When I decided to do research for a blog series about some of my favorite sitcom actors, I knew Tom Poston had to be on the list. Poston seems to be someone who’s always a bit under the radar, and I’m not sure he ever received the accolades he deserved.
Poston was born in 1921 in Columbus, Ohio. His father was a liquor salesman and dairy chemist, an interesting combination. Poston started at Bethany College in West Virginia but joined the Air Force in 1941. He went to flight school and served as a pilot in the European Theater for WWII and was part of the Normandy invasion.
After returning home, he decided to move to New York City to study acting and graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
He was cast in his first television show, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, in 1950. In 1955 Poston married actress Jean Sullivan. They would divorce in 1968, having one daughter.
He continued receiving dramatic roles throughout the early fifties. In 1956 he joined the Steve Allen Show, along with his cast mates Don Knotts and Louie Nye. In 1959 he won the Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his work on the show. In 1960 The Steve Allen Show moved to Los Angeles and Poston decided to remain in New York, but Tom and Don Knotts stayed life-long friends. He appeared on Broadway often and began making the game show circuit and continued accepting drama roles on the small screen.
When Mel Brooks was putting together the pilot for Get Smart, ABC was planning on airing the show and they wanted Tom for the star. However, when ABC declined the show and when NBC picked it up, Don Adams got the lead; Poston did appear on the show as a KAOS bad guy.
Poston married for the second time in 1968 to Kay Hudson with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1975 but remarried in 1980 and remained husband and wife until her death from ALS in 1998.
In 1975, he began recurring roles on two different sitcoms: On the Rocks and The Bob Newhart Show. On the Rocks was a show about the friendly rivalry between prisoners and their guards. On the Bob Newhart Show, Poston played “The Peeper,” Bob’s college buddy and big .prankster.
In 1977, Tom took on the role of Damon Jerome, photographer on We’ve Got Each Other. Beverly Archer played his assistant while her husband Stuart Hibbard (Oliver Clark) did the cooking and house cleaning. The show was cancelled after 13 episodes.
He appeared on a variety of shows during the late seventies and from 1979-1981, he portrayed grouchy neighbor Franklin Delano Bickley on Mork and Mindy. Poston said the role he played on the show was written for him. He said Robin was hysterically funny all the time. He said Pam Dawber was a comic genius because she was able to keep the focus on both Mork and Mindy, because anyone else would have been lost in Robin’s antics.
He moved from Colorado on that show to Vermont the next year when he became George Utley, handyman on Newhart. For eight seasons he worked at the Stratford Inn, becoming friends with Dick and Joanna. He was nominated for an Emmy in 1984, 1986, and 1987. (Pat Harrington won in 1984 for One Day at a Time and John Laroquette won for Night Court in 1986 and 1987.)
In an interview with the Television Academy, Poston discussed the last episode of Newhart. He said the cast members were kept in the dark about the ending. He said he was in the stands with the audience when that last scene with Suzanne Pleshette and Bob as Bob Hartley waking up from his “dream” was filmed. He said Bob’s wife Ginny had the idea, and Tom thought it was fabulous.
From 1990-1991, you could find him in Good Grief, playing Ringo Prowley, in a show set in a mortuary; when that show was cancelled, he was back with Bob Newhart on Bob as Jerry Fleisher.
During the 1990s, he would accept five recurring roles: Mr. Looney on Family Matters, Phineas Swenson on Murphy Brown, Dr. Art Hibke on Coach, Floyd Norton on Grace Under Fire, and Burt Sigardson on That Seventies Show. In between, he also managed to find time to guest star on more than thirty other shows including Home Improvement, Cosby, ER, The Drew Carey Show, and Will and Grace. He also accepted roles on the big screen in twelve movies during his career, the last two being The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement and Christmas with the Kranks, both in 2004, as well as 15 Broadway productions.
Tom tried married life once again in 2001 when he married actress Suzanne Pleshette. They were married until his death in 2007 from respiratory failure.
I was just amazed by Tom Poston’s career: a ton of television appearances–he probably had more recurring roles than almost any other actor during that time; a well-respected big screen career, a variety of Broadway roles and many gameshow stints. He was nominated for five Emmys, winning one. He always made the rest of the cast look better. I truly enjoyed getting to know a bit more about Tom Poston, one of our greatest sitcom stars.