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The funny world of Bob Newhart

The comedian looks back on 50 years in the biz. On Friday, he'll be at the Aero Theatre with two of his best films: 'Hot Millions' and "Cold Turkey.'

February 19, 2010|By Susan King
  • Bob Newhart, accountant? He started off as one but soon saw the comedy light.
Bob Newhart, accountant? He started off as one but soon saw the comedy light. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

More often than not, people live lives of quiet desperation in jobs they hate.

But not Bob Newhart.

No sooner had he become an accountant than he knew he had to get out.

"I just made the decision that I was going to try comedy, and if didn't work, then I knew it didn't work," he says. "Then I would go back and do whatever. But at least I wouldn't torture myself the rest of my life, wondering whatever would have happened. . . ."

He didn't make the transformation overnight. He first became an advertising copywriter in Chicago, and it was there in 1958 that Newhart and a co-worker would entertain each other with comedic phone calls, which they would record and send to radio stations as audition tapes.

Though his co-worker eventually stopped doing the bits, Newhart continued recording on his own. In 1959, Dan Sorkin, a radio DJ, introduced him to the head of talent at Warner Bros. Records. The company signed him.

Everyman comedy

His first stand-up album, 1960's "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart," sold 1.5 million copies and won Grammys for best new artist and album of the year.

His Everyman comedy routines were a breath of fresh air in a world of controversial comics such as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. One of his most famous bits found Newhart playing a harried driving instructor dealing with the worst student in the world.

Ironically, the first time he performed his routines in front of an audience was when he recorded the album at a club in Houston.

"It took almost a full year for Warner Bros. to find a club that would take a chance on a guy who had never worked a club before," the genial 80-year-old entertainer recalls over lunch at the Four Seasons.

Newhart is celebrating his 50th anniversary in the biz in a big way. On Friday evening, he's at the American Cinemathque's Aero Theatre in Santa Monica presenting two of his best films: 1968's "Hot Millions," which also stars Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith, and the 1971 satire "Cold Turkey," which stars Dick Van Dyke. He'll also be discussing his career at a Grammy Museum tribute on March 9 and at a TV Academy salute on June 1.

Newhart says he learned comedy from the best, especially Jack Benny, with whom he became close friends.

"I would watch the Sullivan show, the Paar show and 'The Steve Allen Show,' but I would watch the comedians clinically," he says. " 'Why did they use that word? I understand where they are going.' For a comedian, there is nothing better than watching another great comedian."

Another classic routine from his first album featured Abraham Lincoln being coached by his press agent before giving the Gettysburg Address.

"Abe Lincoln came out of a book by Vance Packard called 'The Hidden Persuaders,' " says Newhart. "It was a book about subliminal advertising. I read the book and somehow I made a connection, because all comedy has a connection and an association with something else."

It was Benny's favorite routine. "I was at the Crescendo on Sunset and Jack came in with Mary [his wife] and George Burns and Gracie Allen. They came back afterward and Jack said, 'If we are ever in the same city and I'm in the audience, finish whatever bit you are doing and do Abe Lincoln.' "

Lincoln shrinks

Fast forward a few years and Newhart is winding up his engagement at the Palmer House in Chicago. "He's about to open there and he's in the audience. So I do Abe Lincoln. Jack comes back afterward and says, 'You left that out, you left this out. . . .' He was absolutely right. I had tightened it because of the attention span of the public. It was around the time of 'Laugh-In,' and I could tell in Vegas that you couldn't do eight-minute routines anymore. You had to do it in about five minutes."

Newhart ventured into series TV in 1961 with "The Bob Newhart Show" on NBC. Though it won an Emmy and Peabody, it lasted only one season. There were several reasons, but he admits it was a strain "trying to do a good monologue every week for 36 weeks."

Nevertheless, he jumped at the chance to do "The Bob Newhart Show" for CBS in 1972.

"I had changed and TV had changed," says Newhart, who has been married to wife Ginny Quinn since 1963. They have four children and nine grandchildren. "I wanted to get off the road."

After that now-classic series ended in 1978, he did "Newhart" for the network from 1982 to 1990.

Still at work

Though two subsequent sitcoms for CBS, "Bob" and "George and Leo," were disappointments, Newhart has kept busy, playing Papa Elf in the movie "Elf" and the head librarian in the TNT movie franchise "The Librarian," earning an Emmy nomination for the last installment, 2008's "The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice."

He's also done guest shots on "ER" and "Desperate Housewives." And Newhart still does his stand-up around the country.

But he's slowed the pace since his wife was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2008 and underwent chemotherapy.

"She got a liver transplant on Dec. 28 at UCLA," Newhart says with a smile, his voice filling with emotion. "She is doing incredibly. That puts everything in perspective."

susan.king@latimes.com

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