In an evening devoted to laugh-filled longevity, the Television Academy's salute to Bob Newhart draws a sell-out crowd — and a host of colleagues and friends, including Bill Daily, Marcia Wallace, Don Rickles and many more.
After he’d entered to a standing ovation by the packed house at the Television Academy’s Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre, Bob Newhart surveyed the sell-out crowd with appreciation.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘If it all ended tomorrow, I’d be blessed,’” he announced. “If it all ended tomorrow, I’d be pissed. I want more time!”
Judging by the audience, and the friends and admirers who would soon take the Goldenson stage, they want more time, too. At 80, Newhart is still going strong, with a Primetime Emmy nomination (for the TNT telefilm The Librarian) just last year. This June 1 Academy salute, “Bob Newhart Celebrates 50 Years in Show Business,” chronicled a career that would do any former accountant-and copywriter-turned-comedian proud: five television series, several hit records, a Primetime Emmy Award and several nominations, a Peabody Award, three Grammy Awards and induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. Two of those series, The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78), in which he played Chicago psychologist Dr. Robert Hartley, and Newhart (1982-90), portraying writer-turned-Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon, collectively amassed 14 years in Nielsen’s top ten.
Participating in the salute were Bob Newhart Show castmates Bill Daily, Jack Riley and Marcia Wallace and director Jim Burrows; Newhart alums Julia Duffy, Peter Scolari and John Voldstad and director David Steinberg; Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, Mike Connors, Tim Conway, YouTube comic star Russell Peters, Tommy Smothers, Fred Willard and last but certainly not least, best friend Don Rickles. Former Academy writers’ peer group governor and latimes.com film journalist Pete Hammond moderated.
Newhart’s career break occurred when his routines, in which he conversed with an unheard-listener on the telephone, came to the attention of Warner Bros. Records. His first album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, went to #1 and won three 1960 Grammys, becoming the first comedy record to win Album of the Year. He was working as a copywriter in Chicago when a disc jockey friend introduced him to a Warners executive; decades later, the current advertising-themed, 1960s-set AMC series Mad Men showed scenes of ad agency executives listening to Newhart.
The evening’s first guest, Matthew Weiner, said he included those scenes in part because Newhart was “the hottest comedian” of the period; also, he wanted to reflect both the characters’ creative aspirations as they listened to someone who’d worked in their field, and what Weiner himself aspires to: “comedy that comes out of the human experience. … Probably 25 people [on the show] brought in their own albums,” he added. “I saw the episode in front of a crowd, and the album still made everybody laugh.”
Newhart’s first television series, the variety show The Bob Newhart Show (1961-62), won, he said, “An Emmy, a Peabody and a pink slip from NBC. I wasn’t ready for that exposure. I was in sketches; that was something you had to learn how to do.”
His next variety show, The Entertainers (CBS, 1964-65), was also short-lived. But the third time was definitely the charm; the CBS sitcom called The Bob Newhart Show was a hit. “They suggested I play a psychiatrist,” Newhart recalled. “I said, ‘A psychiatrist deals with more seriously disturbed people. Maybe I should be a psychologist.’”
Said Marcia Wallace, who played office receptionist Carol, “Bob set the tone — he’s an incredibly generous person who liked to laugh. And we [all] had chemistry — you can’t bottle that one.” Newhart often tried to break up Bill Daily while filming, she added. Recalled Newhart, “One time, Bill called Emily [his TV wife, played by the late Suzanne Pleshette], ‘Enema’ and me, ‘Howard’ [Daily’s character]. He looked at me: ‘Don’t say anything, maybe they’ll leave it.’” Added Daily, “We’d laugh all the time. [head of the production company, MTM] Grant Tinker said, ‘You guys have to stop laughing.’”
As a fledgling director, Jim Burrows came out from New York to observe the show, and eventually directed ten episodes. “It was seminal for me,” he said. “I had no self-esteem back then. Bob never missed. He was amazing. Humor is 90 per cent surprise. You look at Bob’s face, and you don’t think he’s funny.”
Four years after the show ended, Newhart turned up again with his second hit series, Newhart, on CBS. “I always knew I was coming back to television,” he said. “I understood it and knew it. It fit my personality. There was some trepidation: Would it happen a second time, would we catch lightning in a bottle?”
Lightning caught — although, he said, it took a couple of seasons and the additions of Duffy and Scolari. The three brothers, Larry and the two Darryls, were supposed to be a one-shot. “We did the show in front of a live audience — that’s when you learn,” Newhart remembered. “[When they were on] the audience went crazy.”
David Steinberg was making the somewhat difficult transition from performer to director when Newhart invited him onboard. “Bob doesn’t like to move, so you can’t block him,” he noted. “Everyone moves around him. He’d stand behind a counter. And he’d have his lines all over the stage. Someone would walk by, and there’d be a line on him.” Said Newhart, “It was an art form!”
The Newhart finale became one of the all-time greats: Newhart woke up in bed on his Chicago Newhart Show set, arousing a sleeping Pleshette to tell her about the strange dream he, as Dr. Hartley, had just had about owning a Vermont inn. Some of the cast members knew about the ending in advance, but the late Newhart star Mary Frann, who played Dick’s wife Joanna, hadn’t been informed. The finale, Newhart said, was his wife Ginny’s idea.
When final guest Don Rickles joined him on stage, Newhart recalled Ginny’s first meeting with the insult comic, at dinner at Vegas where both men were performing. “Ginny said, ‘He’s just the sweetest man.’ I said, ‘Honey, his act is a little different than the man you just met.’”
In a departure from his usual demeanor, Rickles turned serious and emotional in describing the families’ friendship and the extensive world travels he and wife Barbara had shared with Bob and Ginny.
“This man is my soul, and I respect him,” he said. “You figured I’d come out here — bang, bang, bang. But when you can travel the world together, he from the Midwest and educated and me, I can’t spell ‘cat.’ … And we sat, and we laughed, and we sang.”
“We didn’t sing,” Newhart interjected.
“No, we didn’t sing,” Rickles recanted. “But we’d always laugh. I’m so proud and blessed. As we sit here tonight, I wish you [the audience] what I’ve been blessed with.”
Newhart thanked the Academy for the evening and “the incredible amount of work. It’s very special, coming from the Television Academy, and these friends. What more can you have from life?”
Then, ending the evening as he began, he looked heavenward. “But I’m not ready yet!”
The tribute was produced by Rocci Chatfield, executive producer, entertainment, of the Academy’s Activities Committee. Ray Proscia is co-chair of the committee’s entertainment division. Robert O’Donnell is director of activities for the Academy; Melissa Brown is activities manager.