Bob Newhart: Laughing Through Life

This month I wanted to honor one of our most beloved television comedians: Bob Newhart. Next week we’ll spend some time learning more about The Bob Newhart Show.

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Newhart was born George Robert Newhart in 1929 in Oak Park, IL. He grew up in a typical midwestern family where his father was part owner of a plumbing and heating supply company, and his mom was a housewife. As a young boy, he always wanted to be called Bob. He had a Catholic education and went on to Loyola University of Chicago in 1947. Graduating in 1952 with a business degree, he was soon drafted into the US Army in the Korean war where he stayed until 1954. He considered getting a law degree and went back to Loyola. He decided not to pursue that; some sources site that he was asked to behave unethically during an internship which led him down a different career path.

He worked as an accountant and as an unemployment office clerk. In 1958 he was hired as a copywriter for Fred Niles who was a television producer in Chicago. It was while working here that Newhart and a colleague began entertaining each other by making telephone calls about absurd scenarios. They sent these to radio stations as audition tapes. A radio station disc jockey Dan Sorkin introduced Newhart to a Warner Brothers Records executive who signed him in 1959 based on those recordings. Bob then began creating stand-up routines which he performed at nightclubs.

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He released an album in 1960 which changed his life. Titled, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, the comedy album made number one on the Billboard charts, and he won a Grammy for best new artist. A follow-up album, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back was released soon thereafter. He would continue releasing comedy albums in 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1971, and 1973.

During a 2005 interview for American Masters on public television, Bob stated that his favorite routine was Abe Lincoln vs Madison Avenue which was on his first album. A promoter for Abraham Lincoln has to deal with his reluctance to boost his image. A tv director named Bill Daily suggested the routine to him. Daily would be known later as Howard Borden on The Bob Newhart Show (as well as Roger Healey on I Dream of Jeannie).

The success of that first album led to a variety show titled The Bob Newhart Show. It only lasted a year, but it did receive both an Emmy nomination and a Peabody award. Apparently, he didn’t enjoy his time during the show so much. Halfway through the season he wanted to quit, but his agent explained that being under contract meant that was not possible. At a later date, he referred to his first show, saying “It won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and a pink slip from NBC. All in the same year.”

He began making the rounds on television shows, appearing on The Dean Martin Show 24 times and The Ed Sullivan Show 8 times. He guest hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 87 times. When discussing his appearances on Johnny’s show, he stated “I remember once when I emceed The Tonight Show in New York, I arrived with my manager’s son. After a while, they asked, ‘When are the rest of your people coming?’ I had to say, ‘This is it.’”

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In 1962 Newhart accepted his first movie role, Hell is for Heroes, starring Steve McQueen. He would continue to do movie roles throughout his career including the Christmas classic Elf, but the small screen would make him famous.

In 1963 Buddy Hackett introduced Bob to Virginia Quinn, whose father was character actor Bill Quinn. They wed in January of 1963 and 57 years later are still happily married.

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For the next decade, he continued to accept movie and television roles. In 1972, television history was made when The Bob Newhart Show debuted. Until 1978, Newhart played Bob Hartley, psychologist, and we got to know his unusual patients, quirky co-workers, and eccentric friends, including neighbor Howard Borden. Bob chose a psychologist based partly on his old telephone routines. As he said, “Much of my humor comes out of reaction to what other people are saying. A psychologist is a man who listens, who is sympathetic.”

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In 1982, Bob gave television another go for another eight years. Simply titled Newhart, the show featured Bob as Dick Loudon, an innkeeper and author from Vermont. He still had quirky co-workers and eccentric friends.

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On cue a decade later in 1992, Bob showed up in a new show even more simply titled, Bob as Bob McKay a comic book writer and artist who had retired long ago and was trying to get back into the workplace. Unfortunately, after 33 episodes the show was canceled due to low ratings.

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In 1997, Newhart starred in his last sitcom, George and Leo. As George Stoody, a bookstore owner, Newhart offers a temporary home to a full-time magician and part-time criminal who recently robbed a Mafia-owned casino. The series failed to catch on with viewers, and it was canceled after a season as well.

