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Bob Newhart: The TV Squad Interview

by Joel Keller, posted Dec 4th 2008 11:08AM
Bob Newhart in The LibrarianWhat can you say about Bob Newhart that hasn't been written a million times over? He's a TV legend, with two classic sitcoms (The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart) on his resume. He's also a stand-up comedy legend, who left a humble accounting career to win a Grammy with his first comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, in 1960. He still tours today, and has been seen on both the big and small screens in a number of projects (Legally Blonde, Elf, ER).

On Sunday at 8 PM ET, he co-stars in The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice, the third in the Librarian series that has become a nice little franchise for TNT. He plays Judson, who acts as a guide and mentor to Noah Wyle's character of Flynn Carsen, a librarian who acts more like Indiana Jones than the person who stamps the insides of new books.

I spoke to Newhart by phone last week; we discussed the movie, shooting in New Orleans, his recent penchant for memorable supporting roles, and if he thinks the multi-camera sitcom has a future.

When you first got involved with The Librarian series, were you expecting there to be sequels over time?

Well, I didn't know the plans that they had, which are quite elaborate. My understanding, there are plans for six of them. And the next one is supposed to be, I think, a full-length feature. That's what I was told.

Theatrical or for TV?

Theatrical, yeah. And then probably go to TNT.

And you're going to be involved with all of those?

That's what I understand, yeah. The character, you know, Judson, is kind of important to the story.

What do you like about playing Judson, because it seems like he can embody every type of person when he's trying to give advice to the librarian?

Well, you know, the process you go through... I mean,I'm not a classically trained actor. I'm not a product of Stavlovski method or anything like that. Although you do kind of do that. Almost without knowing about it, you do it. But when I read a script, I generally say, 'Yeah, I know this guy. I can play this guy. I know who this guy is.'

There was one exception: that was ER. I played the part of a guy who had macular degeneration who was contemplating suicide. And of course, when I read it, I thought, 'Well, I don't really know this guy. That's something that I would never consider.' But then as I got further into the story and what his life had been like... I mean, you know, I have a wife of 45 years, nine grandkids, and 4 kids. So my life was really totally different from his. So suicide would never be a solution as far as I was concerned. But his wife had died, he was estranged from his daughter, he's always worked with his hands, and he was a model builder for Mies van der Rhoe the architect. So his whole life was around seeing and touching things. And then to be confronted with the fact that I can no longer see things...

But I got to kind of know him and said 'Yeah, that'd be kind of interesting to play.' And it turns out it was. It was nominated for an Emmy.

Is that the type of role you'd want to play going forward, or do you want to keep it light and comedic?

No, I'm so much more comfortable in comedy. I know what I'm doing. I was complimented that John Wells thought I could do it. I mean, he called me and said, here's the script, and this is the way we see it going, and it was more his confidence in my ability because there was really nothing in my background that would indicate that I was up to a dramatic part like that. No, but I'm always more comfortable in comedy. That's what I know.

When you play a guy like Judson who's in a few scenes, do you approach a role like that differently than you would something you'd be the star of?

To me, it's the same process as The Bob Newhart Show or Newhart. That was an ensemble cast. And you'd go in and do a scene, and if it was a Bill Daly scene, then it was his scene and you did everything you could to make the scene work. And if it was your scene, then you did everything you could... If it was Suzanne (Pleshette)'s scene, if it was Mary Frann's scene... That's the nature of the beast, that everybody pulls together and let's make this work. So that was not a transition at all for me to be in a lesser role.

So you've done a lot of supporting roles a lot for the last few years... Is this a conscious move that you've been making?

No. I wouldn't say conscious. They come along and just say, like for instance, the second...we didn't know it at the time, but the second Librarian shot in Cape Town, South Africa. And you say, 'Hey, that's a great trip, that's a great location.'

No, I just... if it appeals to me and I know how to play it, there's a certain part of me that... Well, for instance, I was recently offered a role, a major role, that would've amounted to like fifteen weeks in South Carolina, and I said no. I don't do fifteen weeks in South Carolina anymore. When I was younger, yeah, but... I'm going to be 80 next year, so I'm not looking to establish myself as a major movie star or anything like that. If it's a great script, I think it'll be fun, and it's a short period of time (I'll do it); I just want to spend as much time in California as I can.

