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BOB NEWHART AND JUDD HIRSCH -- GRUMPY MIDDLE-AGED MEN

Bob Newhart pulled his California license out of his wallet to show me that he wasn't kidding when he said playing someone named George this fall shouldn't be a stretch for him.

It wasn't that I didn't trust him. Who wouldn't trust the affable man who starred in the CBS sitcoms "The Bob Newhart Show," "Newhart" and the little-remembered 1992 failure "Bob"?

Sure enough, the name on the license is George Robert Newhart.

"Legally, that's my name," said Newhart.

Oddly enough, the producers didn't realize that when they named his new Monday sitcom with Judd Hirsch "George & Leo."

If the show stays as funny as the pilot and the interview session, CBS will have a hit on its hands.

It was one of the few sessions that ended far too quickly. And few people ever say that Newhart talks too quickly. Besides not knowing his legal first name, the creators didn't even know that Newhart would agree to come back to television when they began writing it.

Asked by a critic why he's coming back and not enjoying his retirement on a golf course, Newhart explained that golf inspired him to return to television.

"I saw (CBS Entertainment President) Les Moonves on the golf course," he explained. "He was coming down the eighth hole, I was going up the second hole. He said, 'I'm going to put you back on television.' I said, 'Well, I don't know if I want to go back to television.'

" 'Bob' was not a pleasant year and a half for me at all, the (Larry) 'Tisch years' as they're called. But these are the 'post-Tisch years.' I tried playing golf for a while and one day I said to my wife: 'I can't do this the rest of my life. If the only thing I have to show for all day is (a score of) 84, it's not a very productive day.' Plus, I missed the creative process."

When the script by Dan Staley and Rob Long ("Good Company") was presented to him, he was immediately sold.

"They found my voice," said Newhart. "My way of speaking. And going back to 'Bob,' I remember how difficult it was to say some lines and how easy it to say these lines."

His "Bob" experience also taught him some lessons. He played a cartoonist who worked with a zany group of characters.

"I was part of the problem, too," admitted New-hart. "It was decided that we were going to give them a Bob Newhart they'd never seen. And the American public said a resounding: 'We don't want to see a new Bob Newhart. Show us the Bob Newhart we know.'

"So I learned my lesson. I always say, actors love to stretch but they should only stretch on exercise videos. They shouldn't stretch in front of the American public. The American public couldn't care less whether you're stretching or not."

He also didn't think the public wanted to hear gentle Bob Newhart scream in "Bob."

"They were angry characters, but we weren't sure why they were angry. They were just angry to be angry. I was angry and I was yelling at people and they were yelling at me."

So the idea of the new show is to give viewers the old Bob back. Newhart is a bookstore owner on Martha's Vineyard whose son is marrying a woman whose estranged father, Leo, shows up at the doorstep before the wedding.

Hirsch ("Taxi," "Dear John") is Leo, a conniver who owes the mob money and needs a place to hide.

The pilot is extremely funny, with Newhart and Hirsch look ing as if they can provide a weekly dose of what Jack Lem mon and Walter Matthau are providing in fea ture films.

Hirsch, who has played grounded characters on "Taxi" and "Dear John," loves the idea of stretching.

"I used to think that I was going to get parts only as gangsters in movies when I first started or in plays," said Hirsch. "But they kept casting me as this person whose life was more concerned about others and it had all this morality. And I thought, this is an interesting opportunity. The only thing that's going to be anything like anything I ever played to this is like the skin, the blood, the nose and the brain I have."

"Judd has a kind of Ernie Bilko quality," saidNewhart. "He's conning you but you're pulling for him, and it's a tough thing to pull off."

Before agreeing to do the show, Hirsch said he asked people if Newhart was as he appeared to be on his previous shows.

"Someone asked, 'What do you think of doing a show with Bob Newhart?' And I said, 'Well, is he really like that?' I said this should be a cinch because . . . all we have to do is just meet, look each other in the eye and I think that I would start laughing. Which is what happened. And it's been happening since."

Newhart really hasn't changed much. Of course, he's older. But he still speaks slowly, with his trademark stammer, in the show.

Asked if he has ever been asked to make public service spots about speaking problems, Newhart said: "Well, I've been contacted, but they want 60-second spots and I can't do 60 seconds. The closest I ever got was three minutes."

He added that he once was told to speed up his speech because a script on "The Bob Newhart Show" was too long.

"The producer came up to me and said, 'Can you kind of run your speeches together a little?' And I said: 'Look, this stammer got me a home in Beverly Hills and I'm not about to screw with it now. You better take some words out.' "

As strong as the pilot is, the one concern is whether two old pros like Newhart and Hirsch can attract the young viewers whom advertisers want.

If they do, cable television in general, and Nick at Nite in particular, should get a big thank-you. Both men said they receive a lot of mail from young viewers who watch their old shows on cable.

"Well, I get mail written in crayon," said Newhart. "But those just could be institutionalized people."

But "George & Leo" isn't about to make silly attempts to attract younger viewers.

"You do what you think is funny and hope people tune in," said Newhart. "The other way is to say, 'I don't like this but I think people will watch.' "

Now, there's a stretch for network television.

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