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George Robert "Bob" Newhart (born September 5, 1929) is an American stand-up comedian and actor. Noted for his deadpan and slightly stammering delivery, Newhart came to prominence in the 1960s when his album of comedic monologues The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was a worldwide bestseller and reached #1 on the Billboard pop album chart—it remains the 20th best-selling comedy album in history. The follow-up album, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back! was also a massive success, and the two albums held the Billboard #1 and #2 spots simultaneously, a feat unequaled until the 1991 release of Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II by hard rock band Guns N' Roses.
Newhart later went into acting, starring in two long-running and prize-winning situation comedies, first as psychologist Dr. Robert "Bob" Hartley on the 1970s sitcom The Bob Newhart Show and then as innkeeper Dick Loudon on the 1980s sitcom Newhart. He also had a third, short-lived sitcom in the nineties titled Bob. Newhart also appeared in film roles such as Major Major in Catch-22 and Papa Elf in Elf. He provided the voice of Bernard in the Walt Disney animated films The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under. One of his most recent roles is the library head Judson in The Librarian. In 2011, Newhart made a cameo in the film Horrible Bosses, and in 2013 he guest-starred in an episode of The Big Bang Theory.
Newhart was born and raised in Austin, Chicago, Illinois, USA. His parents were Julia Pauline (née Burns; 1900–1993), a housewife, and George David Newhart, Sr. (1900–1985), a part-owner of a plumbing and heating-supply business. His mother was of Irish descent and his father had Irish, German, and English ancestry. One of his grandmothers was from St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. Newhart has three sisters, Virginia, Mary Joan (a nun, who taught at a Chicago high school), and Pauline.
He was educated at Roman Catholic schools in the Chicago area, including St. Catherine of Siena grammar school in Oak Park, and attended St. Ignatius College Prep (high school), where he graduated in 1947. He then enrolled at Loyola University of Chicago where he graduated in 1952 with a bachelor's degree in business management.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army and served stateside during the Korean War as a personnel manager until discharged in 1954. Newhart briefly attended Loyola Law School but did not complete a degree, in part, he says, because he was asked to behave unethically during an internship.
After the war he got a job as an accountant for United States Gypsum. He later claimed that his motto, "That's close enough," and his habit of adjusting petty cash imbalances with his own money shows he didn't have the temperament to be an accountant. He also claimed to have been a clerk in the unemployment office who made $55 a week but who quit upon learning weekly unemployment benefits were $45 a week and he "only had to come in to the office one day a week to collect it."
In 1958, Newhart became an advertising copywriter for Fred A. Niles, a major independent film and television producer in Chicago. It was here that he and a co-worker would entertain each other with long telephone calls about absurd scenarios, which they would later record and send to radio stations as audition tapes. When his co-worker ended his participation, Newhart continued the recordings alone, developing the shtick which was to serve him well for decades. In addition to his various stand-up bits, he incorporated that shtick into his television series at appropriate times. The auditions led to his break-through recording contract. A disc jockey at a radio station - Dan Sorkin, who later became the announcer-sidekick on his NBC series — introduced Newhart to the head of talent at Warner Bros. Records, which signed him in 1959 — only a year after the label was formed — based solely on those recordings. He expanded his material into a stand-up routine which he began to perform at nightclubs.
Newhart became famous mostly on the strength of his audio releases, in which he became the world's first solo "straight man". This is a seeming contradiction in terms: by definition, a straight man is the counterpart to a more loony comedic partner. Newhart's routine, however, was simply to portray one end of a conversation (usually a phone call), playing the straightest of comedic straight men and implying what the other person was saying. Newhart told a 2005 interviewer for PBS's American Masters that his favorite stand-up routine is "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue," in which a slick promoter has to deal with the reluctance of the eccentric President to agree to efforts to boost his image. The routine was suggested to Newhart by a Chicago TV director and future comedian - Bill Daily, who would be Newhart's castmate on the 1970s The Bob Newhart Show for CBS. Newhart became known for using an intentional stammer, in service to his unique combination of politeness and disbelief at what he was supposedly hearing. Newhart has used the delivery throughout his career. In his 2006 book I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This, he included the following anecdote:
When I was doing The Bob Newhart Show, one of the producers pulled me aside and said that the shows were running a little long. He wondered if I could cut down the time of my speeches by reducing my stammering. 'No, that stammer bought me a house in Beverly Hills.'
