Newhart later went into acting, starring as Chicago psychologist Dr. Robert Hartley in The Bob Newhart Show during the 1970s and then as Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon on the 1980s series Newhart. He also had two short-lived sitcoms in the 1990s titled Bob and George and Leo. Newhart also appeared in film roles such as Major Major in Catch-22 and Papa Elf in Elf. He provided the voice of Bernard in the Walt Disney animated films The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under. In 2004, he played the library head Judson in The Librarian, a character which continued in 2014 to the TV series The Librarians. In 2013, Newhart made his first of four guest appearances on The Big Bang Theory as Professor Proton, for which he received his first Primetime Emmy Award on September 15, 2013.
Newhart was born on September 5, 1929 at West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park, Illinois. His parents were George David Newhart (1899–1986), a part-owner of a plumbing and heating-supply business, and Julia Pauline (née Burns; 1901–1991), a housewife. His mother was of Irish descent and his father was of English, Irish, and German ancestry. One of his grandmothers was from St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. Newhart has three sisters: Virginia, Mary Joan (a nun, who taught at the all-girls Carmel High School in Mundelein, Illinois), and Pauline.
Newhart was educated at Roman Catholic schools in the Chicago area, including St. Catherine of Siena grammar school in Oak Park, and attended St. Ignatius College Prep (high school), graduating in 1947. He then enrolled at Loyola University of Chicago from which he graduated in 1952 with a bachelor's degree in business management.
Newhart was drafted into the United States Army and served in the United States during the Korean War as a personnel manager until being discharged in 1954. Newhart briefly attended Loyola University Chicago School of Law, but did not complete a degree, in part, he says, because he was asked to behave unethically during an internship.
After the war, Newhart worked for United States Gypsum as an accountant. He later said that his motto, "That's close enough" and his habit of adjusting petty cash imbalances with his own money shows he did not have the temperament to be an accountant. He also said he was a clerk in the unemployment office who made $55 a week, but who quit upon learning unemployment benefits were $45 a week and he "only had to come in to the office one day a week to collect it."
In 1958, Newhart became an advertising copywriter for Fred A. Niles, a major independent film and television producer in Chicago. There, a co-worker and he entertained each other with long telephone calls about absurd scenarios, which they later recorded and send to radio stations as audition tapes. When his co-worker ended his participation, Newhart continued the recordings alone, developing this type of routine.
Dan Sorkin, a disc jockey at a radio station who later became the announcer-sidekick on Newhart's NBC series, introduced Newhart to the head of talent at Warner Bros. Records. The label signed him in 1959, only a year after it was formed, based solely on those recordings. Newhart expanded his material into a stand-up routine, which he began to perform at nightclubs.
Newhart became famous mostly on the strength of his audio releases, in which he played a solo "straight man". Newhart's routine was to portray one end of a conversation (usually a phone call), playing the comedic straight man and implying what the other person was saying.
His 1960 comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, was the first comedy album to make number one on the Billboard charts. The album received the 1961 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The album peaked at number two in the UK Albums Chart. Newhart also won Best New Artist.
Newhart told a 2005 interviewer for PBS's American Masters that his favorite stand-up routine is "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue", which appears on this album. In the routine, a slick promoter has to deal with the reluctance of the eccentric President to agree to efforts to boost his image. The routine was suggested to Newhart by Chicago TV director and future comedian Bill Daily, who was Newhart's castmate on the 1970s The Bob Newhart Show for CBS. Newhart became known for using an intentional stammer, in service to his unique combination of politeness and disbelief at what he was supposedly hearing. Newhart has used the delivery throughout his career.
The follow-up album, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back, was released six months later and won Best Comedy Performance - Spoken Word that same year. Subsequent comedy albums include Behind the Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart (1961), The Button-Down Mind on TV (1962), Bob Newhart Faces Bob Newhart (1964), The Windmills Are Weakening (1965), This Is It (1967), Best of Bob Newhart (1971), and Very Funny Bob Newhart (1973). Years later, he released Bob Newhart Off the Record (1992), The Button-Down Concert (1997), and Something Like This (2001), an anthology of his 1960s Warner Bros. albums.
