Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz asked comedian Bob Newhart, "Do you know that you were profoundly influential?"
"Not profoundly," he replied.
"All right, just influential?"
"That's it, I'm not taking this anymore, all right? I'm leaving …"
We start with a word of warning: Do not try to flatter Bob Newhart.
Mankiewicz spoke to Newhart last week at the L.A. home he shares with his wife, Ginny. "You're one of these typical Hollywood players, woman after woman, how long have you and Ginny been married?"
"57 years," Newhart replied.
"Why do you think that is?"
"Laughter. There's something about laughter, and the longevity of a marriage."
While the world has changed a great deal since he burst onto the scene in 1960, Bob Newhart seems not to have gotten the memo. He's been getting laughs the same way he did at the start. He's an original observationalist. Sure, he looks like your dad's boss at the dealership, but he's got a subversive streak, delivered with perfect deadpan timing. It's a school of standup whose graduates include Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld.
Born just outside of Chicago during the Great Depression, Newhart's stammering style was no act. That's how he talked as a shy kid with a wry wit. After serving in the Army, Newhart became an accountant – an accountant who wasn't good with numbers. "If I had been with Enron, they would still be in business," he said. "They could never have figured out my book. Mr. Wilkinson – I still remember his name – he said, 'Jeez, these are not sound accounting principles.' I said, 'I don't think I'm cut out for accounting.' And that's when I decided, okay, let's find out if I'm any good [at comedy]."
Mankiewicz asked, "How did you know you were funny?"
"People would tell me I was funny," was the honest reply.
His failure became success. He hit it big in 1960. His debut album, "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart," won three Grammys, including a shocker: Best Album.
Mankiewicz asked, "You beat out Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra – and then you met Frank later?"
"I got to know Frank," said Newhart. "My stammer is getting even worse as I discuss it! I don't think Frank was thrilled that a stand-up comic beat out his album."
Newhart's trademark is his cadence. He takes his time. He pauses. And he has those phone calls. His favorite? A publicity man talking to his client, Abe Lincoln, before the Gettysburg Address:
"You changed 'four score and seven' to '87'?"
'I have on the wall, the Abe Lincoln routine. They want to put it in the Smithsonian," he said.
"Your 1960 Abe Lincoln routine is going into the country's preeminent museum? Pretty good!"
"Yeah, now that you bring it up, yeah!" Newhart said.
That disarming style suited him perfectly on TV, first in "The Bob Newhart Show," as a psychologist married to Suzanne Pleshette, part of CBS' powerful Saturday night lineup: "All in the Family," "MASH," "Mary Tyler Moore," "Bob Newhart," and "Carol Burnett."
"Murderer's Row," Newhart said. "We used to get Super Bowl numbers. There were only three networks at that time – well, some people claim two-and-a-half networks."
"Which one was the half-network?"
Newhart demurred: "I might have to work for them one day!"
Mankiewicz said, "You and Suzanne Pleshette, I still think, appeared to have the best television marriage I have ever seen."
"Yeah, we had a chemistry that was wonderful," Newhart said.
A second show, "Newhart," came in the '80s. He played an innkeeper in Vermont. It ran for eight seasons, with a classic ending: The entire show was a dream, and he wakes up in bed with his first TV wife, Pleshette.
Mankiewicz asked, "Was it always the plan to end the show the way you did?"
"No, it was my wife's idea," Newhart said. "The audience went nuts."
Mankiewicz said, "You created an indelible TV moment."
"She did! I didn't," Newhart replied.
Newhart has legions of new fans, from "Elf" with Will Ferrell, to "The Big Bang Theory." "I really like 'The Big Bang Theory,'" Newhart said. "I think it's very well-written. And also in the back of my head I was like, I know how to do that."
Next month, a 1992 show, "Off the Record," showcasing his greatest bits, will be available for streaming.
Mankiewicz said, "Up until the pandemic you were still performing."
"Yeah, it's a narcotic!" Newhart smiled. "People would say, 'Why do you still do it?' I say, 'Yeah, you're right, I'm tired of making people laugh. I hate it!'
"I have this theory that when it's all over, for death, and you go up I've been led to believe to heaven and there's a God and he says, 'What did you do?' And I say, 'I made people laugh.' 'Yeah, get in that real short line over there.'"
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon and John Goodwin. Editor: Ed Givnish.