NOVEMBER 22, 2013 — Bob Newhart didn’t need another award. The 84-year-old actor and comedian has enough trophies to fill a warehouse. But when he was nominated for a Primetime Emmy earlier this year, nobody thought he would win — including Newhart himself.
Bob Newhart guest stars as Professor Proton on THE BIG BANG THEORY
“It was a pretty tough category,” he said from his home in Bel Air, Calif. “When they said my name and I walked up, they gave me a standing ovation. It was especially powerful because it was from my peers.”
Newhart was up against the likes of Justin Timberlake, Louis CK, and Nathan Lane at the 65th Prime Time Emmy Awards on Sept. 22. He picked up the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series award for his role as Arthur Jeffries/Professor Proton on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. It was his first Primetime Emmy.
Born and raised on Chicago’s west side, Newhart was brought up Catholic and attended parochial schools, including St. Catherine of Siena grammar school in Oak Park and St. Ignatius College Prep (high school) where he graduated in 1947.
“I went to Loyola University in Chicago, which is a Jesuit school,” he said. “Ever since my success in comedy, I’ve always credited the Jesuits for the somewhat twisted way I have of looking at life.”
Two of his sisters still call the Midwest home. In fact, one of Newhart’s three sisters is a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “She’s about two years older than I am,” he said. “She’s a computer whiz. She’s just a whiz at everything she does.”
Bob Newhart poses with an Emmy in a promo shot for the 11th Emmy Awards, which aired on May 6, 1959
As a young, budding comedian, Newhart served a stint in the Army during the Korean War before scoring a recording contract with Warner Brothers Music in 1959. The only problem was that he had never played a comedy club. Newhart patterned his act on the deadpan style of popular comedy duo Bob and Ray. He and a friend had worked out a routine, but never took it beyond their circle of friends.
“I always had this bent toward comedy, but never really thought anything substantial would come of it,” he explained. When the record company heard his work, they offered him the contract and set him up at a comedy club in Houston.
“I was absolutely terrified,” he said of his first performance. “You learn very quickly if you’re going to do stand-up comedy, you can’t show fear because it makes the audience nervous. They sense it. So with all the bravado I could muster, I tried to pretend I knew what the hell I was doing.”
Newhart’s debut comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, topped Billboard’s album charts in 1960, sailing past Elvis Presley and The Sound of Music soundtrack. It was the first comedy album to ever hit No. 1 on Billboard. The album won the 1961 Grammy Award for Album of the Year and Newhart won Best New Artist.
Transition to television
With his career on the fast track, Newhart made the leap to television in 1961 with a 60-minute comedy variety show on NBC. While the show garnered several awards, it only lasted one season.
The transition from stand-up comedy to acting was a rough one for Newhart. “I was fine in the monologues, but I was very uncomfortable with the sketches,” he explained. “So when the show only lasted a year, I had to learn how to do that.”
“It was well-received,” he explained, but “we got an Emmy, a Peabody and a pink slip from NBC all in one year.”
Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette starred in THE BOB NEWHART SHOW from 1972-1978
It would be another 12 years before the comedian stepped in front of the television cameras again when he launched his first sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show. He starred as dry psychologist Bob Hartley, with Suzanne Pleshette playing his wryly loving wife, Emily.
“I think I was the first male comic to transition from stand-up to a situation comedy,” he said.
Then in 1982, he starred in the CBS sitcom Newhart, playing Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon. The show ran for eight seasons, two years longer than his first sitcom.
Since Newhart left the airwaves in 1990, the comedian has continued working as a stand-up comedian. He still does 20 shows per year. He makes regular guest appearances on television and takes small film roles — including his hilarious turn as Papa Elf in Will Farrell’s 2003 Christmas comedy Elf.
Then came The Big Bang Theory. As Newhart tells it, the show’s creator and producer, Chuck Lorre, calls him every year to offer him a role in one of his sitcoms. Newhart turned down every one — roles on Cybil, Roseanne, Two and a Half Men and Grace Under Fire.
In January of this year, Newhart said, Lorre called him saying, “‘OK. I’m ready for my annual turn-down.’ So I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. First of all, the show has to be done in front of a live audience because I don’t know how to do a show without an audience. And it has to be a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory because I think it’s really wonderfully written.’ He agreed, and that’s how it came about.”
Faith and family
Bob Newhart as Papa Elf in the 2003 comedy ELF
Newhart admits that he and his wife Ginnie are somewhat of an anomaly in Hollywood because their marriage has lasted more than 50 years.
“Being Catholic has a lot to do with it,” he said. “You work a little harder. You don’t just have your first fight and walk out the door.”
Faith has sustained the octogenarian throughout his life, but never more so than when Ginnie was diagnosed with cancer.
“During the week, I’ll go to church twice a week,” Newhart said. “My wife had liver cancer. She had a liver transplant four years ago. She’s in the prime of health now. I kind of go and thank Him for that. That was a very emotional time.”
Catholicism has also shaped Newhart’s work, he said, especially when he was tempted to depart from clean, family-friendly comedy.
“There were times along the way over 50 years — mostly in the ’70s — when there was the temptation to maybe get a little bluer in my stand-up act,” he explained. “It just never felt comfortable. It was like a sweater that never felt right, you know. There was something wrong with the shoulder. I’ve talked with Jerry Seinfeld, who isn’t Catholic obviously. He’s Jewish. We talked about doing a clean show, the way we feel about it at the end of it, you feel good about it.”
If you see Newhart on stage these days, you can certainly anticipate a clean show, but you may also get a good dose of Catholic humor.
“Being a comedian, I have a lot of Jewish friends, and they always talk about the Jewish religion,” Newhart said. “I thought, one day, ‘You know it’s kind of funny growing up Catholic.’ So I do a whole thing on being Catholic and it’s been very well received — especially if you get a bunch of Catholics together.”
Bob Newhart and his wife Ginnie attend the 2013 Emmy Awards
Unlike many of his fellow celebrities, Newhart acknowledges that his most important success has come away from the bright lights of Hollywood.
Asked what has brought him the most joy in his life, he didn’t hesitate. “My family, obviously. I have four kids and 10 grandchildren. We just had the latest — five months old, a girl. I’ve always said: I don’t care how successful you’ve been in this business, if you haven’t had a good family life, what have you really achieved? Not an awful lot. You can be the richest man in the world and look back at your marriages that were disasters and what have you really accomplished? That’s the way I look at life.”
Newhart’s take on life may be dry, but it’s always profound and often spiritual. “I think God has an incredible sense of humor,” he said. “All you have to do is look around the world. There’s no question that He has an incredible sense of humor.”
PATRICK NOVECOSKY is the editor of this blog.