On December 10, 2015, it was revealed by publicist and comedy album collector Jeff Abraham that a "lost" Newhart track from 1965 about Paul Revere existed on a one-of-a-kind acetate, which he owns. The track made its world premiere on episode 163 of the Comedy On Vinyl podcast.
Newhart's success in stand-up led to his own short-lived NBC variety show in 1961, The Bob Newhart Show. The show lasted only a single season, but it earned Newhart a Primetime Emmy Award nomination and a Peabody Award. The Peabody Board cited him as:
a person whose gentle satire and wry and irreverent wit waft a breath of fresh and bracing air through the stale and stuffy electronic corridors. A merry marauder, who looks less like St. George than a choirboy, Newhart has wounded, if not slain, many of the dragons that stalk our society. In a troubled and apprehensive world, Newhart has proved once again that laughter is the best medicine.
In the mid-1960s, Newhart appeared on The Dean Martin Show 24 times, and on The Ed Sullivan Show eight times. He appeared in a 1963 episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, "How to Get Rid of Your Wife", and on The Judy Garland Show. Newhart guest-hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 87 times, and hosted Saturday Night Live twice, 15 years apart (1980 and 1995).
In addition to stand-up comedy, Newhart became a dedicated character actor. This led to other series such as: Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, Captain Nice, two episodes of Insight, and It's Garry Shandling's Show. He reprised his role as Dr. Bob Hartley on Murphy Brown, and appeared as himself on The Simpsons, and as a retired forensic pathologist on NCIS.
Newhart guest-starred on three episodes of ER, for which he was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, as well as on Desperate Housewives and a role on NCIS as Ducky's mentor and predecessor, who was discovered to have Alzheimer's disease. In 2013, he also appeared on Committed and appeared in an episode of the sixth season of The Big Bang Theory, for which he was awarded a Primetime Emmy Award, and subsequent episodes of its seventh season.
Although he is primarily a television star, Newhart has been in a number of popular films, beginning with the 1962 war story Hell Is for Heroes. In 1968, Newhart played an annoying software specialist in the film Hot Millions. His films have ranged from 1970's Alan Jay Lerner musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, the 1971 Norman Lear comedy Cold Turkey, the Mike Nichols-directed war satire Catch 22, the Walt Disney animated feature The Rescuers in 1977 and with its 1990 sequel The Rescuers Down Under, and the Will Ferrell holiday comedy Elf (2003).
Newhart played the President of the United States in the comedy, First Family (1980). He appeared as a beleaguered school principal in In & Out (1997). He made a cameo appearance as a sadistic but appreciative CEO at the end of the comedy Horrible Bosses (2011).
Newhart's most notable exposure on television came from two long-running programs that centered on him. In 1972, soon after Newhart guest-starred on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, he was approached by his agent and his managers, producer Grant Tinker, and actress Mary Tyler Moore (the husband/wife team who founded MTM Enterprises), to work on a pilot series called The Bob Newhart Show, to be written by Davis and Music. He was very interested in the starring role of dry psychologist Bob Hartley, with Suzanne Pleshette playing his wry, loving wife, Emily, and Bill Daily as neighbor and friend Howard Borden.
The Bob Newhart Show faced heavy competition from the beginning, launching at the same time as the popular shows M*A*S*H, Maude, Sanford And Son, and The Waltons. Nevertheless, it was an immediate hit. The show eventually referenced what made Newhart's name in the first place. Apart from the first few episodes, it used an opening-credits sequence featuring Newhart answering a telephone in his office. According to co-star Marcia Wallace, the entire cast got along well, and Newhart became close friends with both Wallace and co-star Suzanne Pleshette.
The cast also included Marcia Wallace as Bob's wisecracking, man-chasing receptionist, Carol Kester; Peter Bonerz as amiable orthodontist Dr. Jerry Robinson; Jack Riley as Elliot Carlin, the most misanthropic of Dr. Hartley's patients; character actor and voice artist, John Fiedler as milquetoast Emil Petersen; and Pat Finley as Bob's sister, Ellen Hartley, a love interest for Howard Borden. Future Newhart regular Tom Poston had a briefly recurring role as Cliff "Peeper" Murdock, veteran stage actor Barnard Hughes appeared as Bob's father for three episodes spread over two seasons, and Martha Scott appeared in several episodes as Bob's mother.
