By Ralph Novak
May 09, 1983 12:00 PM

Bob Newhart has carefully set himself up, again, to be zinged. Bobby Ramsen, playing an old vaudeville comic angling to revive his career in the sedate New England inn that is the focus of Newhart’s new CBS hit series, asks, “You know what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they built this place 200 years ago?” Pause, two, three, four. “Dinner theater.”

Newhart winces. Eyes dart. Corners of the mouth drop. This is the comedy of helplessness, and while many great comedians—Benny, Hope, Carson—have been marvelous reactors, none has achieved such consummate resignation as Newhart, whose frown says, “How can these torturous things keep happening to a nice guy like me?”

Helplessness is the act, not the actor. Bob Newhart, 53, is a precise, tense, controlled professional. Newhart is rolling merrily along in the top 15 at a time when most new programs have the appeal and durability of late-night sign-off prayers.

Newhart has always been a detached, low-key performer, but he has been confronted with suggestions that he lacks commitment. That accusation first arose in 1978 when he folded The Bob Newhart Show II, which, with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, had given CBS a successful Saturday night lineup that was the equivalent of baseball’s Lou Gehrig-Babe Ruth Yankee teams. CBS-TV President Robert Wussler half-joked that Newhart was quitting because he wanted to play more golf. But Newhart insists he felt the show was played out; the comedic possibilities of Bob Hartley the psychologist were exhausted.

Says Newhart’s close friend Don Rickles, “Our personalities show up pretty well onstage, and privately Bob is low-keyed and laid back the way you see him as a performer. But nobody could be more concerned about his work than Bob. Every comedian has one attitude; his is that of the stammering, groping modern man. He works very hard to maintain that attitude.”

Semi-leisure did, indeed, make Newhart restless. “You have to put yourself up against challenges,” he says. “That’s what life is.” The Tonight Show guest-hosting, two feature films and club and concert dates kept him off the unemployment lists. He was looking for a new TV property two years ago when he and his wife, Ginny, began to talk about how much potential old inns might have as a series locale.

This eventually led to discussions with Taxi writer Barry Kemp and Arthur Price, head of MTM Enterprises, Inc., which had turned out Newhart’s previous sitcom. When the current series premiered last fall, with Bob starring as a how-to book author turned proprietor of an inn in Vermont, it seemed to be a quiet, Americanized version of Fawlty Towers, the PBS series starring Monty Pythonite John Cleese. But the reviewers were aglow; the New York Times, for one, said, “Mr. Newhart is at the top of his form, and that means comedy at its best.”

Newhart’s style, with all those facial twitchings and subtle eye movements that demand—and reward—constant close-ups, was made for television. This is his fourth TV series, counting The Entertainers, a variety anthology he co-hosted in 1964. He is, in fact, the patriarch of today’s TV stars; no performer with a regular prime-time show equals his longevity.

Newhart comes from an atypical background for a comic. His father was in the heating and plumbing supply business, and Bob’s childhood, in Oak Park, III., was virtually devoid of angst. The only trauma he remembers came from theological scare tactics he encountered in the Catholic school system. “I’m just now getting out of that guilt bag,” he says, though he is still a practicing Catholic, and one of his three sisters is a nun who teaches at a parochial high school in Chicago.

Newhart had done some acting at St. Ignatius High in Chicago, but he graduated from Loyola University with a commerce degree. After two years of form-stacking as an Army clerk, he tried law school briefly, then took a string of short-term jobs before joining the accounting office of a Chicago firm. To relieve the tedium, he began to conduct telephone conversations with a friend, Ed Gallagher, then (and now) an ad writer. “Hello, Ed,” said Bob in a stage whisper one day. “You say the building there is filling up with soap bubbles, and they’re up to the third floor…”

The two men subsequently decided to try their act before audiences around Chicago. After a couple of years Gallagher decided to stick to advertising, but Newhart developed the telephone gimmick into his now famous one-way conversations. The result was a series of comedy routines that have achieved classic status: the Empire State Building security guard, in his first day on the job, calling a supervisor to report that a gorilla is climbing up the side of the building (“No, it’s not your standard ape”); Sir Walter Raleigh’s boss talking to him from England about the discovery of tobacco (“You stick it between your lips…. Then what do you do with it, Walt? You set fire to it?”); Abraham Lincoln’s publicity man briefing the President on the Gettysburg Address (“What? You’ve changed ‘Four score and seven’ to ’87’?”).