His 1960 comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, went straight to number one on the charts, beating Elvis Presley and the cast album of The Sound of Music. It was the first comedy album to make #1 on the Billboard charts. Button Down Mind received the 1961 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The album peaked at #2 in the UK Albums Chart. Newhart also won Best New Artist, and his quickly released follow-up album, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back, won Best Comedy Performance - Spoken Word that same year. Subsequent comedy albums include Behind the Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart (1961), The Button-Down Mind on TV (1962), Bob Newhart Faces Bob Newhart (1964), The Windmills Are Weakening (1965), This Is It (1967), Best of Bob Newhart (1971), and Very Funny Bob Newhart (1973). Years later he released Bob Newhart Off the Record (1992), The Button-Down Concert (1997) and Something Like This (2001), an anthology of his 1960s Warner Bros. albums.
Newhart's success in stand-up led to his own NBC variety show in 1961, The Bob Newhart Show. The show lasted only a single season but earned Newhart an Emmy Award nomination and a Peabody Award. The Peabody Board cited him as:
... a person whose gentle satire and wry and irreverent wit waft a breath of fresh and bracing air through the stale and stuffy electronic corridors. A merry marauder, who looks less like St. George than a choirboy, Newhart has wounded, if not slain, many of the dragons that stalk our society. In a troubled and apprehensive world, Newhart has proved once again that laughter is the best medicine.
In the mid-1960s, Newhart appeared on The Dean Martin Show 24 times, and on The Ed Sullivan Show eight times. He appeared in a 1963 episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and on The Judy Garland Show. Newhart guest-hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 87 times, and hosted Saturday Night Live twice, 15 years apart (1980 and 1995).
In addition to stand-up comedy, Newhart became a dedicated character actor, including a guest role on an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. That led to other series such as: Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, Captain Nice, 2 episodes of Insight, and It's Garry Shandling's Show. He reprised his role as Dr. Bob Hartley on Murphy Brown and appeared as himself on The Simpsons, and as a retired forensic pathologist on NCIS.
Newhart guest-starred on three episodes of ER, for which he was nominated for an Emmy award, as well as on Desperate Housewives (see below in "Other Appearances"). In 2013 he also appeared on Committed and appeared in an episode of the sixth season of The Big Bang Theory.
Primarily a television star, Newhart has been in a number of popular films, beginning with the 1962 war story Hell Is for Heroes starring Steve McQueen. His films have ranged from 1970's Barbra Streisand musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, the 1971 Norman Lear comedy Cold Turkey, the Mike Nichols-directed war satire Catch 22, to the 2003 Will Ferrell holiday comedy Elf.
Newhart played the President of the United States in a 1980 comedy, First Family. He appeared as a beleaguered school principal in 1997's In & Out, starring Kevin Kline.
His most recent film appearance was a cameo appearance as a sadistic CEO at the end of the 2011 film Horrible Bosses.
The Bob Newhart Show
Newhart's most notable exposure on television came from two long-running programs that centered on him. In 1972, soon after Newhart guest-starred on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, he was approached by his agent and his managers, producer Grant Tinker and actress Mary Tyler Moore (the husband/wife team who founded MTM Enterprises), to work on a pilot series called The Bob Newhart Show, to be written by Davis and Music. He was very interested in the starring role of dry psychologist Bob Hartley, with Suzanne Pleshette playing his wryly loving wife, Emily, and Bill Daily as neighbor and friend Howard Borden.
The Bob Newhart Show faced heavy competition from the beginning, launching at the same time as the popular shows M*A*S*H, Maude, Sanford And Son, and The Waltons. Nevertheless, it was an immediate hit. The show eventually referenced what made Newhart's name in the first place—apart from the first few episodes, it used an opening-credits sequence featuring Newhart answering a telephone in his office. According to co-star Marcia Wallace, the entire cast got along well, and Newhart became close friends with both Wallace and co-star Suzanne Pleshette.
The cast also included unfamiliar actors. Marcia Wallace as Bob's wisecracking, man-chasing receptionist, Carol Kester; Peter Bonerz as orthodontist Jerry Robinson, whose offices were on the same floor as Newhart's Hartley; Jack Riley as Elliot Carlin, the most misanthropic among members of Dr. Hartley's most frequently seen group therapy sessions; legendary character actor and voice artist, John Fiedler (the voice of Piglet); Florida Friebus (once the mother on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) as another group member; and, scattered over two seasons, Pat Finley as Hartley's sister, Ellen, a love interest for Howard Borden. Future Newhart regular Tom Poston had a briefly recurring role as Cliff Murdock; veteran stage actor Barnard Hughes appeared as Hartley's father for three episodes spread over two seasons, and studio film veteran Martha Scott appeared in several episodes as Hartley's mother. Actress Teri Garr appeared twice in the 1973-74 season.