By 1977, the show's ratings were declining and Newhart wanted to end it, but was under contract to do one more season. The show's writers tried to rework the sitcom by adding a pregnancy, but Newhart objected: "I told the creators I didn't want any children, because I didn't want it to be a show about 'How stupid Daddy is, but we love him so much, let's get him out of the trouble he's gotten himself into'." Nevertheless, the staff wrote an episode that they hoped would change Newhart's mind. Newhart read the script and he agreed it was very funny. He then asked, "Who are you going to get to play Bob?" Coincidentally, Newhart's wife gave birth to their daughter Jenny late in the year, which caused him to miss several episodes.
In the last episode of the fifth season, not only was Bob's wife, Emily, pregnant, but his receptionist, Carol, was, too. In the first show of the sixth season, Bob revealed his dream of the pregnancies and that neither Emily nor Carol was really pregnant.
Marcia Wallace spoke of Newhart's amiable nature on set: "He's very low key, and he didn't want to cause trouble. I had a dog by the name of Maggie that I used to bring to the set. And whenever there was a line that Bob didn't like—he didn't want to complain too much—so, he'd go over, get down on his hands and knees, and repeat the line to the dog, which invariably yawned; and he'd say, 'See, I told you it's not funny!'" Wallace has also commented on the show's lack of Emmy recognition: "People think we were nominated for many an Emmy, people presume we won Emmys, all of us, and certainly Bob, and certainly the show. Nope, never!"
Newhart discontinued the series in 1978 after six seasons and 142 episodes. Wallace said of its ending, "It was much crying and sobbing. It was so sad. We really did get along. We really had great times together." Of Newhart's other long-running sitcom, Newhart, Wallace said, "But some of the other great comedic talents who had a brilliant show, when they tried to do it twice, it didn't always work. And that's what... but like Bob, as far as I'm concerned, Bob is like the Fred Astaire of comics. He just makes it look so easy, and he's not as in-your-face as some might be. And so, you just kind of take it for granted, how extraordinarily funny and how he wears well." She was later reunited with Newhart twice, once in a reprise of her role as Carol on Murphy Brown in 1994, and on an episode of Newhart's short-lived sitcom, George & Leo, in 1997.
By 1982, Newhart was interested in a new sitcom. After he had discussions with Barry Kemp and CBS, the show Newhart was created, in which Newhart played Vermont innkeeper and TV talk show host Dick Loudon. Mary Frann was cast as his wife, Joanna. Jennifer Holmes was originally cast as Leslie Vanderkellen, but left after former daytime soap star Julia Duffy joined the cast as Dick's inn maid and spoiled rich girl, Stephanie Vanderkellen. Peter Scolari (who had been a fan of Newhart's since he was 17) was also cast as Dick's manipulative TV producer, Michael Harris, in six of the eight seasons. Character actor Tom Poston played the role of handyman George Utley, earning three Primetime Emmy Award nominations as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1984, 1986, and 1987. Like The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart was an immediate hit, and again, like the show before it, it was also nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards, but failed to win any. During the time Newhart was working on the show, in 1985, his smoking habit finally caught up to him, and he was taken to the emergency room for secondary polycythemia. The doctors ordered him to stop smoking.
In 1987, ratings began to drop. Newhart ended in 1990 after eight seasons and 182 episodes. The last episode ended with a scene in which Newhart wakes up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, who had played Emily, his wife from The Bob Newhart Show. He realizes (in a satire of a famous plot element in the television series Dallas a few years earlier) that the entire eight-year Newhart series had been a single nightmare of Dr. Bob Hartley's, provoked by "eating too much Japanese food before going to bed." Recalling Mary Frann's buxom figure and proclivity for wearing sweaters, Bob closes the segment and the series by telling Emily, "You really should wear more sweaters" before the typical closing notes of the old Bob Newhart Show theme played over the fadeout. The twist ending was later chosen by TV Guide as the best finale in television history.
In 1992, Newhart returned to television with a series called Bob, about a cartoonist. An ensemble cast included Lisa Kudrow, but the show did not develop a strong audience and was cancelled shortly after the start of its second season, despite good critical reviews. (On The Tonight Show following the cancellation, Newhart joked he had now done shows called The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart and Bob so his next show was going to be called The.)
