Newhart, Bob (1929—)

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Newhart, Bob (1929—)

Bob Newhart is one of a rare few television performers to have starred in two tremendously successful shows. From his earliest days as one of the most successful standup comedians to one of the most successful runs on sitcoms in the 1970s and 1980s, Bob Newhart managed to keep audiences laughing. Best identified with The Bob Newhart Show and the later Newhart show, Newhart has mastered the image of a "normal" person. In both shows Newhart played a man who calmly weathered the storms that constantly raged in the lives of his friends and family. Newhart's comedic talent stems from his use of a sense of quiet desperation and a stutter to portray a regular man caught in a world of crazy people. Though many comedy shows have relied on the straight man, Newhart has created his own unique version of the "straight man"; Bob Newhart's straight man isn't boastful or self-righteous, he is a steady everyday man with whom many can identify.

Newhart's real start came doing standup comedy, talking to himself on the telephone. After his Army service, Newhart worked as an accountant and an advertising copywriter. He and his friend at the ad agency, Ed Gallagher, used to amuse themselves by making long, antic phone calls to each other, which they recorded as audition tapes for comedy jobs. When the friend dropped out Bob developed his now famous one-man, two-way telephone conversations. In 1959 he was introduced to the head of talent at Warner Bros. Records. The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was born and became the first comedy album to go to number one on the charts. He became extremely popular and set records for comedy album sales that would last until the 1990s.

Based on this success, Newhart was approached by NBC to host a show that would bring together comedians and others to perform their routines. Newhart's own first series was on NBC in 1961, a variety program called The Bob Newhart Show. It won both an Emmy and the Peabody Award but was canceled in the first season. He appeared in a number of movies playing small but memorable roles, including On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970, as Dr. Mason Hume), Catch 22 (1970, as Major Major), Cold Turkey (1971, playing a cigarette company pointman), and First Family (1980, as the President). He was also the voice of Bernard the Mouse in two films, The Rescuers (1977) and The Rescuers Down Under (1990), and later Leonard the Polar Bear in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (1998).

Newhart is perhaps most associated with The Bob Newhart Show, which debuted in 1972 on CBS, marking the beginning of a seven-year run. Newhart played Dr. Robert (Bob) Hartley, a calm Chicago psychiatrist surrounded by friends and family who had assorted problems and neuroses, but who were essentially "normal." The show co-starred Suzanne Pleshette as Bob's wife, Emily, and one of the finest casts of feature players on television, including Bill Daily as the addle-minded neighbor Howard Borden, Peter Bonerz as Bob's friend and office colleague Jerry Robinson, Marcia Wallace as the smart mouth secretary Carol Bonderant, and Jack Riley as the eternally neurotic Mr. Elliot Carlin.

The Bob Newhart Show was the first hit to come out of MTM Enterprises and it ushered in a new phase of television comedy. In 1972 when the show premiered there were reality shows like M*A*S*H or family shows like All in the Family, or new breeds like the Mary Tyler Moore show that tried to capture a modern perspective on the home and workplace. The Bob Newhart Show, however, relied more on the interaction of the characters whether at work or at home. The show even began to make fun of itself as when Mr. Carlin jokes with Bob about cliches. By 1978, with the show facing declining ratings, Newhart left the hit show to go back to live performances until a new show came his way.

In 1982, Newhart returned to CBS with Newhart, playing a New York, how-to book author turned Vermont innkeeper and eventual host of a local talk show, Vermont Today. Newhart was again surrounded by an ensemble of quirky characters, but these characters were more exaggerated than those on The Bob Newhart Show. Newhart's character, Dick Loudon, had essentially the same temperament as the Bob Hartley character, but Loudon was surrounded by a heightened level of insanity. After the end of the first season, Newharthad assembled most of the show's main characters: Dick's wife Joanna, handyman George, the maid Stephanie, who is the rich and snooty cousin of the show's first maid, and Michael, the producer of the local talk show whose money-consciousness and odd quirks meshed perfectly with Stephanie's. For more comic relief the show added three brothers: Larry, Darryl, and the other brother Darryl, who will do anything for a buck.

Newhart ended against the wishes of the network because Newhart felt it was better to put the show to rest while it was at its peak. Television fans remember the classic final episode of Newhart, in which he "awoke" in his old bedroom (from The Bob Newhart Show) with his "wife," Suzanne Pleshette, next to him, proclaiming he had had the strangest dream. Critics and fans alike have called this the single best and most surprising episode in television comedy history.

In the 1990s Newhart tried the formula that worked so well on these past shows with two other shows: Bob (1992-94), in which he played a Comic Book creator who is saddled with a new young brash partner, and George and Leo (1997-98), in which he played a flustered bookstore owner on Martha's Vineyard who can not shake television veteran Judd Hirsh's character, the obnoxious father of Bob's son's wife from Las Vegas. Neither won the hearts of viewers like his previous shows.

The human flaws Newhart displays in his characters—his quiet, almost meek, manner, his stammering, and the appearance of others pushing him around—may be the very reasons that he is as significant as he is. He represents many people's feeling of frustration with a seemingly crazy world.

—Frank E. Clark

Further Reading:

Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. Harry and Wally's Favorite Shows: A Fact-Filled Opinionated Guide to the Best and Worst on TV. New York, Prentice Hall Press, 1989.

Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From I Love Lucy to L.A. Law—America's Greatest TV Shows and the People Who Created Them. Boston, Little Brown, 1992.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television: A Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. 3rd ed. New York, Penguin Books, 1991.

Putterman, Barry. On Television and Comedy: Essays on Style, Theme, Performer, and Writer. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1995.