By 1977, the show was suffering lackluster ratings and Newhart wanted to end it, but was under contract to do one more season. The show's writers tried to rework the sitcom by adding a pregnancy, but Newhart objected: "I told the creators I didn't want any children, because I didn't want it to be a show about 'How stupid Daddy is, but we love him so much, let's get him out of the trouble he's gotten himself into'." Nevertheless, the staff wrote an episode that they hoped would change Newhart's mind. Newhart read the script and he agreed it was very funny. He then asked, "Who are you going to get to play Bob?" Ironically, Newhart's wife gave birth to their daughter Jenny late in the year, which caused him to miss several episodes.
Marcia Wallace spoke of Newhart's amiable nature on set: "He's very low key, and he didn't want to cause trouble. I had a dog that I used to bring to the set by the name of Maggie. And whenever there was a line that Bob didn't like—he didn't want to complain too much—so, he'd go over, get down on his hands and knees, and repeat the line to the dog, who invariably yawned; and he'd say, 'See, I told you it's not funny!'" Wallace has also commented on the show's lack of Emmy recognition: "People think we were nominated for many an Emmy, people presume we won Emmys, all of us, and certainly Bob, and certainly the show. Nope, never!"
Newhart finally pulled the plug on his own sitcom in 1978 after six seasons and 142 episodes. Wallace said of its ending, "It was much crying and sobbing. It was so sad. We really did get along. We really had great times together." Of Newhart's other long-running sitcom, Newhart, Wallace said, "But some of the other great comedic talents who had a brilliant show, when they tried to do it twice, it didn't always work. And that's what... but like Bob, as far as I'm concerned, Bob is like the Fred Astaire of comics. He just makes it looks so easy, and he's not as in-your-face as some might be. As so, you just kind of take it for granted, how extraordinarily funny and how he wears well." She was later reunited with Newhart twice, once in a reprise of her role as Carol on Murphy Brown in 1994, and on an episode of Newhart's short-lived sitcom, George & Leo, in 1997.
By 1982, Newhart was interested in a new sitcom. After he had discussions with Barry Kemp and CBS, the show Newhart was created, in which Newhart played Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon. Inexperienced, struggling actress Mary Frann was cast as his wife, Joanna Loudon, and another unfamiliar prime-time actress and soap star (who had been a fan of Newhart's since she was 21), Julia Duffy joined the cast as Dick's inn maid and spoiled rich girl, Stephanie Vanderkellen. A struggling actor (who had been a fan of Newhart's since he was 17), Peter Scolari was also cast as Dick's manipulative TV producer, Michael Harris. Well known actor Tom Poston played the role of handyman George Utley on "Newhart" and received three Emmy Award Nominations for his role in "Newhart" as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, 1984, 1986 and 1987. Like The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart was an immediate hit, and like the show before that, it was also nominated for Emmys, but it didn't win any awards. During the time Newhart was working on this show, in 1985, his smoking habits finally caught up to him, and he was taken to the emergency room for polycythemia. The doctors ordered him to stop smoking.
Newhart himself "warmed up" the studio audience with a five-to-eight-minute routine before the filming of every episode.
In 1987, ratings began to drop. Newhart ended in 1990 after eight seasons and 182 episodes. The last episode ended with a scene in which Newhart wakes up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, who had played Emily, his wife from The Bob Newhart Show. He realizes (in a satire of a famous plot element in the television series Dallas a few years earlier) that the entire eight-year Newhart series had been a single nightmare of Dr. Bob Hartley's, provoked by "eating too much Japanese food before going to bed." Recalling Mary Frann's buxom figure, Bob closes the segment and the series by telling Emily, "You really should wear more sweaters" before the typical closing notes of the old Bob Newhart Show theme played over the fadeout. The twist ending was later chosen by TV Guide as the best finale in television history.
Peter Scolari, who played conniving, hyperactive TV producer, Michael Harris, for six of the eight seasons, said of his idol/future TV producer and friend, about looking for another woman to follow Suzanne Pleshette: "I think Bob was right to find a woman, who was, you know, a completely different kind of woman. I mean, I hate to say it, but demographically, you don't have this. You get the sense that Suzanne Pleshette, you know, had played some poker in her time, maybe knocked back a couple of cigarettes, in her life, and you'd be right to assume that Mary Frann did none of those things. Mary Frann was such a dedicated actor that this one, I don't think she missed a mark or screwed up a line in like 60 or 70 performances of her own, that were flawless."
When Newhart's co-star had found out Newhart (himself) was trying to stop smoking was, "And the Pepsi was gone and the cigarettes were finally gone. And he did a great... you know, he would do a five- to eight-minute routine in front of our live audience, every single show night; every Friday night for eight years, he did excerpts and new material. And he did the smoking, and he would start playing the spotlight. The follow spot was on him. 'And I haven't had any of the problems that people usually talk about having with the... with the smoking—impatience, outbursts of anger, appetite. I haven't really... look, put it on me or get it off me! Just make up your mind!' And he'd freaked out on the follow spot guy. So, he did this for about eight to ten weeks."
