Friday, September 21, 2012

TV in 1972: “The Bob Newhart Show”

Believe it or not, kiddies, there was a time when Saturday nights offered TV viewers original, scripted programming. Mission: Impossible, My Three Sons, The Carol Burnett Show, Starsky & Hutch, All in the Family, Love Boat, Emergency, Matt Helm--they were all once familiar Saturday prime-time offerings.

So was The Bob Newhart Show, which debuted on CBS on September 16, 1972, and stayed on the air until April Fool’s Day, 1978. Not to be confused with an earlier and short-lived NBC variety show of the same name, this half-hour sitcom found comedian Bob Newhart playing Chicago psychologist Robert Hartley, “a wizard at solving his patients’ problems,” according to a write-up in TV Guide’s 1972 Fall Preview edition, “but a dud when it comes to handling his own.” The series divided its focus between Dr. Hartley’s office and his home, where he lived with his alternately sarcastic and supportive wife, substitute teacher Emily (Suzanne Pleshette). His professional life offered a remarkable menagerie of eccentrics not limited to his office mate, orthodontist Jerry Robinson (Peter Bonerz), their receptionist, Carol Kester (Marcia Wallace), and of course patients of various neurotic, fearful, self-protectively mean stripes. But it was in his high-rise apartment that we saw the real Bob Hartley, alternately delighted by his wife’s antics and exasperated by those of their too-often-visiting neighbor, 747 navigator Howard Borden (Bill Daily). In all of this barely controlled chaos of relationships, Newhart played the straight man, rarely flustered, frequently bewildered.

Slotted in the Saturday schedule right after The Mary Tyler Moore Show--both programs being produced by MTM Enterprises--Newhart’s series enjoyed top-20 Nielsen ratings, at least during its initial three years. And its popularity has endured. In 1977, Time magazine ranked The Bob Newhart Show as one of the “100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME.” The series continues to be enjoyed in syndication, and there’s even a commemorative life-size statue of Newhart in his Bob Hartley role located at Chicago’s Navy Pier. (The piece
was commissioned by nostalgic network TV Land, which has often broadcast Bob Newhart repeats.)

Newhart himself went on after this program’s cancellation to star in another highly regarded situation comedy, Newhart, which found him playing a straight-man role again, this time as Dick Loudon, an author and the perpetually put-upon owner of a small-town Vermont inn. Newhart lasted even longer than its predecessor--from October 1982 until May 1990--and concluded with a surprising and wonderful scene that tied the two series together. In it, Newhart, reprising his role as Bob Hartley--wakes up in bed with wife Emily and tells her that he’s had the weirdest dream. In it, he was a New England innkeeper living among the most bizarre people. “Many in the studio audience (and millions of television viewers),” explains Wikipedia, “realized with a shock that the entire Newhart series (and presumably Dick Loudon’s entire existence) had just been revealed to have been nothing more than a dream in the mind of Bob Newhart’s 1970s character.” If you’ve never seen that scene, I have embedded it above.

Right-click on the image below for an enlargement.

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