Bob Newhart: A Stand-Up Guy
The legendary Catholic comedian continues to entertain on stage and television . . .
by Patrick Novecosky
Bob Newhart didn’t need another award. The 84-year-old actor and comedian has enough trophies to fill a warehouse. But when he was nominated for a primetime Emmy earlier this year, nobody thought he would win –including Newhart himself.
“It was a pretty tough category,” he said from his home in Bel Air, Calif. “When they said my name and I walked up, they gave me a standing ovation. It was especially powerful because it was from my peers.”
Newhart was up against the likes of Justin Timberlake and Nathan Lane at the 65th Prime Time Emmy Awards on Sept. 15. He picked up the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series Award for his role as Arthur Jeffries/Professor Proton on the CBS Sitcom “The Big Band Theory.” It was his first Primetime Emmy.
Born and raised on Chicago’s west side, Newhart was brought up Catholic and attended parochial schools, including St. Ignatius College Prep (high school) where he graduated in 1947.
“I went to Loyola University in Chicago, which is a Jesuit school,” he said. “Ever since my success in comedy, I’ve always credited the Jesuits for the somewhat twisted way I have of looking at life.”
Two of his sisters still call the Midwest home. In fact, one of Newhart’s three sisters is a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “She’s about two years older than I am,” he told Legatus magazine. “She’s a whiz at everything she does.”
As a young, budding comedian, Newhart served a stint in the Army during the Korean War before scoring a recording contract with Warner Brothers Music in 1959. The only problem was that he had never played a comedy club.
“I always had this bent toward comedy, but never really thought anything substantial would come of it,” he explained. When the record company heard his work, they offered him the contract and set him up at a comedy club in Houston.
“I was absolutely terrified,” he said of his first performance. “You learn very quickly if you’re going to do stand-up comedy, you can’t show fear because it makes the audience nervous. They sense it. So with all the bravado I could muster, I tried to pretend I knew what the hell I was doing.”
Newhart’s debut comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, topped Billboard’s album chart in 1960, sailing past Elvis Presley and The Sound of Music soundtrack. It was the first comedy album ever to hit No. 1. The album won the 1961 Grammy Award for Album of the Year and Newhart won Best New Artist.
Transition to Television
With his career on the fast track, Newhart made the leap to television in 1961 with a 60-minute comedy variety show on NBC. While the show garnered several awards, it only lasted one season.
The transition from stand-up comedy to acting was a rough one for Newhart. “I was fine in the monologues, but I was very uncomfortable with the sketches,” he explained. “So when the show only lasted a year, I had to learn how to do that.”
It would be another 12 years before the comedian stepped in front of the television cameras again when he launched his first sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show. He starred as dry psychologist Bob Hartley, with Suzanne Pleshette playing his wryly loving wife, Emily.
Then in 1982, he starred in the CBS sitcom Newhart, playing Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon. The show ran for eight seasons, two years longer than his first sitcom.
Since Newhart left the airwaves in 1990, the comedian has continued working as a stand-up comedian. He still does 20 shows per year, makes regular guest appearances on television, and takes small film roles — including his hilarious turn as Papa Elf in Will Farrell’s 2003 Christmas comedy Elf.
Faith and Family
“Being Catholic has a lot to do with it,” he said. “You work a little harder. You don’t just have your first fight and walk out the door.”
Faith has sustained the octogenarian throughout his life, but never more so than when Ginnie was diagnosed with cancer.
“During the week, I’ll go to church twice a week,” Newhart said. “My wife had liver cancer. She had a liver transplant four years ago. She’s in the prime of health now. I kind of go and thank Him for that. That was a very emotional time.”
Catholicism has also shaped Newhart’s work, he said, especially when he was tempted to depart from clean, family-friendly comedy.
“There were times along the way over 50 years — mostly in the ’70s
— when there was the temptation to maybe get a little bluer in my standup act,” he explained. “It just never felt comfortable. It was like a sweater that never felt right, you know?”
Audiences can certainly anticipate a clean show, but they could also get a good dose of Catholic humor.
“Being a comedian, I have a lot of Jewish friends, and they always talk about the Jewish religion,” Newhart said. “I thought, one day, ‘You know it’s kind of funny growing up Catholic.’ So I do a whole thing on being Catholic and it’s been very well received — especially if you get a bunch of Catholics together.”
Unlike many of his fellow celebrities, Newhart acknowledges that his most important success has come away from the bright lights of Hollywood.
Asked what has brought him the most joy in his life, he didn’t hesitate. “My family, obviously. I have four kids and 10 grandchildren. We just had the latest — five months old, a girl. I’ve always said: I don’t care how successful you’ve been in this business, if you haven’t had a good family life, what have you really achieved? Not an awful lot. You can be the richest man in the world and look back at your marriages that were disasters and what have you really accomplished? That’s the way I look at life.”
Newhart’s take on life may be dry, but it’s always profound and often spiritual. “I think God has an incredible sense of humor,” he said. “All you have to do is look around the world. There’s no question that He has an incredible sense of humor.”
PATRICK NOVECOSKY is Legatus magazine’s editor-in-chief.
Your Invitation to the 2014 Summit
The clock is ticking down to Legatus’ 2014 Summit — and excitement is building toward the Feb. 6-8 event at The Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes in Orlando, Fla.
Because a capacity crowd of more than 500 participants is anticipated, organizers suggest booking a room as early as possible.
“The schedule is full of speakers that will entertain, educate and enrich our spiritual lives,” said Laura Sacha, Legatus’ conference director. “Hosted by Legatus’ Orlando Chapter, the Summit’s theme — The Holy Family: A Model of Faith and Love — is apropos given the tremendous attack the family is undergoing today from the secular culture.” The Summit’s roster of speakers and special guests is impressive:
• David Bereit, co-founder of 40 Days for Life
• Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput
• Physical fitness pioneer Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper
• Author and TV/radio host Michael Coren
• Dr. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights
• Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gómez
• Lou Holtz, football coach and motivational speaker
• Best-selling author and speaker Matthew Kelly
• Curtis Martin, president and founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students
• Orlando Bishop John Noonan
• Sen. Rick Santorum
• Motivational speaker Ross Shafer
• John Smeaton, executive director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children
A special exhibit of items that once belonged to Venerable Fulton Sheen will be on display for Legates and their guests.
Thomas Aquinas College hosts a seminar on Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Light of Faith, and the annual Legatus golf outing takes place at the Greg Norman Signature Golf Course.