Anyone familiar with the work of Bob Newhart probably has a mental image of how a phone conversation with him will start: with his classic hesitant, slightly stammered "Hello?"
It's the opening he's made famous in dozens of skits, from Abe Lincoln being coached by his press agent before the Gettysburg Address to the rookie security guard at the Empire State Building who has to call his boss to tell him about this, uh, giant ape climbing the building: "He's between 18 and 19 stories high, depending on whether there's a 13th floor or not."
And sure enough, in a phone conversation from his Los Angeles home office, Newhart's voice is unmistakable, if his delivery is a bit more self-assured. And it becomes clear after a few minutes that although Bob Newhart has a wry sense of self-deprecating humor, he is neither of his two most famous television characters, Chicago psychologist Dr. Bob Hartley, nor Dick Loudon, author of self-help books and operator of the Stratford Inn in rural Vermont.
And therein lies a tale.
Despite appearing in two popular long-running TV shows named for him and centered on his character -- "The Bob Newhart Show" from 1972 to 1978, and "Newhart" from 1982 to 1990 -- Newhart himself never won an Emmy for the sitcom work.
"They thought I was just doing me," he says, a slight tone of bemusement in his voice. But, he says, "I always said if they aren't your words and you have to hit marks on the floor, then that's acting."
Newhart was the first standup comic to transition to a sitcom, he points out, "and then along came Bill Cosby, Roseanne," and other comics including Ray Romano and Jerry Seinfeld.
And his shows had his name in the title for that reason, he says: "Starting in standup, I wanted to preserve the integrity of the person, so that was the reason we called them 'The Bob Newhart Show' and 'Newhart.' I always maintained that being a standup, you didn't have to do a pilot because people knew exactly who you were. The other thing that was important to succeed in a sitcom was the understanding of your persona. The writers could hand you a very funny line, and you would have to say, 'Guys, that's a great line, but I would never say that.'
"When I heard that Bill Cosby was going to be doing a sitcom, ["The Cosby Show," which ran from 1984 to 1992] I said, that has to be a hit because everybody knows who Bill Cosby is, they know what he does and he talks about his family and his kids."
>St. Catharines roots
Newhart, 81, who is looking forward to his appearance at the UB Center for the Arts on April 1, has a question of his own. He remembers a gig in Kleinhans Music Hall in 1961, when his first comedy album, "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart" topped the charts.
"Buffalo is near St. Catharines, isn't it?" he asks. Assured that it is, he starts a story.
"My grandmother on my father's side was from St. Catharines," he says. But she "somehow ran into my grandfather" in Constableville, an Adirondack village north of Rome.
But he's curious about those St. Kitts roots. Unfortunately, to make the dates on his brief three-city tour that includes UB, Newhart won't be able to take in the sights of St. Catharines. But the mention of his grandmother gets him reminiscing. He says his grandparents "never knew of my success, they never knew. I was an accountant or whatever I was when they passed away.
"After my grandfather died, she lived with us. She took my room, and I slept in the dining room," says Newhart. "And she was very frail and ill. She'd had a heart attack and the doctor told her to have a shot of whiskey for her heart. So I'd come home from school and my grandmother would say, 'Your mother forgot to give me the whiskey!' So I'd say, 'OK, Grandma,' so I'd pour her a shot of whiskey and she'd have it, and my two sisters would come home and she'd do the same thing, and my mother would give her the fourth shot, and if you'd walk by her room there'd be a lot of singing going on!"
He laughs, enjoying the memory. "One day she gave me 50 cents, and she said, 'A quarter is for you and a quarter is for the nice man who pours these drinks for me.' She thought we had a bartender in the dining room that was just waiting for her bar order. And of course, we knew what she was pulling, but I'd say, 'Yeah, I don't know what's wrong with my mother, she never remembers!' "
>'We'd better laugh'
Although he never won an Emmy for his sitcoms -- he did win both an Emmy and a Peabody award for "The Bob Newhart Variety Show," which predated the sitcoms -- Newhart has been inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, named an "American Master" by PBS and won the prestigious Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2002.
"Sometimes I'm asked who I think was the most influential comedian of the past 50 years. It surprises people when I say Richard Pryor. If you take away the language, the concepts are so brilliant," says Newhart. "And the language is essential to the story, because that's the language of the inner city, and you'd be cheating if you didn't use it."
When he accepted the Mark Twain Prize, Newhart says, he spoke about Pryor, who won the first of the prizes in 1998. "Mark Twain talked about life at the turn of the century, in Mississippi, on the frontier. And Richard Pryor talked about life in the inner city. And in a way they were doing the same thing, because [despite] the controversy about Mark Twain and the N-word, Mark Twain was being true to his time, that's the language they used. And Richard Pryor, that's the language of the inner city. I'm indebted to Richard Pryor, because I would never have known about it except for him."
So those were the world illuminated by Twain and Pryor -- what is Newhart's?
"The world I have illuminated is that we are kind of all in this fix together so we'd better laugh, because I don't know what else to do about it," he says, chuckling. "And that is paraphrasing Nathanael West, who said, 'Look, the universe is against us and the only intelligent response is to laugh.' "
Bob Newhart will appear at 8 p.m. April 1 in the UB Center for the Arts Mainstage Theatre, as part of a fundraiser for Beechwood Continuing Care's "Welcome Home" initiative. Tickets are $45.50, $36.50 for groups of 10 or more. Tickets are available at the box office, Ticketmaster.com or by calling 645-2787.