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Great TV and Movie Reunions

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We’re all suckers for reunions, aren’t we? They speak to our collective sense of the passage of time, our feelings of mortality and our deep desire for human connection. Hollywood reunions exploit this to great effect – which is a wordy way of saying I can’t wait for the upcoming “Arrested Development” update now being produced for Netflix. In the meantime, here are nine terrific TV and movie reunions.

THE WEST WING POLITICAL AD

This one is pretty recent. The “West Wing” gang got together to help the campaign of cast member Mary McCormack’s sister out in Michigan by producing a short video. It’s actually a nonpartisan ad, and it shows that C.J., Toby, Josh and President Bartlett haven’t lost their touch. And of course there’s a great walk-and-talk scene!

THE MARX BROTHERS ON G.E. TRUE THEATER

Obscure, but poignant in its way. On March 8, 1959, Harpo and Chico Marx starred in an episode of “G.E. True Theater” called “The Incredible Jewel Robbery.” Now, any time you get two of the Marx Brothers together, it’s an occasion for celebration. What took it to the next level was the appearance of brother Groucho at the end of the episode. I happen to think that old men acting silly for a laugh is a noble thing; it’s especially true when they clearly enjoy each other’s company this much.

SONNY AND CHER ON LETTERMAN SHOW

The emotions were much more complicated in 1987 when Sonny and Cher went on “Late Night with David Letterman.” It was years after their divorce, and Letterman somehow persuaded them to sing “I Got You Babe” during the broadcast. I remember that Sonny, in particular, seemed emotional. It was an awkward, but riveting, reunion.

MARY TYLER MOORE AND DICK VAN DYKE REVISIT LAURA AND ROB PETRIE

Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke shared an incredible chemistry on the old “Dick Van Dyke Show,” and it remains obvious every time they’re on stage together. My favorite example of this was from 1979, when Mary briefly had a variety show and Dick appeared as a guest star. They did an extended “Rob and Laura” sketch, in which Mary is in psychotherapy and Dick has to write the eulogy for Alan Brady’s funeral. It was like comedy comfort food.

THE SEINFELD GANG ON CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM

Here’s a case in which a TV reunion settled some unfinished business. More than a decade after the final episode of “Seinfeld” fell flat, Jerry & Co. did a multi-episode story on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which they returned to their characters. It was absolutely brilliant. The writing was sharp, insightful and – most important – funny.

DEAN AND JERRY REUNITE ON LIVE TELEVISION

In terms of reunion shock value, nothing beats the moment at the 1976 Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon when Dean Martin walked out to greet his old partner, Jerry Lewis. They hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, and both were sheepish and stunned. Frank Sinatra had orchestrated the whole thing, which went on for several minutes and had all the Hollywood schmaltz of a Rat Pack movie. First, Jerry says to Frank, under his breath, “You son of a b—-.” Then he looks at Dean and asks, “So, how you been?”

STAR TREK GOES WHERE NO FILM HAS GONE BEFORE

Aside from those ghastly uniforms, the return of “Star Trek” a decade after its cancellation has to be the most successful Hollywood reunion ever. Sure, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” was ponderous, but it led to a movie series that continues to this day, plus several well-received TV series.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER REBOOT

The beloved sitcom, “Leave It to Beaver,” had an unlikely second act, thanks to a reunion. Most of the cast came back in 1983 for a TV movie called, “Still the Beaver.” In it, the Beaver was a divorced dad with two kids, and the public was intrigued. That led to a second regular series, which ran for several years.

THE NEWHART FINALE

With one scene, Bob Newhart brilliantly cut to the hard truth about his sitcom, “Newhart.” It was this: as funny as “Newhart” was, it never could erase the audience’s memory of Bob’s previous series, “The Bob Newhart Show.” How do we know this? Because in the “Newhart” series finale, Bob suddenly wakes up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from the old show! To this day, it’s the best finale in TV history.

Brings a smile to your face, doesn’t it?

TV’s Greatest Straight Men (and Women)

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With the passing of Andy Griffith earlier this week, it seems only fitting to devote a List to the best straight men and women in TV history. It’s such a delicate balance: being strong enough comedically to stand up to your zany co-stars, yet grounded enough for the audience to relate to you.

HAL LINDEN

BARNEY MILLER (1974-82)

At the center of one of my favorite shows, Linden’s compassionate cop, Barney Miller, presided over an absurd, smart, feisty circus of humanity. He was the moral compass, but with enough personal quirks to keep things interesting.

JASON BATEMAN

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (2003-06)

Bateman gave a virtuoso performance as the put-upon Michael Bluth in “Arrested Development.” His timing is fantastic, every episode, every line. Plus, he had some great scenes with Attorney Bob Loblaw.

EDDIE ALBERT

GREEN ACRES (1965-71)

Of course, no character was more put-upon than Oliver Wendell Douglas, played by Eddie Albert. This surreal sitcom about city folks living in the country had daffy Eva Gabor, sneaky Pat Butram and a brainy pig among the ensemble. And in the middle of it all was Albert, who gamely tried to regain control – but thankfully never did.

