NEWHART, BOB

U.S. Comedian/Actor

Bob Newhart is one of a handful of television performers to have starred in two highly successful series. His subtle, ironic humor and deadpan delivery served him well as the star of The Bob Newhart Show in the 1970s and Newhart in the 1980s. In both programs he had opportunity to display his greatest strength as an actor--his ability to be a great reactor. While the characters he portrayed were a bit quirky, those surrounding him were so much more bizarre that he seemed an island of sanity as he responded to their zaniness. This calm, controlled style also allowed him to take on some risky subjects--death, for instance--without offending his audience. As Newhart once told an interviewer, this style "has allowed me to say outrageous things with the facade of someone who didn't look like they would be saying outrageous things."

Newhart became a television star in a rather roundabout fashion. In the late 1950s, following college, army service, and a few short-term jobs, he appeared to have settled into an accounting career, but his hobby was performing comedy routines on radio. Some of his demonstration tapes so impressed Warner Brothers' recording division that Warner signed him to record a comedy album, even though he had never performed on the concert stage. His first album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, was a major hit of 1960. His humor was intelligent and original; some of his now-classic routines involved an inexperienced security guard reporting King Kong's climb up the Empire State Building, Abraham Lincoln's publicist coaching him on the Gettysburg address, and Sir Walter Raleigh's boss hearing about the discovery of tobacco ("...you stick it between your lips...you set fire to it?"). Many of these routines were played out as telephone conversations, of which the audience heard only Newhart's side; often he ended the conversation with an indignant "Same to you, fella!"

Newhart was one of several cerebral comedians who found favor in the early 1960s, but he always seemed more accessible than the others, like the kind of guy people would invite into their living rooms. Soon, that's where he was. On the strength of his first album, he was invited to perform on the Emmy Awards telecast in 1960. His appearance went over so well that NBC gave him his first TV series, a comedy-variety program called, like his 1970s sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show. It was critically acclaimed and won an Emmy as the best comedy series of 1961-62, but was canceled after that season due to low ratings. (Newhart's subsequent hit series were occasionally nominated for Emmys, but never won, and Newhart himself was nominated for best actor in a comedy series twice, but lost both years to Michael J. Fox.)

In the next decade Newhart performed with great success in nightclubs and on records, and with less success in films, but he remained familiar to television audiences through frequent guest appearances on The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and other variety programs. When Newhart returned to series television in 1972, he won both critical and popular acclaim as Chicago psychologist Dr. Bob Hartley in The Bob Newhart Show. The show was one of the best of the ensemble comedies, many of them produced by the MTM company, that became so popular in the 1970s. Its humor was sophisticated, but with a twist: it could laugh at Bob's fixation on death after he nearly fell down an elevator shaft, and deal sympathetically with controversial subjects, such as the homosexuality of one of Bob's patients. Unlike programs produced by the Norman Lear organizations, however, it was not primarily concerned with social issues, but with human foibles. It was exceptionally well-written and had well-drawn supporting characters played by talented actors. Each cast member had opportunity to shine, but Newhart was the calm center of it all, reacting dryly to strange characters and events, and patiently trying to explain various situations to people who weren't interested in his explanations. The program also incorporated some of Newhart's most successful standup gimmicks, such as his one-sided telephone conversations.

After six seasons, The Bob Newhart Show went off the air --voluntarily--but four years later its star was back with a new series, Newhart, in which he played Dick Loudon, a New York writer of "how-to" books who decided to open an inn in Vermont. The premise, in some ways, was not all that different than that of the earlier series. Bob Hartley had to be understanding of all his patients, no matter how difficult they were; Dick Loudon had to be nice to all his guests, despite any pains they caused him. Again the show had excellent writing and a strong supporting cast, and again Newhart's deadpan, ironic presence was at the center of a universe of eccentric, in some cases truly weird, people.

In the 1990s Newhart again performed primarily in clubs and concerts, but he gave series television another try in 1992 with Bob, playing cartoonist Bob McKay. The show had a brief run, was revamped, and had another brief run. Newhart, the great reactor, needed stronger supporting characters than this series provided. Despite this failure, Newhart's place in television history is assured by his two successful sitcoms, which in reruns continue to demonstrate that his style of humor has not gone out of date.

-Trudy Ring

 


Bob Newhart

BOB NEWHART. Born in Oak Park, Illinois, U.S.A., 29 September 1929. Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, B.S., 1952. Married Virginia Quinn, 1963; children: Robert, Timothy, Jennifer, and Courtney. Served in U.S. Army, 1952-54. Accountant, U.S. Gypsum Co., 1955; copywriter, Fred Niles Films Co., 1958; rose to popularity with phonograph recordings of comedy routines many of which featured Newhart in one-sided telephone conversations with prominent persons; numerous television guest appearances as stand-up comedian throughout 1960s; starred in two long-running series, The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart. Recipient: Emmy Award, 1962; George Foster Peabody Award, 1962; Sword of Loyola Award, 1975; inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, 1993.

TELEVISION SERIES

1961-62 The Bob Newhart Show
1964      The Entertainers
1972-78 The Bob Newhart Show
1982-90 Newhart
1992-93 Bob

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1974 Thursday's Game
1980 Marathon
1991 The Entertainers

FILMS

Hell Is for Heroes, 1962; Hot Millions, 1968; On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, 1970; Catch-22, 1970; Cold Turkey, 1971; The Rescuers (voice), 1977; Little Miss Marker, 1980; First Family, 1980; The Rescuers Down Under (voice), 1990.

FURTHER READING

Mayerly, Judine. "The Most Inconspicuous Hit on Television: A Case Study of Newhart." Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Fall 1989.

Sorenson, Jeff. Bob Newhart. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

 

See also Bob Newhart Show/Newhart; Mary Tyler Moore Show; Tinker, Grant