The legendary comedian talks about his two classic sitcoms, memories of Johnny Carson, and that death-defying stunt he pulled at the Emmys a few years ago

Bob Newhart
Credit: Dana Bateman/Camera Press/Retna

Do legends only frequent legendary places? Earlier this year, 78-year-old Bob Newhart (No. 17 on EW and TV Land’s list of the top TV icons of all time]) was at L.A.’s Roosevelt Hotel — both Hollywood icons are only a couple of years apart in age — to film a segment for a prime-time special about our 50 greatest TV icons (premiering tonight at 8 p.m. on TV Land). After the shoot, EW caught up with the comedian to discuss his status as an icon. But the modest 78-year-old, with his trademark comb-over and that same sweet laugh, proved almost too shy to entertain such a proposition.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What do the words ”TV Icon” mean to you?
Um, I’m not sure. [Laughs] I’m very happy that some people consider me one, but I’m not sure. That’s for somebody else to say.

So you don’t wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, ”I am a TV icon.”
No, my wife would never let me do that.

How do you feel when people say things like that to you?
Well, I feel honored, obviously. I feel honored by the company they choose to put me in: you know, Lucy, Jackie Gleason, Johnny Carson.

Have these people been iconic in your life?
Oh yeah, there’s no question. Certainly, Johnny, Johnny was a friend. Lucy, I met briefly. And Gleason, Jackie, I think I met once.

What was it about their performances that struck a chord with you?
They were all trailblazers at the time. Maybe that’s what a TV Icon is. Johnny did 30 years of The Tonight Show. I filled in for Johnny, someone told me, 87 times. [Once] I did three weeks, which would have been 15 shows, and I was totally exhausted at the end of it. And this man did it for 30 years.

What do you think were some of the trademarks of The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart? Some say it was your stammering delivery, or the fact that your character never had children. There’s something to be said of the fashion, which has been making a comeback.
I said [to the writers], ”Look guys, people are going to be watching this 30 years from now and we’re going to look pretty silly if we’re doing Gerald Ford jokes.” I don’t think we dated ourselves. I haven’t had those sideburns in 30 years. [Laughs] And the white collars. When you’ve been on television, you become part of people’s lives. They know you. And they come up and say, ”Thank you for all of the laughter,” and my reply is, ”It was my pleasure.” Which it was. I mean, I enjoyed doing the shows as much as they enjoyed watching the shows. And I was just as proud of the shows: great cast, great writing — in both instances. The Bob Newhart Show was on for six years [from 1972 to 1978] and Newhart was on for eight years [from 1982 to 1990].

I imagine some fans really got wrapped up in the characters. Did you ever get letters asking for therapy?
I did have something very nice happen. I got a letter from a woman. She said she, her husband, and her son were having problems, and they suggested to their son that [he] go see a therapist. And he said, ”Well, is he like that man on television?” And they said, ”Well, yeah.” And he said, ”Okay.”

Looking back, is there something you know now you wish you would’ve known then.
People say to me, ”Why do you still do stand-up?” I still do, like, 25 dates a year. And I always say, well, the alternative is Sunset Boulevard. It’s like sitting in a darkened room and having Erich von Stroheim come in and say, ”Which episode of The Bob Newhart Show would you like to watch today?” Then was then. Now is now. I’m very proud of the show. I just don’t live in the past. There’s no point.

Where do you get your inspiration from these days?
Really, anywhere. I never know. I could leave right now and go down into the lobby and see something, and that could kick off. You’re just trained to watch people and their peculiarities and you kind of file it away and say, I may need that one day. You’re never on vacation because you’re always kind of watching people.

That prank at the 2006 Emmys was great. [In order to keep the lengthy speeches to a minimum, host Conan O’Brien locked Newhart in an airtight capsule with three hours of air. If the show went too long, Conan joked, ”Bob Newhart dies.”] How’d that come about?
Conan wrote me a letter and kind of outlined the idea and I thought it was very funny. The Saturday before the [show] they just shot me in the booth for 10 minutes maybe. Conan said, I just want you to know if you thank too many people, you’re going to kill an icon. [Laughs] He’s such a nice man, Conan. And as it turns out the show ran under three hours, so…