MARY TYLER MOORE

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (1970-77)

This one is a tough call, particularly since I’m not including Dick Van Dyke on this List. Mary’s character was incredibly funny in her own right, but I always felt she played it best when she was reacting to Lou, Ted, Rhoda, etc.

DAVE FOLEY

NEWSRADIO (1995-99)

Here was a terrific show that featured a great cast, with Foley as the straight-arrow guy running the radio station. He was witty, while being at his wit’s end. Not a bad game plan when your co-stars include Phil Hartman and Andy Dick.

DAN ROWAN

ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN (1967-73)

Dan Rowan had one job to do on “Laugh-In” and he did it exceedingly well. Amid all the groovy goings-on, with sketches coming and going at lightning speed, Rowan simply looked tan and dapper while cleanly setting up punchline after punchline. You can look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls. I dare you.

GEORGE BURNS

THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW (1950-58)

Although a lot of their material is now dated, it’s amazing how much of the Burns & Allen formula still works in today’s scripted TV comedies. Gracie had all the best lines, of course. But George was smooth as silk.

ROB MORROW

NORTHERN EXPOSURE (1990-95)

Rob Morrow sort of came out of nowhere as Joel, the New York City doctor stuck in a crazy Alaskan town. The concept burned itself out after a few years, but it was great while it lasted. Joel’s frustration kept the show on its toes.

ISABEL SANFORD

THE JEFFERSONS (1975-85)

It took a very strong personality to hold the screen with Sherman Hemsley as George Jefferson. Enter Isabel Sanford as Louise. By turns she would yell, plead, cajole and guilt trip George to keep pace. It was a classic sitcom combination.

GEORGE FENNEMAN

YOU BET YOUR LIFE (1950-61)

Fenneman is a unique figure in television history. As the announcer for the Groucho Marx quiz show, “You Bet Your Life,” he was verbally pummeled from here to Tuesday by one of the funniest human beings who ever lived. Groucho could be merciless, and George routinely was left speechless. Oddly enough, it made Fenneman all the more endearing.

JOHN KRASINSKI

THE OFFICE (2005-PRESENT)

As Jim Halpert, Krasinski carries his show’s “regular guy” role without the benefit of being the lead character. It’s a tricky thing to calibrate, but Krasinski has been all over it from the first episode. He gets his own jokes in, too.

BOB NEWHART

THE BOB NEWHART SHOW (1972-78)

How great was this dude as a straight man? Well, he often was HIS OWN straight man, in scenes on the phone. No one does a thoughtful stammer like Mr. Newhart. Perfection.

LINDA LAVIN

ALICE (1976-85)

This wasn’t Gilbert & Sullivan, but it was solid comedy. Lavin played things straight as working class mom Alice, adding a touch of drama here and an earthy zinger there. And she held her own around characters willing to shout “Kiss my grits!” at the drop of a hat.

ED McMAHON

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON (1962-92)

Gotta give it up to the most durable sidekick in talk show history. Ed was Carson’s Rock of Gibraltar: quick with a laugh, a comment or a helping hand. He was a joke target when need be, as well. And the show was never funnier than when Ed got in a funny line at Johnny’s expense.

BUDDY EBSEN

THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES (1962-71)

Ebsen’s Jed Clampett had a way of seeming smart and not-so-smart at the same time. He never, ever veered out of character.  One of his main responsibilities was to bear witness to the twin whirlwinds of Granny and Jethro, which he did with his trademark country squint.

DEAN MARTIN

THE DEAN MARTIN COMEDY HOUR (1965-74)

Dino went from being Jerry Lewis’ straight man in movies to being everybody’s straight man on television. He was superb at it. Effortlessly, he made singers, actors and comedians who came on his show look good. Here was a guy who was the butt of nearly every joke, yet he was clearly the coolest guy in the room.

DEMOND WILSON

SANFORD AND SON (1972-77)

Absolutely an unsung hero of TV sitcoms. Wilson was the all-too-human counterpoint to Redd Foxx, who gloriously chewed the scenery like it was a danish from the craft service table. Without Wilson, the show doesn’t work nearly as well.

LARRY HAGMAN

I DREAM OF JEANNIE (1965-70)

Looking back, maybe this wasn’t the most enlightened comedy premise in the world: an astronaut finds a bottle containing a beautiful genie who becomes his servant. But that’s not Hagman’s fault. He did every ridiculous facial contortion known to man during his years as Major Nelson, as if he knew most people would later know him as J.R. Ewing.

JOHNNY GALECKI

THE BIG BANG THEORY (2007-PRESENT)

He’s a nerd’s version of a straight man, but it still applies. Galecki expertly reels in audience sympathy while lobbing up softballs for Jim Parsons to knock out of the park. Well done, sir.

STEVE ALLEN

THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW (1956-60)

A TV pioneer, Steve Allen was a genius at conducting “interviews” with his stable of comic actors. They included Don Knotts, Louis Nye and Tom Poston. They’d show up as crazy characters and Allen would gently skewer them with puns and wry observations. David Letterman and Jon Stewart have been doing a version of this for years, but Allen got there first.