You shot a lot of this current movie in New Orleans, right?

New Orleans, yeah. When we were shooting there, and I could have the figures wrong, but twelve other movie companies or 30 other movie companies that were shooting in New Orleans. It was kind of a contribution that everybody was trying to make to bring the city back.

Did they show you around and show you parts of New Orleans that were still trying to struggle to recover from Katrina?

I was advised not to. We thought maybe on one day off, we'd do that. And somebody said 'Don't...it's very depressing.' The hotel we stayed at in downtown New Orleans -- downtown wasn't hit that bad. I think they had 3 or four feet of water or something like that -- we could see the Silverdome (Note: I'm pretty sure he meant to say "Superdome" -- Joel), and of course, you can't look at that without realizing the tens of thousands of people that were trapped inside there. And then we all sat beside our televisions and watched that whole remarkable scene. So that was always there.

You know, when we drove in from the airport, they would point out that that was under 10 feet of water. And of course, you remember all the scenes of the people on the roofs of their houses just waving to the helicopters, and the markings on the buildings, it all brought it back to what a horrendous event it was. So that was kind of a, it's a very American thing to kind of, everybody pulls together and say we gotta help these people out. And that's what they did.

I read your book... One of the impressions I got from your it is that you just have enjoyed the hell out of your career, from the time that you did your first album back in the early 60's to now. What's the factor that's made you come out and say I just really have enjoyed myself the last 48 years?

Well, you know, more and more as I get older, people come up to me and say, "Thank you for all the laughter." And my standard answer is, "It was my pleasure." But that's the truth. I really enjoyed... as much as they enjoyed watching it, I enjoyed doing it.

I mean, I don't know, there's just a part of me that loves to make people laugh. That's why the dramatic thing doesn't hold any real interest. I just derive so much pleasure from the sound of laughter. And I look back on my career and say 'Wow, you've come a long way baby.' I think of all the people I've met in my career, and it's just been a lot of fun.

Do you think back to Newhart and The Bob Newhart Show, and do you think of them as two classic sitcoms, or do you think of them just as work experiences, and you think of the people you worked with?

Well, you know, there's one great advantage to being on a successful television show, and twice the enjoyment of being on two of them, and that is that you become part of people's lives. I mean, a movie star... as nice a man as Tom Hanks is, and God knows he is, and what an extremely talented actor, he really isn't part of people's lives.

When you're on television, you're...I mean, people come up and say, 'Oh yeah, geez, you know, Saturday night, my folks and my sister and I, we used to... we'd just sit down, at eight o'clock, all of the family'd go on and it was a ritual in our house.' And people remember when they got engaged by, you know, what episode they were watching. And that's a nice, that's a great feeling, to know that you were part of somebody's life. They feel that they know you that well, that you're a friend of theirs. That's a great feeling. It's a wonderful life, to borrow a phrase.

Do you think sitcoms are going to get back to that kind of multi-camera, studio audience-style that you did so well? It seems to be a very mixed bag nowadays. There doesn't seem to be a lot of network comedy around. Do you see it getting back to that form at any point in a major way?

I hope so. I find them going to one-camera comedy, and I don't understand it. I was offered a couple of roles in single-camera comedy, and I don't know how to do it. The only thing I know how to do is what we used to do, which was come in on Monday and read the script, and rehearse and change it, punch it up and get it ready for Friday, put it in front of an audience, and hope it works. And I don't know any other process. I don't know how you say a line and then you just wait. Then you say another line. You count to four or whatever.

If there's anything that could bring it back, what do you think can do it?

Great writing. That's where it all starts. Without great writing, you've got a bunch of actors bumping into each other. I was asked that question when I started Newhart, the Vermont show. And that was... I started in 1982. And they asked me, they said, 'Who do you think will be the next Newhart?' And I said, 'I think Jerry Seinfeld. And I wish I could've bought stock in Jerry Seinfeld at that time. It wasn't available. But I just felt Jerry was good for the medium. He was just right for the medium.

And they were asking me then, 'Do you think the sitcom's dead?' And I said, 'Oh my God, no.' And since then, you had Seinfeld, you had Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, any number of successful television shows. No, I don't think it'll ever die.

