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BRIEF ENCOUNTER

The patient is in

Bob Newhart checks into 'ER' Thursday as an architect losing his sight.

October 26, 2003|Robert Abele

The doctor is now the patient. Comedian Bob Newhart, who in the '70s helped bring a broad legitimacy to the mental health profession as America's favorite psychologist, Bob Hartley, on the sitcom "The Bob Newhart Show," is returning to television Thursday -- but this time it's not for laughs. The 73-year-old master of the comedic pregnant pause is taking on his first wholly dramatic role, as a suicide-minded architect losing his sight due to macular degeneration, in a special multi-episode stint on "ER."

But before the mild-mannered comedy legend can sit down for an interview at the Warner Bros. lot where "ER" is filmed, a worshipfully giddy Sherri Springfield -- with whom he shares most of his scenes -- has corralled Newhart into signing videos and CDs of his stand-up act for her relatives and friends. With a varied career that spans recording success (his No. 1 comedy albums from the '60s), TV fame (two long-running eponymous sitcoms), a drinking game ("Hi, Bob," after the oft-repeated salutation from "The Bob Newhart Show") and many films, including this year's "Legally Blonde 2" and the upcoming "Elf," it's no wonder that Newhart fans can even be found sharing screen time with him.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Sherry Stringfield -- The actress' name was misspelled as Sherri Springfield in an article about Bob Newhart in Sunday's Calendar section.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 02, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Sherry Stringfield -- The actress' name was misspelled as Sherri Springfield in an article about Bob Newhart in last Sunday's Calendar.

What made your character on "ER" interesting to play?

He's not morose, and he's not angry, and he's not bitter. His whole life has to do with his vision, and his view is, "If I can't see, I really don't want to live." But he still has a sense of humor. I'm not a Method actor. I've been lucky in that I've been able to internalize something and somehow it comes out. Actually, I say it's the first intentionally dramatic role I've ever played. [Laughs.] I've played some comedy roles that turned out to be dramatic. I always wanted to play in a western, but I knew the audience would become hysterical when I pushed the swinging doors aside and said, [growling] "Where's Black Bart?"

Do hospitals make you squeamish?

I don't know anybody who likes them. "Whoa boy, I get to go to a hospital!" My wife says I'm a terrible patient. Comedians are not known as the most stable of people. I mean, I'm probably the most stable and I'm probably certifiable.

In the years since you've played a psychologist, do people assume they can come to you and start telling you their problems?

I had a nice thing happen, a story that got back to me: This family was having trouble with their son, and they said, "Would you mind going to a therapist?" He said, "Well, is he like that man on television?" They said, "Yeah." He said, "Oh, OK." That was nice, one less screwed-up person out there because of me. I should have had my license pulled in the second or third year. I never helped anybody. Everybody was as or more screwed up after six years than when they first came there.

Every so often, the death knell for the sitcom is announced. If you were there when the sitcom was wheeled into the ER, how would I resuscitate it?

I'd get more graybeards onto the writing staff. Those guys are still funny. Larry Gelbart is still funny and he wrote for Sid Caesar. There's a lot of good, older writers out there.

In "Elf" you play a father-figure elf to Will Ferrell's human-who-thinks-he's-an-elf. How do you rate Ferrell's ability to move from television to movies?

Will did a wonderful job making the transition from sketch comedy to the screen, which is hard to do. In sketch comedy, like with Tim Conway and Harvey Korman and Carol Burnett, they had about three seconds to establish who a person is -- a fop, whatever. It's broader. [Laughs] Will and I traded a lot of anecdotes. He'd tell me about "Saturday Night Live" and I'd tell him about "The Bob Newhart Show." At one point I went up to ["Elf" director] Jon Favreau and said, "You better get me out of this picture pretty soon. I'm running out of anecdotes."

Nick at Nite has put up statues commemorating "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Honeymooners" and "The Andy Griffith Show" in the cities where those sitcoms took place. Is there a "Bob Newhart Show" monument planned for Chicago?

Yeah. The present plans are for [a statue of] me sitting, and then a couch next to me, so tourists could have their picture taken as if they were in a session with me. And if it's in the location that they're talking about, it would be a place I literally walked by a thousand times when I was going to school at Loyola University downtown. If someone had said to me 50 years ago, "Oh by the way, there's going to be a statue of you over there," I would go, "Yeah, right." This would be as surreal an experience as I've ever had in my life.

-- Robert Abele

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