A Chicagoan from head to toe, American comedian Bob Newhart started his workaday life as a certified public accountant after flunking out of law school. As a means of breaking his job's monotony, Newhart would call his friend Ed Gallagher, and improvise low-key comedy sketches. A mutual friend of Newhart and Gallagher's, Chicago deejay Dan Sorkin, tape-recorded some of these off-the-cuff routines and played them for Warner Bros. records. Newhart suddenly found himself booked into a Houston nightclub -- his first-ever public appearance. Armed with telephone-conversation routines which delineated how Abe Lincoln would be handled by a publicity agent, or how Abner Doubleday would have fared trying to sell baseball to a modern-day novelty firm, Newhart recorded his first comedy album in 1960 -- which evidently struck a nerve with fellow white-collar workers, since it sold 1,500,000 copies. The hottest young comic on the club-and-TV circuit, Newhart was offered starring roles in situation comedies, but felt he wasn't a good enough actor to make a single character interesting week after week. Instead, he signed in 1961 for NBC's The Bob Newhart Show, a comedy-variety series which nosedived in the ratings but won an Emmy. Fearing that TV would eat up all his material within a year or so, Newhart went back to nightclubs after his one-season series was cancelled. Sharpening his acting skills in TV guest spots and in several films (his first, 1962's Hell is For Heroes, was so unnerving an experience that Bob repeatedly begged the producers to kill his character off before the fadeout), Newhart felt emboldened enough to attempt a regular TV series again in 1972. This Bob Newhart Show cast the comedian as psychologist Bob Hartley - an ideal outlet for his "button-down" style of dry humor. Six seasons and several awards later, Newhart was firmly established as a television superstar; this time around he wasn't cancelled, but ended the series on his own volition, feeling the series had exhausted its bag of tricks. Most popular sitcom personalities had come acropper trying to repeat their first success with a second series, but Newhart broke the jinx with Newhart in 1982, wherein Bob played author Dick Loudon, who on a whim decided to open a New England colonial inn. Newhart was every bit as popular as his earlier sitcom, and, like the previous show, the series ended (in 1990) principally because Newhart chose to end it. This he did with panache: Newhart's final scene suggested the entire series had been a bad dream experienced by Bob Newhart Show's Bob Hartley! A third starring sitcom, 1992's Bob, found Newhart playing a cult-figure comic book artist; alas, despite excellent scriptwork and the usual polished Newhart performance, this new series fell victim to format tinkering and poor timeslots.
Over teh course of the next few decades, Newhart would frequently turn up in guest roles on shows like Murphy Brown, ER, and Desperate Housewives, and though his 1997 odd couple sitcom George & Leo failed to find its footing, he did appear in all three installments of TNT's popular fantasy trilogy The Librarian, starring Noah Wyle. Meanwhile, cameos in such films as Elf and Horrible Bosses continually offered a gentle reminder that comedy's nicest funnyman could still crack us up.
~ Hal Erickson, Rovi