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‘American Master’ Bob Newhart modest as ever

July 20, 2005

By Barry Garron

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – Ask Bob Newhart to name
his favorite comedians, and he’ll rattle off a list. Prominent
among those on it are Jack Benny, from whom Newhart might have
learned the most, and Richard Pryor, whom he considers the most
influential comedian of the past half-century.

Then ask Newhart to name the individual who had the most
profound impact on his career, and he answers “Dan Sorkin.”
Sorkin was a Chicago disc jockey when Newhart, a self-confessed
mediocre accountant, worked at the Illinois State Unemployment
Compensation Board. Newhart was nearly 30 and still living with
his parents. He and a friend had worked up some comic bits, but
not much had come of it, and the friend moved out of town to
take a better job.

Newhart wanted more than anything to see if he could make a
living from comedy, but he couldn’t hold out much longer. “I
was getting close to going back into the real world and being
practical and giving up the dream of making it as a comic,” he
said in a recent interview.

Sorkin, meanwhile, told an acquaintance at Warner Bros.
about a deadpan comedian who was hilarious. Warner Bros. agreed
to take a chance on the unknown comic and, with the recording
of “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” in 1960, a comedy
legend was born. The record remains the 20th-best-selling album
of all time, and Newhart will be saluted as part of the
“American Masters” series Wednesday night on PBS.

“I don’t think of myself as an ‘American Master,”‘ Newhart
said with characteristic modesty. “I’m glad they do, but I
really don’t.”

He credits Virginia, his wife of 42 years, with keeping him
in check. Once, when she asked him to take out recyclable trash
so that it would be picked up, he said, “Do you think Joanne
Woodward asks Paul Newman to take out the recyclables?” Her
reply: “If you were Paul Newman, I wouldn’t ask you to take
them out.”

From his desperate days in Chicago to recyclables, Newhart
is recalling all of it for the memoirs he is co-authoring. The
deadline for the manuscript is year’s end, he said.

“It’s a recollection of things that have happened to me.
I’m kind of passing it on to young comedians. But it’s not a
primer for aspiring young comics. It’s anecdotal.”

Want to know how he came up with the famous ending to
“Newhart,” the one in which he wakes up with Suzanne Pleshette
of “The Bob Newhart Show?” His wife suggested it at a Christmas
party after he told her he thought the series was in its last
year. To preserve the surprise, the final script had a fake
scene in which he was hit in the head by a golf ball. Want to
know how Newhart came up with the idea for his classic driving
instructor routine? Buy the book.

At 75, Newhart is no longer interested in starring in
another sitcom, but he’s thrilled about his recurring role in
TV’s hottest series, “Desperate Housewives.”

“They could have gotten anybody they wanted,” he said. “I
think if they’d gone to (Arnold) Schwarzenegger, he would have
given up the governorship and accepted a role.”

All of this, and particularly his work on his memoirs, has
made Newhart more reflective. “You’re not unaware of your own
mortality. It’s out there. You think about it,” he said. But
not for long. Nor does he dwell on things he might have done
differently.

“I can’t do anything about it. Did I make mistakes? Yeah.
Can I change them? No,” he said. Instead, Newhart works at
being happy “because you have to work as hard at being happy as
you work at being depressed.”

“I remind myself what a remarkable life I’ve had,” he said.
For anyone else who needs reminding, the “American Masters”
special should prove more than sufficient.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter




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