Casually dressed in a short-sleeved golf shirt, blue pants, white socks, and sneakers, the balding, rumpled man shuffles into the office he keeps above the garage of his gated Bel Air mansion and settles into an armchair. As he says hello, not quite making eye contact, he could be your best friend’s dad — or your dad. Yet Bob Newhart may be the coolest 68-year-old man alive.
Not that he’s feeling cool on this sweltering August day. Newhart is about to head to the Paramount lot to reshoot scenes for the pilot of his new CBS sitcom, George & Leo. And, yes, even after 40 years of performing, he still gets nervous. ”It’s like a friend that I would miss if it weren’t there,” he says of the butterflies in his stomach. ”It’s like a high-wire act. There’s got to be a risk.”
Newhart knows well the danger of doing another sitcom. After long runs on CBS as Chicago psychologist Dr. Bob Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78) and Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon on Newhart (1982-90), he stumbled badly with his last effort for the Eye, the comic-book-themed Bob (1992-93). But this time, Newhart has not only solid costars — Judd Hirsch as Leo, the Las Vegas lounge lizard who lives in the pad above the Martha’s Vineyard bookshop owned by mild-tempered George (guess who), and Jason Bateman as George’s son, who marries Leo’s daughter — but a cozy spot in CBS’ successful Monday-night comedy lineup. ”If we don’t cut it,” says Newhart, ”we’ve only got ourselves to blame.”
Failure doesn’t seem terribly likely. Despite his smaller-than-life persona, Newhart is a comedy giant — these days more popular than ever. As Nick at Nite’s reruns of The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart win new legions of fans, his concerts sell out casinos and colleges alike. ”Hi Bob! has something to do with the generational crossover,” says Newhart of the popular college drinking game (quaff when you hear the phrase!) that he says he’s never played. ”But I don’t want to go down in history for that.”
With such an all-ages appeal, Newhart has become the Tony Bennett of comedy: He’s so technically proficient, so refreshingly sincere and unironic, so square to be hip, you can’t help but love the guy. But just in case you need convincing, here are nine additional reasons to revere him:
1 BOB NEVER FAKES IT. Newhart is exactly the same on stage and off — well, almost. ”There’s a very slight voice change that I’m aware of,” says Newhart, ”but probably no one else is.” Probably not. Just ask his coworkers: ”He’s not Arnold Schwarzenegger off stage. And he doesn’t cross-dress,” says Hirsch. Adds Bateman, ”He hasn’t become this a– hole star. He’s just a real nice person, and he’s able to translate that into the characters he plays.”
Such an honest personality has served Newhart well on the small screen. ”TV is very unforgiving of falsehoods,” observes George & Leo executive producer Rob Long. ”It’s a very close medium, and if you’re faking it, [viewers] can tell instantly. ” Even his halting speech style is legit. ”I didn’t survey the field of comedy and say, ‘Hey, nobody has a stammer,”’ says Newhart. ”So, uh, I mean, that’s just my natural way of talking.”