Bored in his job as an accountant in Chicago, Bob Newhart decided he would rather talk to imaginary people all day than crunch numbers.
Apparently, it wasn't such a crazy career move after all.
Taking up comedy, Newhart became known for performing stand-up routines in which he portrays one end of a conversation, usually on a phone call, implying what the other person is saying. He delivers most lines with an intentional stammer and a dry sense of humor, becoming the definition of deadpan.
His debut album, “The Button-Down mind of Bob Newhart,” released in 1960, was the first comedy album to reach No. 1 on the charts and still ranks as the twentieth best-selling album of all time. Seven more albums followed, earning Newhart three Grammys.
His 1961 variety show, The Bob Newhart Show, only lasted one season but received an Emmy nomination and a Peabody Award. He created a sitcom by the same name a decade later, playing the starring role of dry-humored psychologist Dr. Bob Hartley.
Ironically, when the show ended after six seasons, it provided the perfect ending for his second sitcom, Newhart, which ran from 1982-1990.
In the last episode of that show, in which Newhart played Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon, he woke up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, who played Newhart’s wife, Emily, on The Bob Newhart Show. It turns out the entire Newhart series was dreamt by Hartley. The script is considered one of the best finale episodes ever written.
Newhart later starred in two other short-lived sitcoms and has acted in a handful of movies; one of his most recognized roles is Papa Elf in the Christmas comedy Elf, starring Will Ferrell. Yet stand-up is still what thrills him the most, and at 83 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Newhart will perform material from his hit records as the featured entertainer at the seventh annual Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance gala, held February 23 at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. He talked to PBI about his career over the years and what keeps him going.
You have been doing stand-up since 1960. What do you love about it still?
It’s an opiate [laughs]. [I’ll do it] as long as I’m physically able to do it. … If you’re lucky enough to have that ability, why would you say, “I’m tired of making people laugh. I don’t think I’ll do it anymore”?
I always say the alternative is sitting at home in a darkened room like Sunset Boulevard and having [someone] ask, “What episode of the Bob Newhart show do you want to see?” Between the two of them, I opted for doing stand-up.
Who are some comedians you admire today?
I like Jerry Seinfeld. When I was doing Newhart, someone asked me, “Who do you see as the new Newhart?” And I said, “Jerry Seinfeld.” That was before Jerry did [Seinfeld]. He’s likeable and wears well and is very funny, and I wish I could’ve bought stock in him, because it turns out he was very successful.
Speaking of Newhart, have you had any other strange dreams since the show ended?
[laughs] That was my wife’s idea. … She said, “Well, you ought to end the show with a dream sequence, where you wake up in bed with Emily and explain this weird dream you had.” … I gave [CBS] the premise and they ran with it, because there were so many inexplicable things about Newhart. What were these three guys from obviously the Deep South doing in Vermont?
Younger generations today know you as Papa Elf from Elf. Did you know from the start that movie was going to be such a hit?
When they sent me the script … I thought, “This is going to be perennial. This is going to be like Miracle on 34th Street.” And it is [laughs]. It had a great message.
I thought Will was phenomenal. That was a tough role to play. He could’ve been perceived as not very bright, and yet he was perceived as he just wanted to believe in the goodness of people, which is a hard thing to pull off.
My favorite scene is when he sits on my lap and he weighs about 200 pounds [laughs].
What’s the next movie you want to see?
One I’m looking forward to seeing is Barrymore. They say Christopher Plummer’s just brilliant. He was such an interesting character, John Barrymore. The whole family was.
Before you were an actor or a comedian, you were an accountant. Are you still good at math?
Yeah [laughs]. I have accountants who do the accounting for me. And they send the reports and I can’t make heads or tails of them. But I kind of, “Hmmm … uh, huh” [laughs]. They think I know what they’re talking about. That’s an advantage when someone thinks you know something and you really don’t [laughs].
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
One that most stands out to me was being inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. … I had received my award, been inducted and was watching Jack Webb’s daughters accept the award for him, and it occurred to me that when I was an accountant, I used to watch Dragnet like everybody else and then go into the office the next day and everybody talked about, “What did you think about Dragnet last night?” And here I am sitting in the audience, inducted with Jack Webb. Like, wow, that fell into place.
What about outside your career?
In January, it [was] my fiftieth wedding anniversary. In this town, that’s quite an accomplishment. All the credit goes to her [laughs]. She’s a very patient woman.
What have you learned from 50 years of marriage?
I’ve learned that all the things I thought were all so very important, they really don’t matter. It all comes down to family and friends. And that’s what it’s all about it. I wish I had known that when I first started out. I would’ve enjoyed my friends more.
What do you want to be remembered for?
That maybe I’ve influenced some people along the way. I’ve heard people credit me for that. I hope it’s true, because I certainly was influenced by people before me—all the great comedians I’ve watched: Johnny Carson and Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and Gleason and Ed Sullivan. It was just a wonderful span of time.
What do you like about Palm Beach?
The living is so laidback. To me, it’s people who worked very hard and earned their money and now are enjoying it. They’re entitled to enjoy themselves.
Who would you most like to have dinner with—anyone, dead or alive?
I’ve never been asked that before. There are so many. I’m a history buff. I guess I would love to have dinner with Abraham Lincoln. That was such a pivotal time in our history, where the country could’ve split in two. … He was so smart. He saw what it meant if the country were turned under.
You’re a history buff?
Yeah, I love nonfiction. I don’t read a lot of romance novels [laughs].
What are some of your other passions?
I’m the master of going out at noon and not coming back until 6:00 at night and not having accomplished anything [laughs]. And I’ve taken it to an art form. I’m publishing a book on how to waste your time.
How do you waste time?
It’s hard to describe. If I’m busy and driving here and driving there, I come home and haven’t really accomplished anything. But I have the next day to look forward to of not accomplishing. It’s very tiring [laughs].