RON HOWARD

HAPPY DAYS (1974-84)

Though not a huge fan of “Happy Days,” I very much respected the way Ron Howard gave the show a likable, viable central character. I also admired the way he didn’t quit the show when the Fonzie character took over the world.

YVONNE DE CARLO

THE MUNSTERS (1964-66)

Yes, it is possible to be a great straight woman while dressed as a lady vampire. Despite her appearance, De Carlo basically played a suburban housewife dealing with a sarcastic father and a childish husband. They got most of the one-liners and she was the rational, head of the household.

JUDD HIRSCH

TAXI (1978-83)

Hirsch was the voice of reason on “Taxi.” Sometimes that meant giving a pep talk; sometimes it meant taking someone to task. Usually, it meant trying not to crack up while the likes of Danny DeVito and Andy Kaufman brought the funny.

FORREST TUCKER

F TROOP (1965-67)

Very little about “F Troop” made sense, except that it was disarmingly funny. Tucker played his Sgt. O’Rourke like he was the lead in “The Music Man,” which was exactly the right approach.

DICK YORK/DICK SARGENT

BEWITCHED (1964-72)

The wonderful duo of Darrins did their level best to hold their heads high, no matter what incantation or evil twin scenario they were up against. That’s what happens when you marry a witch with a big family.

BUD ABBOTT

THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW (1952-53)

Abbott was a legendary straight man from the stage and the big screen, but he also qualifies for The List because of his popular, but brief TV series with the great Lou Costello. Abbott was like a professional hit man of comedy. He was sharp and he was confident and you almost never knew he was there.

ANDY GRIFFITH

THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW (1960-68)

Thank goodness for Andy Griffith. His show was heartbreaking, human and hilarious. At its best, it was as funny as any TV program before or since, and it did so with a firm belief that humor could come out of everyday life and common foibles.

Is it possible I’ve missed anyone? Add them to The List!

The Masters of Meek

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You’ve got to admire the meek and mighty. It’s easy for a pretty boy or a musclebound nincompoop to carry a movie or TV show – especially if  there are explosions and sexy co-stars to help. But a successful shy guy needs something else, a certain undercurrent of humanity that carries the day. Here are some classic Masters of Meek.

JOHN FIEDLER

Here we have an absolute titan of timidity. Mr. Fiedler’s diminuitive appearance and whisper of a voice made him indispensable in movies, sitcoms and cartoons for decades. He was Mr. Peterson in “The Bob Newhart Show,” Juror No. ??? in “12 Angry Men,” Attorney Daggett in John Wayne’s “True Grit,” and, best of all, the voice of Piglet in the Winnie the Pooh films.

BOB NEWHART

Speaking of  Newhart, he took a stage stammer, great comic timing and a buttoned-down brilliance and melded them into one of the best comedy careers ever. Hi, Bob! (That’s for all the former “Newhart” college drinking game participants out there.)

WOODY ALLEN

Before he was a  neurotic movie directing legend, before he was a  neurotic tabloid topic, Allen was a neurotic nebbish. People have been copying his nervous gestures, facial expressions and speech patterns for a couple of generations now.

MILLHOUSE

Would Bart Simpson’s antics seem anywhere near as dangerous if we didn’t have Millhouse around to react to them? I think not.

WALLY COX

I suspect the public’s awareness of Wally is waning, and it’s too bad. He was terrific in his deadpan, mild-mannered delivery. Fans will remember him as “Mr. Peepers,” the voice of “Underdog,” and a regular part of “Hollywood Squares.”

PERCY DOVETONSILS

Again with the glasses! But this time, the specs were essential to the character. Percy was the creation of that great TV comedy innovator, Ernie Kovacs.

MAX WRIGHT

He wasn’t a household name, but I’ll bet you recognize him, don’t you? He was the exasperated dad on “ALF” and the exasperated boss on “Buffalo Bill,” among other roles.

WALTER MITTY

The great James Thurber thought up Mitty, a henpecked husband who daydreams his life away with fantasies of grandeur.

DAVID HYDE PIERCE

This guy occupies a special place in meekdom, because his characters are so quick-witted. His years as Niles Crane on “Frasier” neatly coincide with the first big wave of nerd superstars.

TODD LOUISO

If you’ve seen “High Fidelity,” you know why he’s on this list. Mr. Louiso plays many other kinds of roles, as well. Still, he’s awesome as a timid, record store guy.

BASHFUL

Grumpy, Dopey and Doc got all the attention, but you know you loved this dude, too.

JON CRYER

Cryer is a rock of prissy consistency. He endured hideous 1980s fashions and hideous Charlie Sheen headlines with equal aplomb. Some might paint him as a 21st century Tony Randall, but I see him more as a modern…

DON KNOTTS

His bug-eyes and nervous tics made him a superstar of shyness. Imagine – he took the secondary character of Barney Fife and made it one of the enduring bits of TV history. Then he went on to a highly successful movie career, starring in a series of comedy films, such as “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” and “The Shakiest Gun in the West.” Meek and mighty, indeed.

So who did I forget?