A few months shy of his 85th birthday, Newhart has entered the national treasure phase of his career, proving it’s still very hip to be square.
Several generations of TV audiences have watched his classic CBS sitcoms – 1972-1978’s “The Bob Newhart Show” and 1982-1990’s “Newhart” in syndication and on DVD. On Tuesday, Shout! Factory released the entire “Bob Newhart Show” on DVD with several extra features, including new interviews with Newhart and other cast members, Bill Daily, Peter Bonerz and Jack Riley among them, and the 1991 CBS reunion special.
Newhart has also developed a fan base with young audiences thanks to his roles as Papa Elf in the 2003 Will Ferrell holiday comedy “Elf” and for his role as Arthur Jeffries on CBS’ top-rated sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.”
Newhart has always been a gentle minimalist, which may be why he does not get anywhere near the critical respect of fellow founding fathers of modern stand-up, like Bill Cosby or Lenny Bruce. In his many television shows, including the jewel of his career, “The Bob Newhart Show,” his characters are a parody of reticent stoicism, using pauses and the unsaid to let the audience come to him and fill in the joke.
The show, which ran from 1972 to 1978 and was released in a boxed set, is not celebrated as much as the other hits of the era that were more fiercely political (“All in the Family”) or more daring (“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” or “M*A*S*H”). But the comic situations in the “The Bob Newhart Show” are as well wrought as any of them, and it was the first to successfully build a sitcom out of a stand-up persona.
The opening shot of the series is Newhart on a telephone, and almost every episode features a one-sided conversation. The rhythm of the show matches the unhurried deadpan of his album. Newhart plays a mild-mannered Chicago psychologist, Dr. Robert Hartley, settled into a contented but dull marriage. At the end of the second episode, he puts his wife, played with great verve and necessary warmth by Suzanne Pleshette, to sleep by talking about himself.
It’s something of a risk to build a series around a boring man, especially one who works as a psychologist and doesn’t (often) make crazy patients into a joke. In the first two seasons, it’s a genial, occasionally bland but mature show. As he has said in interviews, Newhart did not want his character to have kids, and the comedy hinges on either workplace issues or marriage. The show hits its stride in the third and fourth seasons, when a group of odd but clearly drawn patients gives Newhart more pronounced eccentricity to play off.
But its comic core is clearly Newhart himself. Most of the plots revolve around a mild humiliation that he suffers with a stone face. Few comedians have gotten more from blinks or a furrowed brow. At one point, Pleshette pleads with him to smile in anticipation of a surprise party that he knows is coming. “I am smiling,” he said, to which she shoots back, “Could you use the other lip?”
Last September, Newhart finally won his first Emmy as the down-on-his-luck Jeffries, who, as Dr. Proton, had hosted a tacky children’s science series that Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) watched as kids. In a recent episode, Sheldon, Leonard and the gang learn that Arthur has died. But Sheldon discovers that Arthur will be there by his side as his own personal Obi-Wan Kenobi.
“The plan is whenever Jim has a problem he comes to Obi-Wan to help him,” said Newhart. “They told me the idea, and I thought it was great.”
“Big Bang” show runner Steven Molaro came up with the idea of introducing a retired Mr. Wizard-esque character on the series. Series creator Chuck Lorre knew just the man.
“One of the smartest things I said in a while was, ‘How about Bob Newhart?’ I called because I know him personally and asked him,” Lorre said. “He was wide open because he liked the show.”
Newhart is also reprising his Emmy-nominated turn as head librarian Judson in the first two episodes of the upcoming TNT series “The Librarians,” based on the three popular TNT “The Librarian” adventure movies starring Noah Wyle.
“He brings so much experience, so many life lessons, so many colors,” said “Librarians” executive producer Dean Devlin. “I think probably the hardest thing about working with Bob is that everybody wants to talk to him. He is just a treasure trove of knowledge, anecdotes, great stories and wisdom.”