George Robert "Bob" Newhart (born September 5, 1929) is an American stand-up comedian and actor.
Bob Newhart was born on September 5
in Oak Park, Illinois
to George David Newhart and Julia Pauline Burns. Newhart attended St. Ignatius College Prep
and Loyola University of Chicago
where he graduated in 1952 with a bachelor's degree in business management. He was drafted in the U.S. Army
and served stateside during the Korean War
until discharged in 1954.
After the war he got a job as an accountant
for United States Gypsum
. He later claimed that his motto, "That's close enough," 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 $60 a week but who quit upon learning weekly unemployment benefits were $55 a week and "they only had to come in to the office one day a week to collect it." In 1958 he became an advertising copywriter
for Fred A. Niles
, a major independent film and television producer in Chicago
. It was at the company that he and a coworker would entertain each other in long telephone calls which they would record then send to a radio station as audition tapes. When his coworker ended his participation, Newhart continued the recordings alone, developing the shtick
which was to serve him well for decades. In addition to his various standup bits, he incorporated that shtick into his television series at appropriate times.
Stand-up comedy albums
The auditions led to his break-through recording contract. A disc jockey at the 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 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 of a more loony comedic partner. Newhart's routine, however, was simply to portray one end of a phone call, playing the straightest of comedic straight men and implying what he was hearing on the other end of the phone.
Newhart told a 2005 interviewer for PBS's American Masters that his favorite standup 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 Bob Newhart Show for CBS.
Newhart was known for using an intentional stammer, in service of his unique combination of politeness and disbelief at what he was supposedly hearing.
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. Button Down Mind received the 1961 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Newhart also won Best New Artist, and his quickly-released follow-on 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 The Ed Sullivan Show eight times. He appeared in a 1963 episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
Newhart guest hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 87 times, and hosted Saturday Night Live twice, in 1980 and again in 1995.
He also appears in Desperate Housewives as Morty, Susan's step-dad.
Newhart's most notable exposure on television came from two long running programs centering on him. From 1972 to 1978, Newhart starred in the popular Bob Newhart Show
in which he played a Chicago psychologist and husband of Emily, played by co-star Suzanne Pleshette
. In 1982, Newhart returned to primetime with a new sitcom, Newhart
, on CBS
, co-starring Mary Frann
The two shows have a connection: when Newhart went off the air in 1990, it ended with a scene (met by screams of laughter from the studio audience) in which Newhart wakes up in bed with his wife from The Bob Newhart Show. He realizes (in a satire of a famous plot element in the TV series Dallas a few years earlier) that the entire Newhart series was a nightmare provoked by "eating too much Japanese food before going to bed," as the final Newhart episode had him selling his country inn to Japanese investors. Recalling Mary Frann's buxom figure and her choice of clothing, Bob closes the segment and the series by telling Emily, "You should really wear more sweaters." before the typical closing notes of the old Bob Newhart Show theme played over the fadeout.
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.
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.
In 2001, Bob made an appearance on MADtv
(Season 6), playing a psychiatrist who yells "Stop it!" in a very memorable skit.
His other television work includes:
He guest-starred on 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.
His most recent appearance was on the 2006 Emmy Awards, hosted by Conan O'Brien. Newhart was a part of a gag in which he was placed in an 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 as an author
On September 20
, 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. As comedian David Hyde Pierce
notes, "The only difference between Bob Newhart on stage and Bob Newhart offstage – is that there is no stage."
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 funniest bits involve hearing one half of a conversation as he spoke to someone over the phone. For example, in a routine 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", and "Abe Lincoln's Press Secretary".
Two of Newhart's most memorable roles were in two very different military-themed films, the 1962 film Hell Is for Heroes
(where he provided some comic relief using his man-on-the-telephone routine), and his portrayal of Major Major Major Major
in the 1970 film version
He also appeared in:
Bob also appeared in a 'Short' for IBM spoofing Herman Hollerith's idea to record the 1890 census figures on punched cards.
In addition to his Peabody Award and several Emmy nominations, Newhart's recognitions include the following:
Newhart lived with his parents until his 20s and had three sisters. His sister Mary Joan is a nun and he came from an Irish Catholic
background. He was introduced by Buddy Hackett
to Virginia "Ginnie" Quinn, the daughter of late character actor Bill Quinn
. She became his wife on January 12
. The couple have four children (Robert, Timothy, Jennifer, and Courtney), and several grandchildren. The couple are Catholic and raised their children as such, but "Ginnie" stated they did not want them to have "the fears" that came from their upbringing. His son Rob (who portrayed his father in 1993's Heart & Souls
, with Robert Downey Jr.
) maintains his father's official website.
Newhart and his wife are good friends with comedian Don Rickles and Rickles' wife, Barbara, and the couples often vacation together. Newhart and Rickles appeared together on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on January 24, 2005, the Monday following Johnny Carson's death, reminiscing about their many guest appearances on Carson's show.
- The final scene of the final episode of Newhart introduced a technique that is sometimes known as "breaking the fifth wall" — an analogy with breaking the fourth wall in which the fifth wall becomes the convention that two television characters could not be the same person. The idea for that scene came from the actress playing Newhart's wife.
- During Newhart's television career he repeatedly resisted playing a father. When presented with a script of The Bob Newhart Show in which his character's wife was revealed to be pregnant, Newhart's response to the writers about the script was "Suzanne and I love the script, but who are you going to get to play Bob?"
- Whenever Newhart was asked whom he admired the most as a comedian, he never hesitated with his somewhat surprising answer: Richard Pryor. Upon Pryor's death in 2005, Newhart paid tribute by calling him "the seminal comedian of the last 50 years.
- Like Bill Cosby, Newhart rarely uses profanity for humorous effect. The closest Newhart comes is in his bit "The Driving Instructor," where he makes an attempt at a joke with an angry pedestrian, and then merely echoes the unseen/unheard pedestrian by saying, "No, I don't suppose it is so damn funny." Another time, in "Hangover" he alluded to a cuss word. His hung over character asks what his wife's cooking for dinner. After a pause, he retches and replies "Honey, will you call it creamed chipped beef on toast, please?" (suggesting his wife said "shit on a shingle").
- During the 70s, teenagers and college kids would play a drinking game while watching The Bob Newhart Show. Every time someone said, "Hi Bob," people were required to take a drink.
- Mayerly, Judine (1989). "The Most Inconspicuous Hit on Television: A Case Study of Newhart". Washington, D.C.: Journal of Popular Film and Television
- Sorenson, Jeff (1988). Bob Newhart. New York: St. Martin's.
- Reilly, Rick Who's Your Caddy: Looping for the Great, Near Great, and Reprobates of Golf.