Q&A: Jim Parsons and Bob Newhart on Actor Chemistry and the State of Sitcoms

Jim Parsons and Bob Newhart in
Parsons: Vera Anderson; Newart:John Heller - WireImage

On “The Big Bang Theory,” Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) idolizes his childhood hero, Professor Proton (Bob Newhart), much to the professor’s dismay. In real life, though, the admiration is a bit more mutual — and that was clearly evident when the two Emmy-nominated actors (Parsons for “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Normal Heart”; Newhart for “Big Bang”) met at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills for a conversation with Variety. As it turns out, the pair have more in common than brilliant comic timing: Parsons grew up in Houston, where Newhart recorded the 1960 album that launched his career, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart.” And on stage, both played the role of Elwood P. Dowd, a sweet man who befriends an invisible 6-foot rabbit in “Harvey.”

Variety: How did you two first meet?
Parsons: At the table read.
Newhart: Actually, we met at the Emmy Awards before that.
Parsons: Really? Why do I not remember this?
Newhart: That’s the story of my life.
Parsons: That’s insane! Did we speak?
Newhart: Yes, I went up to you and said I enjoy your work. I don’t know if you knew who I was.
Parsons: I do find many of those events are overwhelming, there’s a lot of information coming at you. I remember you coming to the table read and we’ve had so many good actors on but nobody before Bob that gave me the feeling of: “My God, you’re really here.” Which sounds ridiculous. But I have watched Bob through my whole life. But then it was really, really easy to work together. That’s something else I’ve found with people I admire, they are very easy to work with. Which is probably why they’re very successful.
Newhart: I understand that feeling. I was on a plane and Cary Grant was there. My wife had to step away and Cary Grant said, “Don’t worry, Bob and I will watch your luggage.” And I kept going, “Cary Grant just called me Bob! Oh my God!” I think I had met him before.
Parsons: But you didn’t remember?
Newhart: No, you remember the great ones. (They laugh.) Sorry, that’s low-hanging fruit.

Variety: How did you find out Professor Proton would be dying this season, and what was your reaction?
Newhart: I think it was (producer) Steve Molaro’s idea. He ran it by me and I said, “That sounds great.” The scene was funny anyway when we shot it in front of the audience, but the special effects heightened the comedy even more. And I thought it was very touching.
Parsons: I asked him if he had asked for a raise. Because why else would you kill off Mr. Newhart’s performance on our show? But this spirit manifestation they’ve opened up now is great.
Newhart: My father-in-law was an actor on many shows and he told me he used to get nervous. He would say, “I’ve got a cough this week. Will it get worse and worse? Are they writing me out?”
Parsons: Come to think of it, I don’t think we say what you died of.
Newhart: In sitcoms, people never die of anything. They’re just not there anymore.
Parsons: We only have 22 minutes — we don’t have time to bring the audience down and then back up.

Variety: There are fewer and fewer multi-camera sitcoms on TV these days, but it seems to be a medium you both prefer.
Newhart: When Chuck (Lorre) came to me, he asked what I wanted and I said it had to be three cameras and in front of a live audience. Because I don’t know how to do it in that sterile, one-camera comedy way. He said, “You got it.” And it’s amazing how similar your stage is to Stage 17 at Radford. It’s scary, almost. It felt like going back 20 years.
Parsons: I feel very, very fortunate I ended up on a multi-camera. I would love to explore other formats, but that was what I was raised on. All that time in front of the TV for me was not wasted at all. It was absolutely an education on multi-camera sitcoms. There are some key elements that carry over so I’m not shocked to hear that you felt comfortable.
Newhart: I think you’re better and the writing’s better. Because you know you’re going to be judged instantly. You do the one camera, and they put a laugh track on it. I’ve done it a couple times and I hate it. Coming from standup, that live audience — it drives you.
Parsons: You can’t fake it in post.

Variety: So why do you think people keep saying the multi-camera sitcom is dead?
Parsons: When we started out, somebody said we were making the last of the buggy whips, but the bottom line was the Model T was here. But I don’t know why they say that, because both forms exist on television quite happily next to each other.
Newhart: Toward the end of “Newhart,” they asked me who the next Newhart would be because the sitcom was dying. I said Jerry Seinfeld, he’s made for television. That shows you how long they’ve been predicting the death of sitcoms.

Variety: You’ve both had the luxury of working with fantastic ensembles. What’s the key to great chemistry?
Newhart: Well, on “Moonlighting” they supposedly hated each other. But they had chemistry.
Parsons: An acrimonious relationship does not mean no chemistry. In the same way a close relationship off camera does not at all guarantee chemistry on screen.
Newhart: I remember working with Suzanne Pleshette, it was instant. In fact, when we started “Newhart,” I told my new TV wife, Mary Frann, “You really have a tough job because Susie and I had a chemistry I can’t explain. It was lighting in a bottle.” But Mary was fantastic, too, and did her own thing. I got very lucky.
Parsons: I’ve always felt what’s chemically working, if you will, on our show, is that everybody is so solidly doing their job. That sounds like a no-brainer but it’s not always easy. You get the feeling there’s people to bounce off of because they’re so solid and distinct in what they’re doing. No one’s robbing anyone else of their energy. When we were auditioning for the parts early on and pairing people together, I read with a lot of Leonards. I’d never met Johnny (Galecki), so I had no reason to believe we would or wouldn’t read well together. As soon as we read together, I thought, “This is it.” No one had made me feel as free. There was nothing for me to worry about with him; he was so good it allowed me to do my thing.

