By Cynthia Sanz
March 02, 1992 12:00 PM

MORE THAN 13 YEARS HAVE PASSED since the old Bob Newhart Show and its fictive characters—Bob, Emily, Jerry and Carol—faded into TV reruns. Even so, at a recent cast reunion at the Pasadena Playhouse, actors Newhart, Suzanne Pleshette, Peter Bonerz and Marcia Wallace looked ready to pick up right where they’d left off. This time, though, the get-together was no laughing matter.

Wallace, the show’s lovably loony receptionist, had come as the beneficiary of a star-studded fund-raiser. Last September her husband, former hotel manager Dennis Hawley, 47, learned that he had pancreatic cancer. His medical bills (more than $100,000 so far), combined with an unexpected IRS demand for back taxes, have wiped out the couple’s savings and even forced them to put their two-bedroom Los Angeles home up for sale.

“We all got calls asking us to help Marcia and Dennis out, and all we had to be told was where we should be and what time do you need us,” says Newhart, 62, who joined pals like Lily Tomlin and David Steinberg in the evening’s variety show. With another 500 chums cheering the couple on from the audience, the event raised more than $30,000. “The generosity and the love and the heart and the friendship—it all takes my breath away,” said Wallace, 49.

For a while, she and Hawley had hoped to muddle through the financial crisis by jump-starting her flagging acting career. “Neither of us have ever borrowed money in outlives,” she says. “That’s just the way we are.” But even though Wallace has landed a few roles (she provides the voice for Bart’s teacher, Mrs. Krabappel, on The Simpsons), Hawley’s medical bills (many of which aren’t covered by their insurance) have been overwhelming. “People think if you’re a steadily working actor, you’ve got to be a millionaire, but that’s not how it works,” says the actress, who receives no residuals from Newhart reruns. “Believe me, when you hit bad times, it all evaporates pretty quickly.”

When the Newhart show’s six-year run ended, in 1978, Wallace’s career shifted into low gear. She appeared in a few laughably bad movies (Space Sluts in the Slammer, Ghoulies Go to College) and did some regional theater. Six years ago she married Hawley at a Buddhist temple in Cucamonga, Calif. (Newhart, who was a guest, “said he always loved a traditional Cucamonga-Long Beach Buddhist wedding,” Wallace jokes.) Four years ago the couple adopted a son, Mikey, now 4.

Then in 1990 life unraveled. Dennis lost his job with a Long Beach hotel. Wallaces acting calls dwindled, and the expenses of raising a child began eating through their savings. “But if I thought 1990 was bad, well, let me tell you, 1991 really sucked,” says Wallace.

In April, the IRS demanded $79,000 because of an invalid tax shelter. Then last summer Dennis began experiencing a burning feeling around his stomach. Doctors discovered pancreatic cancer, and exploratory surgery in December disclosed that it was inoperable. “I was there when Dennis awoke in the hospital,” Wallace says. “I’d promised to tell him the truth. When I did, the first words out of his mouth were, ‘We can beat this thing.’ ”

In addition to radiation and chemotherapy, Hawley has been attacking his ailment with “alternative medicine” treatments—guided imagery (a meditative process that involves tapping one’s own healing power), acupressure and a special diet of herbal teas and frequent high-nutrient minimeals. “With cancer you feel so out of control,” says Wallace. “Anything that can give you some control over your body can only help.

Survival rates for pancreatic cancer are low, but Wallace, who survived a brush with breast cancer in 1985 by undergoing a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, believes her husband can recover and that they will put their lives back together. “I ignore all the doomsaying nonsense,” she says. “I’m in a business where the odds of ever earning a living are a zillion to one, so I know it can be done. I know the impossible can become the possible.”


DAVID MARLOW in Los Angeles