I walked out of the Paley Center for Media in Bev Hills a tiny bit unsatisfied after taking in "The Bob Newhart Show" reunion tonight. The discussion among the core cast members (minus Peter Bonerz) was fun and funny, but low key. There were no jaw-dropping anecdotes or side-splitting stories of episodes gone wrong or saved in the clutch by a quick-witted crew member, etc. But it hit me by the time I got to my car. In all of its low-key-ness, it was the perfect tribute to "The Bob Newhart Show."
As discussed by Newhart and panelists Suzanne Pleshette, Marcia Wallace, Bill Daily, Jack Riley and helmer Dick Martin, "Bob Newhart" was a quiet ground-breaker in its 1972-78 run on CBS. While "Mary Tyler Moore," "All in the Family" and "MASH" soaked up the headlines for being convention-busting and envelope-pushing, Bob and Emily Hartley quietly shot scenes in bed together, with the emphasis on together. Newhart staked his claim to "Bob Newhart" being the first TV comedy to eschew twin beds for a more realistic queen-size mattress. And as fans of the show know, those talking-in-bed scenes are some of "Bob Newhart's" greatest moments.
Also unusual for the era was the concept that from the get-go, there were no kids in the picture for Bob and Emily, despite the fact that they obviously had the hots for each other; maybe Emily a little more so than Bob. As Pleshette put it in her trademark gravely-snarky voice, "If you listen quietly (in the bedroom scenes) you can hear me sticking my foot up his ass" to get her co-star going in the intimate setting.
Pictured above left: Suzanne Pleshette and Bob Newhart. Above right, clockwise from top, Marcia Wallace, Bill Daily, Jack Riley, Pleshette, Newhart and Dick Martin. Pics courtesy Paley Center/Kevin Parry Photography.
Emily was also very much defined as a working, professional woman (school teacher) who had a very active and vibrant life outside their Chicago high-rise apartment. She didn't run home to cook and clean for her shrink husband. Theirs was very much a partnership marriage. And all these many years later, as "Bob Newhart" celebrates its 35th anniversary, it's easy to forget how groundbreaking that was for a sitcom wife. And yet, look around the landscape today, and where are the confident, self-assured, knows-what-she-wants, unapologetic-for-her-life-choices femme characters? Emily Hartley had her act together too much to be racked with guilt about wanting to have it all while succeeding at nothing. She was content in her own skin, and she ordered out for dinner whenever she felt like it.
"We loved each other very much for the qualities (in the other) that we didn't have," Pleshette observed of the Bob and Emily characters during the sesh moderated by Paley Center chief Pat Mitchell and co-hosted by TV Land, which has a buncha 35th anniversary tributes on tap for the show next week (see previous item). "We were opposites... And there was obvious sexual energy between us..."
(Right on cue Newhart interjected, dryly, "I don't remember that.")
"We were a bright couple, we were a working couple....We were fabulous," Pleshette continued, sounding like a woman who's just lost a husband and been through cancer treatments during the past year (though she declared herself to be "cancer-free," assuring the crowd: "My tits are great"). Pleshette's third husband, Tom Poston, himself a guest starrer on "Bob Newhart" and a co-star of Newhart's 1980s CBS sitcom "Newhart," died in April.
Watching Pleshette and Newhart and the body language between them, it's clear that their affection for each other wasn't strictly in the scripts. The way the both of them craned their necks to watch the clips that preceded the discussion (the screen was behind their chairs) moderated by Paley Center chief Pat Mitchell and co-sponsored by TV Land, the two looked for all the world like a long-married couple enjoying the nostalgia of home movies.
Pleshette even made a point of expressing to the crowd "how much joy I had working with (Newhart)." She confessed to watching him do the audience warm up each week and marveling at his easy manner and utterly unique approach to humor. Working with for six seasons was like watching a master magician hone his craft. It didn't matter that she knew how he pulled off most of his tricks, she was in awe of his talent "every time I walked out with Bob Newhart, and I still feel it today," she gushed.
(Once again, Newhart didn't miss his cue. "I didn't know you were listening" to the warm ups, he said sheepishly. Another tribute to Newhart's stature in the comedy biz came from the caliber of industry vets who were in the audience Wednesday night, including Don Rickles and Tim Conway.)
Then Bill Daily picked up the thread, observing that one strength of the cast was that "everybody had their own kind of humor." Newhart was, well, Newhart. Peter Bonerz was Jerry the skirt-chasing Peter Pan. Wallace as the sassy, man-hungry secretary Carol was all her own ("She was kind of a tramp," Wallace admitted), as were the supporting characters. (Newhart noted that early on there was concern about whether viewers would find a psychiatrist character amusing, but of course it turned out to be a goldmine in terms of giving writers a license to introduce funny one- and two-off characters that could come in and out at will, kinda like patients in a doctor's office.)
"Nobody was trying to outdo each other on the show. Everybody had their own thing going," said Daily, who's relationship with Newhart goes back to their days when they both had behind-the-camera gigs at Chicago's WMAQ-TV.
"And right down to the guy making the coffee, it was the best bunch of people," Daily said, contrasting it to his "nightmare" experience working opposite Larry Hagman on "I Dream of Jeannie" a few years before.
(This time, it was Riley's cue. "I never felt the warmth and the magic," he muttered, just as the eternally morose Mr. Carlin would have.)
Among other noteworthy moments in the 70-odd minute sesh:
**Marcia Wallace noted that her character was not in the original pilot but an addition that came courtesy of the namesake of the venue. William S. Paley, the big boss of CBS in those days, saw Wallace make an appearance on "The Merv Griffin Show" and suggested (instructed?) "Bob Newhart" producers at MTM Prods. to add her to their new show. She never once met Paley but wrote him plenty of thank-you notes.
**A very noticeable "awwwww" was heard from many in the crowd when a young John Ritter popped up in the clip reel as an over-eager waiter at an ice cream parlor.
**Bill Daily said he had to star in a pilot for a "Mary Tyler Moore" spinoff that didn't go before he was able to segue to his "Bob Newhart" role as the dumb-as-a-post airline pilot Howard Borden, next-door neighbor of Bob and Emily.
**In the original concept for the show, Peter Bonerz' character was not Jerry the Dentist but Jerry the Experimental Pyschiatist who was into far more "way out" treatment techniques than the leisure suit-loving, group therapy-advocating Bob Hartley, according to Newhart.
**Dick Martin launched his third career, as a TV director (following his stints as a standup comic and host of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In"), by observing producer-director Michael Zinberg and James Burrows on "Bob Newhart" for about three weeks before tackling his own seg.
**Suzanne Pleshette is "extremely rich," thanks to the frugality of her late husband Poston. "He would never give $20 to a (maitre'd)...but he had it all in shopping malls," she quipped.