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Inside Bob Newhart's unbuttoned mind

Published Nov. 8, 1999|Updated Sep. 30, 2005

At age 70, the comic reflects on a dream career, letting his memory rove through 45 years of comedy _ standup, sitcom and just plain living.

They say it all the time, wherever he goes, and there's nothing he can do to stop it.

Not that he'd want to. It's nice to hear, and there are worse things to be associated with.

It's just that sometimes they pick the weirdest moments.

When Bob Newhart was introduced as the commencement speaker at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in May 1997, he walked to the lectern, unfolded his notes and prepared to begin.

The audience beat him to the punch.

"Hi, Bob!" shouted hundreds of voices. In unison. Just like they'd practiced.

Newhart grinned. He knew.

They had to say it.

"Hi, Bob," he said, shaking his head and repeating the mantra. "I know.

"I'm going to go down in history for that. With all I've accomplished, I'm going to go down in history for "Hi, Bob.' "

Is that such a bad legacy?

"No, not at all," the 70-year-old comedian said in a recent interview. "I'll have to start worrying when they don't say it."

Before Drew Carey, Chris Rock, before Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Garry Shandling, Ellen DeGeneres and Redd Foxx, before just about any stand-up comedian made it big in television, there was Bob Newhart.

He started out as the master of the one-man comic conversation: the harried driving instructor, Sir Walter Raleigh trying to explain how people will use tobacco.

And then he brought us two sitcoms that became part of television history. In The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78), he played Chicago psychologist Bob Hartley. On Newhart (1982-90), he played Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon. Two later efforts, Bob (1992-93) and George and Leo (1997-98), were short-lived.

TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly both listed the final episode of Newhart (at the end, Bob wakes up on the set of the old Bob Newhart Show, turns to his TV wife, Emily, played by Suzanne Pleshette, and remarks that he has just had the strangest dream) as one of the funniest moments in TV history.

This whole thing started about 45 years ago at the prestigious Leo Burnett ad agency in Chicago.

There were these two young guys, Ed Gallagher and George Newhart, who wrote ad copy and tried not to seem bored. Of course, they were.

George's middle name was Robert. Everyone called him Bob.

"To keep from going out of my mind, I'd call Ed, and we'd do improv routines over the phone," Newhart explained. "He'd interview me and play the straight man. It was a poor man's Bob and Ray.

"Then he said, "Why don't we try to sell this to some radio stations?' It was Ed's idea. I thought that was great, so we'd wait until everyone went home and sneak into the recording studios and use their equipment. We taped four or five routines and sent them out to more than a hundred radio stations."

They got replies from three _ in Fort Lauderdale; Northampton, Mass.; and Idaho Falls, Idaho.

"We were almost coast to coast," Newhart said with a chuckle. "I don't know why I remember that. I can't remember what I had for breakfast."

A few months later, Bob Newhart was down-sized.

"They had a bad year and fired half the room," he said. "I was on the wrong half of the room."

Newhart, who had earned a degree in accounting from Loyola University, knew he wanted to at least give comedy a try. But to pay the bills, he had to get conventional jobs. He worked briefly as a sales clerk at a department store, and for the Illinois State Unemployment Compensation Board.

"We used to make $60 a week, and the claimants got $55," he said. "We worked five days a week, and they only had to come in one day a week to pick up their checks.

"It didn't take us long to figure out we were doing something wrong."

While he was looking for work, he hit upon one of his classic sketches _ the driving instructor.

"Every Sunday I'd get the Chicago Tribune and peruse the want ads for part-time jobs. Every Sunday there was the same full page ad for driving instructors," he said. "I thought, "Boy, there must be a huge turnover in driving instructors. Why is that?' Out of that evolved the routine."

In 1959, Newhart got his break. An executive at Warner Bros. Records signed him to a contract, and Newhart recorded The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, the first comedy record to reach No. 1 on the charts. More albums and concerts followed, and Bob was on his way.

"Those first four or five years, there was not an awful lot happening." he said. "I often questioned my decision. I saw all my friends getting married, and I could barely even support myself.

"But luckily, things picked up."

One of the few things he always insisted upon was a clean act. In one episode of the Newhart Show, Emily is supposed to say that she and Bob lived together before they got married. Newhart asked that the writers take that out.

"That's one of the things I pride myself on," he said. "It's harder to do. If this were the Olympics, there would be a 3.9 degree of difficulty."

"But I find Richard Pryor hysterically funny because I can take the language and dismiss it. He isn't relying on it. When you get down to what's funny, it's the concepts he deals with."

The man who entertained millions and seemed so right with his delivery and timing never took acting lessons.

"I've always been fortunate in what I think you'd call internalization," he said. "I could internalize the emotion and somehow it registered on my face. And just before I'd go out on stage, I'd think to myself, "Thank God no one will ever see this.' Because if you thought about how many people are going to see it, you'd never do it.

"I'm also blessed with a wife who never let me get too full of myself. Garbage day in our neighborhood is Wednesday, and she'll ask me to take out the trash. I'll say, "Do you think Carol Lombard ever asked Clark Gable to take out the trash?'

"She'll say, "If you were Clark Gable, I wouldn't ask you to take it out.' "

Newhart now does between 20 and 30 live shows a year, and he's probably not going to do another sitcom.

"I don't think so," he said. "It (TV) just takes so much out of you. And there's a different humor out there. I would have trouble dealing with some of the stories.

"No, I just don't see it happening. You know, there's a time when you just have to say that it's somebody else's turn."

So what does one of the masters of comedy watch on TV?

"I think Everybody Loves Raymond is awfully well-written, and I find Friends to be well-written," he answered.

"But to be honest, I don't watch that many sitcoms. The minute I hear a laugh track, I turn to something else. First of all, they shouldn't call them sitcoms. I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Barney Miller . . . they were all done before a live audience. There should be another name for a show that's all laugh track."

Why?

"The writing suffers and the performances suffer because you don't have that spontaneity, that rush. And you don't know what works and what doesn't work. Everything gets a laugh _ even what's not funny.

"I did a couple shows where we didn't use a live audience, and I hated it. I just hated it. You do a line and then a silent count . . . one . . . two . . . three . . . for the laugh track. Then you do your next line. It's so antiseptic."

Newhart turned 70 on Sept. 5. He and his wife, Virginia, live in Bel Air, Calif. They have four children and three grandchildren. Life is good.

"I had two important things just happen," he said. "My 70th birthday, and I just got back from Lake Tahoe, where I did my first show in May 1960. To walk back on that very stage . . . it really brought back a flood of memories. We brought the kids up there so many times. But now, how fast the time has passed. This time, my daughter came up with my granddaughter and my other daughter came up from college."

He thought about how his life had changed, and about Ed Gallagher, his partner back at the ad agency.

"Ed just passed away 10 days ago," Newhart said. "He stayed in the business and was a heavy smoker and had gotten cancer. I tried to reach him, but he wasn't able to come to the phone."

One more thing.

Newhart's passion is golf. He usually plays at least once a week at a country club near his home.

But he also has a secret passion.

"Boxing," he said. "It's the sport I most like to watch."

He acknowledged that the sport has, er, taken a lot of hits lately.

"It's almost like smoking," he said. "You have to go off in a corner and talk about it."

But maybe, he said, boxing lovers could have their own secret society.

"We could have our own secret handshake and everything."

At the end of his commencement address, Newhart left the students at Catholic University with this:

"I certainly don't delude myself that there aren't certainly more important things to do in life than make people laugh, but I can't imagine anything that would bring me more joy."

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