TV dreams live on

Bob Newhart: 50 Years in Showbiz

Playing to his strengths, Bob Newhart toplined two CBS comedy hits — “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart” — and finished their combined 14-year run with one of the greatest farewells in TV history.

“Those two series gave him a vehicle that enabled him to do what he does best,” says Barry Kemp, “Newhart” creator and exec producer of the sitcom’s first two seasons. “He was put into situations where he could react to some fairly bizarre people around him.”

In “The Bob Newhart Show” (1972-78), a steady stream of colorful characters flowed into the practice run by Dr. Bob Hartley, the mild-mannered Chicago psychiatrist played by Newhart. Workplace regulars, such as the brash receptionist (Marcia Wallace) and bachelor orthodontist (Peter Bonerz), had their quirks, as did the neighbors in the high-rise apartment Hartley shared with his wife, Emily (Suzanne Pleshette).

Absent, for the most part, were kids, allowing the writers to focus more adult-oriented storylines, says Michael Zinberg, a writer, director and producer on the series. For example, in the 1977 “Ex-Con Job” episode, Hartley led a group therapy session at a prison, and in the 1975 Thanksgiving show, “Over the River and Through the Woods,” he begged out of a trip with Emily, and instead spent an alcohol-infused holiday with his buddies that included a classic call to a Chinese restaurant for moo goo gai pan.

The comedic situations connected with viewers who tuned in on Saturday nights, and also with in-studio audiences.

“It was fun watching the cast perform and do the show, and then hearing the audience respond to it,” Zinberg says. “I used to mix the soundtrack before it went on the air, and there were a miniscule number of edited laughs. It usually was the real audience.”

For “Newhart” (1982-90), Newhart returned to primetime with a new wife (Mary Frann) and a new life, as Dick Loudon, the harried owner of a colonial-era inn in scenic Vermont.

As it turned out, rural New England also was populated with eccentric characters, including George (Tom Poston), the inn’s slow-thinking caretaker, and Larry, Darryl and Darryl (William Sanderson, Tony Papenfuss and John Voldstad), three backwoods brothers who eventually take over the local cafe.

“The writers would come in with their own stories and say, ‘You know who’s really weird in my family?’ and characters would evolve out of that,” recalls Bob Bendetson, an exec producer and writer on the series. “We went very broad with them, but we always treated them as though they really existed. They were sort of quirky, small-town characters, and Bob would react in the way he would react — that these people are crazy.”

The series signed off on May 21, 1990, with what Entertainment Weekly earlier this year praised as the best TV series finale ever. In “The Final Newhart,” Dick Loudon is hit in the head by an errant golf ball and knocked unconscious. He then wakes up as Bob Hartley — with Emily in bed next to him — and tells her about his strange dream about living in Vermont and running an inn.

Also impressed by the sendoff was Kemp, who had moved onto another series, but returned to watch the taping of the finale. “Going back and completely recreating that bedroom,” he says, “where so many scenes took place between Bob and Suzanne, I thought that was really, really smart.”

Bob Newhart: 50 Years in Showbiz
No halt in this delivery | To heck with the hecklers | TV dreams live on | Friends through schtick and thin

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • Peter Weber and Mike Johnson

    'The Bachelor's' Mike Johnson on Diversity and New Leading Man Peter Weber

    ABC named its newest star of “The Bachelor” this week, officially making Peter Weber the leading man for Season 24 of the long-running dating show. Social media backlash ensued following the announcement due to ABC’s selection lacking diversity, yet again. Since the dating franchise began in 2002, there has been only one “Bachelorette” of color [...]

  • ABC Studios Logo

    ABC Studios Head of Alternative Fernando Hernandez Exits

    ABC Studios’ head of alternative Fernando Hernandez has departed from his post at the Disney-owned television studio, a source familiar with the situation told Variety. The Hollywood Reporter first reported the news. Hernandez’s exit follows an executive shuffling at the top in recent months that has included the departure of Amy Hartwick, ABC Studio’s head [...]

  • Rob Cowan, Greg Silverman'The Conjuring 2'

    Greg Silverman’s Stampede, School of Rock Team for Unscripted Series (EXCLUSIVE)

    Former president of Warner Bros. Pictures Greg Silverman is partnering with School of Rock through his content creation company Stampede. The collaboration with the music school will create exclusive content, starting with the development of an unscripted series.  School of Rock operates a network of performance-based education franchises that offer students of all ages guidance [...]

  • TV Roundup: Erica Durance Reprises 'Smallville'

    TV News Roundup: Erica Durance Reprises 'Smallville' Role in 'Arrowverse' Crossover

    In today’s TV news roundup, Erica Durance reprises her “Smallville” role in the CW’s annual “Arrowverse” crossover, and Showtime shares with Variety an exclusive sneak peek at the return of “The Circus.” FIRST LOOKS “2020 is the most important election of our lifetime,” Alex Wagner says in a new trailer for the fourth season of [...]

  • Patrick Whitesell and Ari Emanuel WME

    Endeavor Targets Sept. 27 for Stock Debut, IPO Video Tells Company's Origin Story

    After years of preparation, Endeavor is set to make its formal Wall Street debut on Sept. 27, when its stock will begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Endeavor has targeted Sept. 26 for the final pricing of its shares. The stock will trade publicly the following day. Earlier this week, Endeavor said its [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content