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Though he never took on another sitcom, Newhart has made appearances with recurring characters in several shows. In 2003, he showed up on ER as Ben Hollander. In 2005, he was Morty on Desperate Housewives. As Judson, he guest starred on The Librarians.

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Perhaps, younger audiences know him best as Arthur Jeffries or Professor Proton on The Big Bang Theory. He had been Sheldon’s boyhood hero who played the professor on television. Sheldon idolized the professor while the professor tolerated Sheldon.

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It’s hard to believe with all of his years being a successful television comedian, but Newhart won his first Emmy in 2013 for his role of Professor Proton. I can’t argue with the nominees for most of the 1970s during the airing of The Bob Newhart Show–names like Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, Alan Alda, and Hal Linden. Even with my bias of Norman Lear shows, I get nominating Carroll O’Connor every single one of those years. I understand the tough competition. What I don’t understand is the fact that he was never nominated during that eight-year period. When Jack Albertson wins, and Bob Newhart is not even nominated that is wrong. During the Newhart years, he was at least nominated three times. But I don’t understand it when John Ritter wins for Three’s Company or Richard Mulligan for Soap and no nomination for Bob Newhart. What especially appalls me is the fact that The Bob Newhart Show was only nominated one year; I can accept the fact that it got beat out by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I cannot accept is that during this same time, Three’s Company, Mork and Mindy, and Welcome Back Kotter received nominations, and The Bob Newhart Show did not. Anyway, this blog is not about the television academy and its procedures, so let’s move on.

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Even though he was never awarded with an Emmy for his time as Bob Hartley, TV Land placed a life-sized statue of Newhart in front of Navy Pier, complete with an empty couch. He was best friends with Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from the show, and spoke at her funeral. He remembered their time together, “Her laugh. Her laugh. We just laughed. We just had a great time. We all loved each other and respected each other and we got paid for it.” Bob also remains close friends with Marcia Wallace who played his receptionist Carol on the show.

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While Bob has appeared as different characters throughout his career, he has also remained the same character. With his deadpan delivery and slight stammer, he perfected the straight-man role, surrounding himself with wacky castmates. He has often cited George Gobel and Bob and Ray as influences in his comedy career. When discussing his career choice, he explained “I like the humor to come out of character. When you’re going for a joke, you’re stuck out there if it doesn’t work. There’s nowhere to go. You’ve done the drum role and the cymbal clash and you’re out on the end of the plank.”

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In 2006, he released a book I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This. It’s a memoir with some of his classic comedy routines. Actor David Hyde Pierce reported that “the only difference between Bob Newhart on stage and Bob Newhart offstage is that there is no stage.”

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I am so appreciative of those stars who agree to entertain us for our entire life, such as Betty White, Carol Burnett, and Bob Newhart. They are classic comedians who can make us laugh no matter what. Bob’s view on comedy was that “laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.” What an amazing career and what an amazing man. With all its negatives and sometimes destructive tendencies, television can be a harmful place, but a comedian like Bob Newhart demonstrates what a positive and uplifting experience television can be when done right. Thanks for doing it right for sixty years.

Valerie Harper: You Will Be Missed

This month, my blog’s theme is “Valerie.” I apologize ahead of time to any of you who have the lyrics of the Amy Winehouse song running through your head all month. It’s a great song, but every January blog I wrote kept the song in my brain for a few days.

I decided to begin the series, and the new year, looking at the career of Valerie Harper who passed away in 2019.

Valerie Harper lived to be 80, despite being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013.

Harper recalled attending an ice-skating show as a child and deciding she wanted to be involved in show business of some type. She loved the lighting, the audience, and the entire theatrical experience. She began her career as a dancer. Joining the Radio City Hall dancers, she transitioned into acting.

She eventually made her way to the Second City troupe in Chicago. After perfecting her comedy skills, she was on to Broadway, appearing in Dear Liar, Story Theatre, Something Different, and Metamorphosis.

Valerie appeared in a few movies and television series during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

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Richard Schaal and Valerie Harper

From 1964-1978, she was married to Richard Schaal. The couple wrote a script for Love American Style in 1969 called “Love and the Visitor.” Harper also acted in the segment “Love and the Housekeeper” in 1971.

