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."
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!"
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
1961-62 The Bob Newhart Show
1964 The Entertainers
1972-78 The Bob Newhart Show
1974 Thursday's Game
1991 The Entertainers
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.
Judine. "The Most Inconspicuous Hit on Television: A Case Study
of Newhart." Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington,
D.C.), Fall 1989.
Jeff. Bob Newhart. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.
Mary Tyler Moore Show; Tinker,