The last thing Peter also said despite of Mr. Newhart's second show not winning any Emmys, it also gained recognition for the eight seasons that stayed on the air, "I think Julia Duffy and I (at the Emmys), lost Bob and Tom, I think in 8 years, would collectively lost 15 Emmys, lost by 4 cast members, and we just couldn't get arrested, no matter how great a year, we had, it's great to be nominated, to lose again." After the series' cancellation, Scolari is still good friends with Newhart, who also plays golf with him.
Other TV series
In 1992, Newhart returned to television with a series called Bob, about a cartoonist. An ensemble cast included a pre-Friends Lisa Kudrow, but the show did not develop a strong audience and was canceled shortly after the start of its second season, despite good critical reviews. In 1997, Newhart returned again with George and Leo on CBS with Judd Hirsch and Jason Bateman; the show was canceled during its first season.
Other TV appearances
In 1995, 64 year old Newhart was approached by the Showtime cable network to do his very first comedy special in his 35 year career. His special Off The Record consisted of him doing material from his first and second albums in front of a live audience in Pasedena, California. In 2003, Newhart guest-starred on three episodes of ER in a rare dramatic role that earned him an Emmy Award nomination, his first in nearly 20 years. In 2005, he began a recurring role in Desperate Housewives as Morty, the on-again/off-again boyfriend of Sophie (Lesley Ann Warren), Susan Mayer's (Teri Hatcher) mother. In 2009, he received another Emmy Award nomination for reprising his role as Judson in The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice.
On the 2006 Emmy Awards, hosted by Conan O'Brien, Newhart was placed in a supposedly airtight glass prison that contained three hours of air. If the Emmys went over the time of three hours, he would die. This gag was an acknowledgment of the common frustration that award shows usually run on past their allotted time (which is usually three hours). Newhart "survived" his containment to help O'Brien present the Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series (which went to The Office).
During an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Newhart made a comedic cameo with members of ABC's show Lost lampooning an alternate ending to the series finale. In 2011, Newhart appeared in a small but pivotal role as a doctor in Lifetime's anthology film on breast cancer Five.
Personal comedic style
Newhart is known for his deadpan delivery and a slight stammer which early on he incorporated into the persona around which he built a successful career. On his TV shows, although he got his share of funny lines, often he worked in the Jack Benny tradition of being the "straight man" while the sometimes somewhat bizarre cast members surrounding him got the laughs.
Several of his routines involve hearing one half of a conversation as he speaks to someone over the phone. In a bit called King Kong, a rookie security guard at the Empire State Building seeks guidance as to how to deal with an ape who is "18 to 19 stories high, depending on whether we have a 13th floor or not". He assures his boss he has looked in the guards manual "under 'ape' and 'ape's toes'". Other famous routines include "The Driving Instructor," "The Mrs. Grace L. Ferguson Airline (and Storm Door Company)", "Introducing Tobacco To Civilization", "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue," "Defusing a Bomb" (in which an uneasy security division commander tries to walk a new and nervous security guard through defusing a live shell discovered on a California beach), "The Retirement Party," "A Neighbour's Dog," "Ledge Psychology," and "The Khrushchev Landing Rehearsal."
In a 2012 podcast interview with Marc Maron, comedian Shelley Berman accused Newhart of ripping off his improvisational telephone routine style, describing it as a "very special technique that couldn't really be imitated. It could be stolen. And it was." When asked by Maron if it was done maliciously, Berman replied, "Maliciously? He wouldn't do it maliciously. Nobody does that. But he did it to make a living. And he became a star." Berman later added, "I thought it was a rotten thing to do. I thought the agents who sold him - I thought they were just as guilty as everybody else. But, my God, to go into a town and do my show, and the critics saying that I borrowed some stuff from Newhart..."
Shelley Berman did it before I did it. Mike (Nichols) and Elaine (May) did a version of it. There was a thing called “Cohen on the Telephone,” which was a very, very early recording by Edison Records of a guy on the phone...As a kid growing up, I remember listening to him and he would call his mother up and say, 'Mama, this is Georgie' " - he paused, skillfully - " 'from the money.' "
On September 20, 2006, Hyperion Books released Newhart's first book, I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This. The book is primarily a memoir, but features comic bits by Newhart as well. Transcripts of many of Newhart's classic routines are woven in with the rest of the text. As comedic actor David Hyde Pierce notes, "The only difference between Bob Newhart on stage and Bob Newhart offstage – is that there is no stage."