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Her big break came when she was offered the role of Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ethel Winant spotted her in a play and asked her to audition for the role. For four years, she played Mary’s best friend who lives upstairs. Rhoda was a window decorator for a large department store. The characters of Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern were total opposites, but they had a tremendous chemistry and became best friends.

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Although Mary was the nicest person on the show, we all wanted Rhoda to be our best friend. Her humor and attitude toward life made the world a more fun place to be.

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In 1974, Valerie was rewarded with her own show, Rhoda. She marries and returns to New York. Harper won four Emmys during her time as Rhoda between the two shows. After capturing Rhoda’s Jewish persona so accurately, many people were surprised to learn she was not Jewish and grew up Catholic.

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Some of the funniest moments on either of the sitcoms was Rhoda’s relationship with her mother Ida, played by Nancy Walker. Rhoda loved her mother, but was driven absolutely crazy by her.

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When Rhoda was abruptly cancelled, Harper made a cluster of made-for-tv movies.

In 1986, Harper was cast as the lead in the show Valerie’s Family. After being abruptly fired from the show in 1987, she was replaced with Sandy Duncan as the children’s aunt. The plot line was that Valerie died in a car accident and Sandy comes to help out. The show changed its name to The Hogan Family and continued until 1991. Harper sued Lorimar Productions for breach of contract and was awarded $1.4 million plus part of the show’s profits.

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In 1990, City debuted starring Harper. The show only lasted one season. I have never seen this show, but most of the reviews I read were by people who loved it. One write-up on imdb.com concluded “This was the funniest sitcom Valerie Harper has done (except of course for the Mary Tyler Moore Show). The city manager’s office that provided the setting is the perfect locale for the parade of crazies that give comedic impetus to this type of show, The funniest was James Lorinz as the security guard (in one episode, he was convinced that white-out was being stolen to aid illegal immigration; to prove his point, he painted his entire body with it). One of the Mysteries of the Universe is why this failed while “The Hogan Family,” a profoundly mediocre show, lasted several years.”

From that point on, Harper did not star in any other television series, but she did show up in a variety of series and made-for-tv movies, including a recurring role on The Office in 1995.

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Valerie contributed to many causes during her career. She was a big advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She co-founded L.I.F.E. with Dennis Weaver, a nonprofit that gave food to the hungry in Los Angeles.

Valerie re-married in 1987, wedding Tony Cacciotti whom she remained with until her death.

Harper continued in stage work throughout her career. From 2005-2006, she portrayed Golda Meir, touring throughout the US.

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She accepted the role of Claire Bremmer on Desperate Housewives in 2011. In 2013, she returned to her dancing roots, appearing on Dancing with the Stars, partnered with Tristan MacManus.

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In 2009, Valerie was diagnosed with lung cancer. She fought the illness, but in March of 2013, she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, given only months to live. Those couple of months turned into six years. Harper discussed her disease in 2015: “I talk to the cells all the time. I say, ‘What the hell are you doing? Not only are you destructive, coming in and ruining all my plans, but you are dumb! You are killing the host. If you take a low profile, I can live with you, here on the edge of the sword. You can fall one way or the other.’ Right now, things are working fantastically. Tomorrow, I don’t know.” Her philosophy was “We’re all terminal; none of us are getting out of this alive.”

Harper was fondly remembered by her co-stars when she passed away. Mary Tyler Moore who died before Harper, said she was devastated the day Valerie called her to tell her about the cancer. Ed Asner, who played Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Show, remembered his years working with Harper: “A beautiful woman, a wonderful actress, a great friend. . . . Her brilliance burst through and shined its light upon all of us. Goodnight beautiful. I’ll see you soon.”

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Alyssa Milano who played her daughter on an episode of Melrose Place, said “Valerie Harper was always the most gracious and kindest actor on the set. She will be missed. Rest in Peace. ”

Valerie Harper had a unique gift of making us laugh, not at her characters, but with her characters. We could all relate to her. She was a role model for how to keep a positive attitude about living with a terminal illness. It’s a rare person who learns to work hard while making it look easy, fight for causes that help others, inspire others to live better while she was dying, and infuse laughter into every aspect of her life. We will truly miss you Valerie Harper, but we will remember you for all the gifts you left behind for us.