Not long before his 1960 debut comedy album “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” soared to No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart, the now legendary comedian was nearing 30, living at home with his parents in Chicago and working as an accountant and a copywriter.
“People kept telling me, you’re funny, you should go to New York, go on Broadway,” says Newhart, who will be honored with the Publicists of the Intl. Cinematographers Guild Lifetime Achievement Award at the org’s 52nd annual luncheon on Feb. 20. “I had to find out if I could make a living doing comedy.”
But the runaway sales of “Button-Down,” which earned Newhart his first of three Grammys and remains the 20th best-selling album of all time, took the neophyte by surprise.
“You’d have to coin a new word for shock,” says Newhart of his reaction to this sudden fame. “I thought if we got really lucky it might sell 25,000 copies and maybe seven or eight people would know who I was when I went into a club — but then it sold a million. It was a blessing and curse because I wasn’t prepared to deal with that kind of success.”
Newhart may not have been prepared for his rapid ascent, but audiences, slayed by his deadpan brand of stand-up humor, certainly were. Whether impersonating a submarine commander at work or a security guard who spots King Kong clinging to the Empire State building his first night on the job — he made people laugh.
“Comedians watch people and then people pay to see us do them,” says the comic. “You’re never on vacation because you’re always watching,” Newhart says.
Soon the comedian was selling out nightclubs and theater venues across America. Then came television.
“The Bob Newhart Show,” a snappy variety format on NBC, bowed in 1961, followed by numerous film and TV appearances (Newhart has guest-hosted “The Tonight Show” 87 times), including the top-rated, landmark CBS sitcoms for which he’s best known, “The Bob Newhart Show” (not to be confused the identically titled variety show), which ran from 1972-78 and “Newhart,” from 1982-90.
For the past 55 years, the comedy icon has kept the laughs coming. He has recorded eight albums, received the 2002 Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and, in 2006, penned the best-selling memoir. Most recently, Newhart was profiled on PBS’s “American Masters: Bob Newhart: Unbuttoned.” Yet despite these numerous accolades, an Emmy remained elusive for Newhart until 2013, when he nabbed the award for guest actor in a comedy series for his work on “The Big Bang Theory.”
“I was in pretty tough company when I first started out,” he says of Emmy snubs early on in his career. “I was up against actors like Carroll O’Connor and Alan Alda, so at some point I stopped submitting my name. Who knows? I probably would have won if I had kept my name in.”
Today, Newhart shows no signs of slowing down. This spring he’ll embark on a stand-up tour.
“For 55 years I’ve been on the road,” says Newhart. “It’s the story of my life. I can’t imagine ever not doing standup.”