I mean, I understand the economics of the reality shows, which I hate. But from an economic standpoint, I can see why the networks love them. But no, I think the situation comedy will survive. Hopefully they'll go back to having an audience. Because that was Lucy, that was The Honeymooners, that was All in the Family, that was Mary Tyler Moore, that was us. We all did a show in front of a live audience, and they drove you.

You get a big laugh at a place you weren't expecting it, and you'd go to the writers in between takes and you say, 'let's play back on that because that got a big (laugh)...' And they'd say 'Yeah, yeah, OK, yeah, in the next scene, we'll do this.' You were creating on the spot. It was wonderful. It was nerve-wracking. Because you were going out and doing a half-hour play every week. But somehow, that made the adrenaline pump and it made the show better.

Is there any TV comedy you're watching these days in any form?

Well, Raymond, but of course Raymond's off now. And honestly, when I hear a laugh track, I turn to some other show. Because it's too easy. It's just too easy. I remember the writers working until one, two in the morning just to get it right. But when you have a laugh track, that's good enough. And I kind of lament those days. I wish somebody would come back with a studio audience, and go to number one, and once again prove that the situation comedy isn't dead.

From a comedy standpoint, how do you think this election played out...shows like the Daily Show and SNL, how do you think they influenced the election?

Oh I think they definitely... I always stayed away from political commentary. First of all, I didn't feel entitled. What I may feel about a candidate, I'm a comedian. I mean, if people like my comedy, that doesn't mean they should vote for the person I like. That's why I always kind of stayed away from endorsements. Except for Kennedy. Because I'm Catholic and he was Catholic. And everybody knew, if you didn't go to Kennedy, you were going to hell. But I think that's the last real campaign...

I said the other day, I was in DC as a matter of fact, which is of course very political. And I started talking about the 3 a.m. phone call that Hillary and Obama were talking about, who was better suited to... And I said, I thought Edwards was. Because the paparazzi caught him with his girlfriend and their love child, and he ran down a bunch of stairs and he locked himself in a stall in the men's room. And I thought, that's pretty quick thinking, you know. That's a guy I'd like next to the red phone when it goes off in the morning.

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jeff stiefer

another great interview, joel! You've gotten to talk to some really interesting people, i'm jealous ; ) Please keep up the great work!

December 06 2008 at 4:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Pop Culture Curmudgeon

Thanks for this interview. Bob Newhart is a pop culture icon, and I love to hear his thoughts on the direction the biz is headed.

In regard to the single versus multi-camera comedy discussion, I find that a lot of the suits and critics seem to think viewers care about the filming format. Viewers care about the story, the characters, and the situations. We moved away from multi-camera comedies because the ones that came out weren't as engaging as the single-camera comedies or the other types of shows that were on. Newhart hit it on the head when he said it's the writing that matters. Bring back high-quality, well-written comedies, and you will see a resurgence in the sitcom genre.


December 05 2008 at 12:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

" I started talking about the 3 a.m. phone call that Hillary and Obama were talking about, who was better suited to... And I said, I thought Edwards was. Because the paparazzi caught him with his girlfriend and their love child, and he ran down a bunch of stairs and he locked himself in a stall in the men's room. And I thought, that's pretty quick thinking, you know. That's a guy I'd like next to the red phone when it goes off in the morning."

I laufed. Of course, I usually laugh when Bob Newhart's talking, but that's besides the point.

December 04 2008 at 2:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I just LOVE this man! Thanks for the great interview.

December 04 2008 at 2:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joel Keller

Really? 2000 words of a great interview and you nitpick one mistake? Really? I'll make a note of it in the text, but was that really necessary?

December 04 2008 at 1:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Joel Keller's comment
Mike Whalen

Oh don't take me wrong. The article was awesome. I just thought I'd point it out. It didn't diminish the article for me. So sorry.

December 04 2008 at 3:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joel Keller

No worries, sir. I tend to put a smiling face on responses to people correcting us via the comments. This one just hit me wrong, I guess, mainly because that was the only thing you had to say about the article at the time. My apologies for jumping down your throat.

December 04 2008 at 3:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mike Whalen

Whoops. Sorry, Mr. Newhart. It's actually the Superdome, not the Silverdome. No worries, mate.

December 04 2008 at 12:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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