Bob Newhart believes being smart, and not overly specific, about its time has helped his first sitcom’s popularity endure.
Hallmark Channel presents 12 hours of evidence Sunday (May 27) with a 40th-anniversary marathon of “The Bob Newhart Show,” a 1972-78 staple of the CBS Saturday-night lineup that included such other classics as “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”
Newhart’s famously buttoned-down humor perfectly suited his role as Chicago psychologist Bob Hartley, whose office misadventures were balanced by his home life with wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette).
“First, Hallmark is very classy and secondly, the show holds up,” Newhart tells Zap2it of his pleasure about this weekend’s marathon. “It’s enjoying a renaissance, and that’s a tribute to the writing and performing. We didn’t really go too much into the style of the era, which I think accounts for the longevity … though in some scenes, my collars were a little wide and I had kind-of-long sideburns.”
Indeed, Newhart confirms, “I would consciously remove any topical references. There’d be a joke about [then-President] Gerald Ford tripping or something, and I’d say, ‘Guys, this is going to be seen 20 years from now. We’re going to look kind of stupid doing Tiny Tim jokes.’ And that would have been true. We just stayed away from it.”
Made by MTM Productions — Mary Tyler Moore‘s company — “The Bob Newhart Show” had an extended family of regulars in Bill Daily as neighbor and airline pilot Howard Borden, Peter Bonerz (later a frequent TV-comedy director) as floor-sharing dentist Jerry Robinson, Marcia Wallace as receptionist Carol Kester, and Jack Riley and John Fiedler as two of Hartley’s most-seen patients.
“It was kind of a nicer time,” Newhart says of making the series, which also is shown weeknights on the nostalgia channel Me-TV. “I sure get the feeling there’s a yearning for that kind of more-reassuring time when people knew what was going to happen tomorrow.”
Newhart admits he didn’t know how “The Bob Newhart Show” ultimately would look, since he recalls of the original concept, “Not an awful lot of it survived. Originally, Bob and Emily had moved into a co-op building, and they were attending those meetings. And Marcia wasn’t in the pilot, and neither was Bill Daily. And Peter Bonerz played another psychologist, but one who was into whatever the latest fad was.
“We reshot the pilot, and we decided that Bob and Emily had an apartment, but that we’d focus on the office. We brought Bill Daily in, and Marcia had been on a ‘Merv Griffin Show’ that either Bill Paley (the legendary longtime chairman of CBS) or his wife saw and said, ‘She’d be good in that new Newhart pilot.’ And of course, whatever Bill Paley wanted, Bill Paley got.”
So did Newhart, to a great degree. Though he wanted to end “The Bob Newhart Show” after five seasons, he was under contract for one more. The writers wanted to center the final year around Emily being pregnant … and after Newhart read the initial script, he calmly asked, “Who are you going to get to play Bob?”
“I didn’t want to have kids” on the show, Newhart explains. “I hoped that would set the show apart from the normal thing of ‘Daddy’s not very bright, and look at the pickle he’s gotten himself into, but we love him,’ then in the final scene, they’re smiling and patting him on the head.
“People ask how much power I had over the show,” adds Newhart, a winner of three Grammy Awards, a Peabody and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. “And I say, ‘Power is a funny thing. It really only exists when it’s exercised sparingly.’ It’s not so much if you always rant and rave and go into your dressing room and say, ‘I’m not coming out until they fix that thing’ — but if you exercise it once every four or five years, it kind of scares the hell out of people.”
As TV lore bears out, “The Bob Newhart Show” would have one more famous moment in the sun, in the closing scene of the star’s subsequent CBS comedy “Newhart.” He awoke in a familiar-looking bedroom to tell his wife — who turned out to be Pleshette as Emily — that he’d just had “the strangest dream” about owning a Vermont inn, which was the premise of that entire series.
“I just saw something that ranked that as the third top TV finale of all time,” Newhart says. “No. 2 was ‘The Fugitive,’ and No. 1 was Johnny Carson leaving ‘The Tonight Show.’ The crew didn’t know at all what we were going to do; Dick Martin directed it, and that night we just told them, ‘We’ve added another scene. Here’s where the cameras go. Just shoot.’
“They had a floater, which is a screen in front of the set where the next scene is coming up. We pulled it away, and it was the bedroom … and people started applauding the set, even without knowing Suzie or I were in the bed. I was surprised by that reaction.
“Some shows get knocked for their finales,” Newhart notes, “but we had another show we could refer to. To me, that was always a Monty Python moment, a wink and a nudge of, ‘Hey, you know what we’re doing here.'”