the mortality rates plummet with the simple act of giving out a net. It’s like one good thing happens and leads to another.
Any plans to incorporate your interest in malaria eradication in the show?
Yes, I think if we could find a way to do it where we weren’t using the Smithsonian as a platform for our own designs, we would do it. It would have to come up organically, in other words if we had a curator that wanted to talk about it, then, or course.
Do you have a favorite artifact?
Oh boy, I really couldn’t pick. How do you choose between listening to an accomplished musician playing a Stradivarius violin one day and then standing in front of Alan Shepard’s space suit the next? There are so many objects, it’s incredible.
Any artifacts from your career that you would like to see at the Smithsonian?
I don’t think that I have anything worthy. Though, I like to believe that one day there will be something of mine that the Smithsonian would like to have.
How about the suit of armor from Ed?
That’s great, yeah sure, lets get that suit of armor in the Smithsonian.