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Newhart On Newhart,
Rickles, Early Days

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Bob Newhart at the 39th Emmy Awards rehearsal.
Photo by Alan Light.
The Legendary Comedic Talent Provides Insight On His Early Career, Including How Important The Writing Team And Bill Daley Was To His First Show’s Success

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Dec. 28, 2015 — The Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles is a five-star boutique hideaway that’s been favored by such dignitaries as Princesses Astrid of Norway and Margaretha of Sweden, H.S.H. Grace de Monaco … and Bob Newhart.

In an undeniably Tinseltown style statement predicated on a movie mania only Southern Californian’s would have the temerity to take credit for, the Bel-Air management prominently displays in the lobby signed glossies of everyone of significance who stayed there from international royalty to those with merely a Hollywood pedigree.

So much for anonymity.

Back in 1981, in the dark recesses of the hotel’s café, we met Newhart for breakfast (he favored corned beef hash straight out of the Hormel can). That quiet spot was his choice and it seemed to be in keeping with the proper manner we had always associated with his character on The Bob Newhart Show. Considering the often outlandish tenor of sitcom’s back then – and even more so, now – memories of Newhart’s low-keyed approach to laugh-getting and his unruffled demeanor should be treasured.

“One of the keys to the success of my character was that I let the ensemble on my show grab a healthy share of the laughs,” Newhart said. “It worked for Jack Benny on radio and television, and it worked for me.”

Newhart’s oblique entry into show business was the result not of any particular burning ambition on his part, but rather due to his ineptitude as a Certified Public Accountant.

“I used to balance the petty cash box where I worked with money out of my own pocket,” he said. “If it was a dollar under, I’d take it out of my pocket. If it was a dollar over, I’d put it into my pocket. My boss kept telling me to balance it correctly, but I said ‘You’re paying me $3 an hour to find 50 cents. It just doesn’t make sense!’ I guess that’s when I knew I wasn’t cut out to be an accountant.”

Soon after, nightclub comedy gigs gelled into riotous monologues on comedy albums such as The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, in which his routines “The Driving Instructor” and “The Submarine Commander” gained Newhart national fame.

“I know albums tend to use a comic’s material faster than he can replenish it, but for me it worked in reverse. The album was the only reason for me gaining prominence at all,” Newhart said. “I think that era ended with Laugh-In and its quick blackouts. You couldn’t do seven- or eight-minute monologues; you had to do three- and four-minute skits.”

It was while performing in Las Vegas that Newhart first developed a friendship with another comedian that has stood the test of time – many decades of trading each other insults.

“Don Rickles was playing a hotel lounge in Vegas. His wife knew my wife, so we all arranged to meet for dinner before Don had to go back and do his third show,” Newhart said. “During the meal, he asked my wife questions about how old our kids were and I thought: ‘What a lovely man!’ As you probably can guess, Rickles’ act differed from what our conversation was based on that day. Well, we went to see his act and he came out from the wings and promptly called me a stammering idiot and my wife a former hooker from Bayonne, New Jersey. We’ve been friends ever since.”

The Bob Newhart Show came about because Newhart said he had high regard for the quality and professionalism of Mary Tyler Moore Enterprises (the production company behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show).

“Lorenzo Music, who wrote for The Smothers Brothers program and who played Carleton the Doorman on Rhoda, and Dave Davis were a writing team. They came up with the concept that I should play a psychologist. It was a great idea but my only reservation was that it was a potentially dangerous area. I didn’t want to portray really sick people like schizophrenics. As it turned out, I did have the distinction of being on television six years and never curing a patient. Mr. Carlin was probably worse off at the end of the show than at the beginning.”

The pilot for Newhart’s series lacked many of the show’s now familiar faces. Marcia Wallace and Bill Daley weren’t featured, and the whole show had to be reshot because the network, for unknown reasons, objected to the script’s use of the word “condominium.” Go figure.

If they were halcyon days for Newhart, the nights were pure halcyon.

“One director we had ... (he) had absolutely no sense of humor,” Newhart recalled, bemused. “We rehearsed with him for five days when I finally told our producer, Michael Zinberg, that I thought one of the essential ingredients a comedy director should possess is the ability to laugh. It’s like a team having a ball player with poor eye/hand coordination. After that, we hired Dick Martin to direct. God bless him! He sat in the director’s booth for three months watching us block and rehearse, in order to acquaint himself with the show.”

The show’s six-year run provided high points that to this day still manage to conjure up what Woody Allen would call “legitimate laughs” during re-runs in syndication.

“Bill Daley is responsible for many of the biggest laughs in the show,” Newhart said. “His part of Howard Borden was so nonsensical that he seldom had anything to do with an episode’s particular storyline. In one show he had just returned from the Fiji Islands and he came in and said: ‘Bob, do you think I’m getting shorter? … because I think I’m engaged to a Fijian princess and if I don’t marry her the chief said I will be cursed. To seal the ceremony, they gave us two cows. Do you think the state of Illinois will recognize the marriage?’ I said, ‘I’m sure they will. You’ll be the couple with the two cows.’ Stuff like that totally off the wall; the writers loved it.”

Newhart also credited Daley with the biggest laugh line in the show’s history.

“I was working with a prison group and Emily (Suzanne Pleshette) and I both had our hands against the wall. Howard came running in and he thought we were holding up the wall. When we walked away, he said: ‘Hey, aren’t you going to help me? I can’t hold this up all by myself.’ The audience howled.”

At that time, almost 35 years ago, Newhart hinted that another TV series might be in the offing. (Newhart’s phenomenally successful follow-up to The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart, began an 8-season run the next year.)

“But it won’t be one detrimental to an audience’s intelligence,” he told us. “I had the experience a couple of years ago where I couldn’t find a program from Tuesday through Saturday that I felt like watching. I guess most TV is like sitting in front of a microwave oven – eventually it will rot your brain.

Telling words from the taciturn, button-down mind of Bob Newhart.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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