At length, in 1959, a Chicago disc jockey introduced Newhart to Warner Bros. Records’ chief talent scout, George Avakian, who signed Bob to a contract. His first album—The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart—sold 750,000 copies in the U.S., hit No. 1 on the LP charts in 1960, and for better or worse buttoned down his image—that of a should-have-been Ivy Leaguer always puzzled that the universe wasn’t more neatly organized.

Newhart was part of a new generation of cerebral comedians who eschewed slapstick and sexist leering. His popularity has outlasted such contemporaries as Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters and Mort Sahl. But even at that time, Newhart, a fixture on The Jack Paar Show and The Ed Sullivan Show and star of his own Emmy-winning NBC variety series, had a solid claim to being the country’s hottest comedian.

In those days, Newhart recalls, “I used to sit down every Sunday night and watch The Sullivan Show. I’d watch the comedians and every week I’d say to the TV set, ‘Well, fella, you’re okay but not socko. We know who’s still No. 1.’ Then one night I turned on the show and there was a guy named Bill Cosby. ‘Good luck, kid,’ I said. ‘Take it and run with it awhile.’ ”

Meanwhile Newhart had become a top concert and nightclub draw, and in 1962 he made his first movie, a strange World War II film called Hell Is for Heroes, directed by Don (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) Siegel and starring Steve McQueen. Newhart played a kind of pre-M*A*S*H Radar in what was otherwise a serious film. Its enigmatic ending wasn’t an artistic flourish. Newhart recalls, “We spent a few weeks wandering around the hills of Northern California, then Paramount refused to spend any more money on it and the film just ended.”

It was an appropriately odd introduction to the movies for Newhart. He has made seven of them—including Catch-22, Little Miss Marker and 1980’s The First Family with Gilda Radner and Madeline Kahn—and has usually been critically well received. But he has never had anything approaching a breakthrough film.

Still, he remained a familiar face on TV, if only as a result of his frequent guest shots on The Tonight Show. In 1972, when Newhart was considering a new series, writers David Davis and Lorenzo Music drew up the outline for a situation comedy about a Chicago psychologist. Literate writing, a deft cast that included Suzanne Pleshette, Peter Bonerz, Bill Daily and Marcia Wallace, and a priceless scheduling advantage—it followed Mary Tyler Moore—kept the Newhart show in the top 15 during its six seasons.

As he has in the past, Newhart insists that his current show be taped with a live audience. “When you use a laugh track with no audience, the quality of performance is lower,” he says. “And you never know if a little piece of business really works.” On the set, he is workmanlike, though he’s a finger drummer and near chain smoker. He is relaxed with his cast and crew but is not noted for doubling anyone over with laughter between takes.

Newhart was mildly surprised when a Los Angeles Times critic listed him among “the 10 most overrated comedians” last year, adding, “The buttoned-down mind stopped fighting back years ago.” Says Bob, “I don’t know who that guy is, but when I saw the company I was in [Woody Allen, Bob Hope and Rickles, among others], I decided not to let it bother me.”

He’s more sensitive to criticism from audiences, explicit or implicit, and can still perform, all but word for word, the worst routines of his career. “There’s no drug in the world as depressing as a routine that doesn’t work,” he sighs. “The audience is saying they don’t like you. On the other hand, I can’t imagine a better feeling than when they’re having a good time and it’s because of me. Controlling an audience like that gives you a real feeling of power, and power is what this business is about.”

Newhart lives in Beverly Hills with his wife, Ginny Quinn. They were introduced in 1961 by an unlikely matchmaker, comedian Buddy Hackett. Ginny—daughter of Bill Quinn, who played Mary Tyler Moore’s father on the MTM Show—had a small part in a Jerry Lewis film at that time but gave up acting when they married in 1963.

The Newharts have four children—Rob, 19, Tim, 16, Jennifer, 12, and Courtney, 5—and their home is child-oriented: Tim’s drum set fills up the cabana near the pool, Courtney’s toys are scattered around the paddleball court, and the girls’ playhouse is right next to it. Bob has all but given up his longtime passion, golf—”I was down to an 8 handicap and figured it was as good as I was going to get.” Now he and Ginny walk a lot. They attend a smattering of Hollywood functions, though they more often socialize with Dick and Dolly Martin and Don and Barbara Rickles. “Somebody has to be Don’s friend,” Newhart jokes.

If Newhart wishes there were a little less Buster Keaton in his makeup—”I’m tired of all this ‘deadpan comic’ business,” he scowls—he has also achieved a level of almost defiant confidence. “I know,” he says, “that I can always write something funny. A dancer can break a leg. A singer can lose his voice. But life will always be funny and I’ll always be able to write comedy, and lean back and say, ‘Yeah, I still got it.’ ”