Variety: How do you think comedy has changed over the years?
Newhart: For me, the rhythm is different. For example, my rhythm and (“Big Bang’s”) rhythm are very different. On “The Bob Newhart Show,” we could take a minute and a half to set up a joke. That’s unheard of today. The audience is demanding go, go, go. That’s the way they write and the way it’s shot.
Parsons: You do feel that. When I think of the rerun/Nick at Nite education I was getting through Bob and Mary Tyler Moore, I was coupling that with a primetime that was already evolving with shows like “Cosby” and “Family Ties.” So I’ve seen the changes evolve to this faster pace.

Variety: I wouldn’t say you play the “straight men,” but you’ve both perfected the art of the deadpan. What’s the secret to that?
Newhart: Coming from standup, the admiration that standups feel towards the straight man in a comedy team is very high. They know how difficult it is and how good Dean Martin was and how great Abbott was with Costello. There’s as much satisfaction, I find, in getting the laugh as in setting up the laugh.
Parsons: Absolutely. It’s fun to just be a part of the machinations of building a moment. You feel as much a part of the payoff when it happens as if you were delivering the punchline or third in line.

Variety: Because you’ve played iconic roles, do you ever worry about typecasting?
Parsons: I’m not running around looking for other genius scientists to play right now. But that’s the only conscious decision I’ve made in terms of what I’ve done in my off time. And it’s such a wonderful job and wonderful role in a show that’s fun to be on that I guess kind of think, Who gives a shit? The only cure for that is to keep working. Either people are able to see you as other things or they’re not.

Variety: Jim, did you have to fight for the role in “The Normal Heart” — the film or the play?
Parsons: I met with Ryan Murphy for the film; I only found out afterwards it was Larry Kramer’s idea I get the part. But I never felt resistance from Ryan. In a way I guess I had auditioned by doing the play, in which case I thank George Wolfe for casting me. And he cast me without an audition; he knew me from “Big Bang.” So it helped me, really.
Newhart: I think you know what you’re getting with me, and that’s OK. In “In and Out” I got the sense they wanted a less likable person, someone who was more of a caricature or mean. And I warned them, “No matter what I do, I kind of come off sympathetic. For whatever reason.”
Parsons: Which is actually more interesting.
Newhart: I think so. It would have been broad and more easy to play. But the director Frank Oz said, “Whatever you feel. You know what to do.” And actually, as my shows were intentionally typecasting me, Professor Proton is very different. He has an anger, he’s mean, he hates his wife!

Variety: Acting is a tough business, and not easy to do.
Newhart: Thank you for saying that! I hate when people act like you just have to send in your coupons and the winner will receive a part in an upcoming movie. Everybody can’t act. In fact, very few people can act.
Parsons: And playing a real person is the hardest of all. There are actors in commercials who absolutely floor me.

Variety: If you could offer advice to someone interested in pursuing acting, what would it be?
Newhart: I say, don’t be in a rush to come out here. Stay in your town and make a reputation there and maybe that will lead to something.
Parsons: I’d never thought of it in those terms, but my answer is not dissimilar. I stayed in Houston for a long time and it allowed me the chance to do so much work, so many plays. The only way to figure something out is to do it. I had plenty to learn in class and God knows I had some wonderful teachers, but nothing compares to having to be before the footlights. Whether you stay where you are or you don’t, I would hope somebody who wanted to do it took the chance to do it as much as they could in whatever form that that meant.
Newhart: As a standup I had to learn the business from the top because I made an album that went big very fast and suddenly I was on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” So I was still learning my craft. In the early years, I would peek out through the curtains into the audience every night and really get in my head. I’d look around and go, “I think he’s drunk, that looks like a troubled table.” One night, I heard the music start and I realized I hadn’t done my evening ritual of looking at the audience yet. So I thought, “Whatever happens, I’ll take care of it.” And I did. And that’s the moment I really became a standup comic.
Parsons: It’s a version of learning to work on what you can and also learning to relinquish control.
Newhart: And you can’t control audiences. The worst you can get is a drunken woman. You can put her down twice, but the third time, the sympathy goes to her.

Variety: What’s the hardest role or scene you’ve ever had to play?
Newhart: I was in the movie “Catch-22,” which is a weird story about the weirdness of war. Mike Nichols, the director, told us, “You are all caricatures, you’re creations of the main character, you don’t exist. I want you to play it like a Greek Chorus.” And I didn’t know how to play that.
Parsons: It’s not a very playable thing, is it?
Newhart: No! So I said, I’ll just make it funny, that’s the only thing I know how to do. After one scene, Mike came in and said to me, “Now that’s the quality I’m looking for!” So I just kept doing what I was doing.
Parsons: I don’t know if it was the most difficult, but when I did “Harvey” on stage, working with that invisible rabbit was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I enjoyed so much relating to other people and playing that guy, what a wonderful presence to get to inhabit for a while. But that goddamn rabbit was wily, to say the least. He’s very active in that play. The director will tell you, I had moments of, “Well, where is he? Where did we leave him? And if I’ve got to take his hat off, where am I grabbing?”
Newhart: I did “Harvey,” I played Elwood as well. And I had experience because of the one-sided calls I did on TV, talking to someone who wasn’t there. So I played the rabbit as a phone call,
Parsons: Well, that’s probably brilliant, and you should have told me.