In 1997, Newhart returned again with George & Leo on CBS with Judd Hirsch and Jason Bateman; the show was cancelled during its first season.The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, episode "How To Get Rid Of Your Wife" (1963)
The Entertainers (regular performer in 1964)
Thursday's Game (1974) (made-for-TV film)
Ladies and Gentlemen... Bob Newhart (1980)
Ladies and Gentlemen... Bob Newhart Part II (1981)
The Entertainers (1991)
The Simpsons, season 7: "Bart the Fink" (1996)
The Sports Pages (2001) (made-for-TV film)
MADtv (Season 6, 2001), playing a psychiatrist who yells "Stop it!" in a skit
The Librarian: Quest for the Spear (2004)
The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines (2006)
The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice (2008)
NCIS, season 8: "Recruited" (2011)
Five, Dr. Roth (2011)
The Big Bang Theory, season 6: "The Proton Resurgence" (2013)
The Big Bang Theory, season 7: "The Proton Displacement" (2013)
The Big Bang Theory, season 7: "The Proton Transmogrification" (2014)
The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, final episode (2014)
Hot in Cleveland, season 6 (series finale): "Vegas Baby/I Hate Goodbyes" (2015)
The Big Bang Theory, season 9: "The Opening Night Excitation" (2015)
In 1995, a 65-year-old Newhart was approached by the Showtime cable network to do the first comedy special in his 35-year career. His special Off The Record consisted of him doing material from his first and second albums in front of a live audience in Pasadena, California. In 2003, Newhart guest-starred on three episodes of ER in a rare dramatic role that earned him an Primetime Emmy Award nomination, his first in nearly 20 years. In 2005, he began a recurring role in Desperate Housewives as Morty, the on-again/off-again boyfriend of Sophie (Lesley Ann Warren), Susan Mayer's (Teri Hatcher) mother. In 2009, he received another Primetime Emmy nomination for reprising his role as Judson in The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice.
On August 27, 2006, at the 58th Primetime Emmy Awards, hosted by Conan O'Brien, Newhart was placed in a supposedly airtight glass prison that contained three hours of air. If the Emmys went over the time of three hours, he would die. This gag was an acknowledgment of the common frustration that award shows usually run on past their allotted time (which is usually three hours). Newhart "survived" his containment to help O'Brien present the award for Outstanding Comedy Series (which went to The Office).
During an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Newhart made a comedic cameo with members of ABC's show Lost lampooning an alternate ending to the series finale. In 2011, Newhart appeared in a small but pivotal role as a doctor in Lifetime's anthology film on breast cancer Five, and in 2013, he made a guest appearance on The Big Bang Theory as the aged Professor Proton (Arthur Jeffries), a former science TV show host turned children's party entertainer, for which he won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series. It marked the first Emmy in Newhart's entire career. At that year's Emmy ceremony, Newhart appeared as a presenter with Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons and received an unexpected standing ovation.
On December 19, 2014, Newhart made a surprise appearance on the final episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, where he was revealed to be the person inside Secretariat, Ferguson's on-set pantomime horse. The show then ended with a scene parodying the Newhart series finale, with Ferguson and Drew Carey reprising their roles from The Drew Carey Show. In June 2015, Newhart appeared on another series finale, the final episode of Hot in Cleveland playing the father-in-law of Joy Scroggs (Jane Leeves). It marked a reunion with one time co-star Betty White who had been a cast member during the second season of Bob 23 years earlier. The finale ends with their characters getting married.
Newhart is known for his deadpan delivery and a slight stammer which he incorporated early on into the persona around which he built a successful career. On his TV shows, although he got his share of funny lines, he worked often in the Jack Benny tradition of being the "straight man" while the sometimes rather bizarre cast members surrounding him got the laughs.
Several of his routines involve hearing one-half of a conversation as he speaks to someone over the phone. In a bit called "King Kong", a rookie security guard at the Empire State Building seeks guidance as to how to deal with an ape that is "between 18 and 19 stories high, depending on whether there's a 13th floor or not." He assures his boss he has looked in the guards' manual "under 'ape' and 'ape's toes'." Other famous routines include "The Driving Instructor", "The Mrs. Grace L. Ferguson Airline (and Storm Door Company)", "Introducing Tobacco to Civilization", "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue", "Defusing a Bomb" (in which an uneasy police chief tries to walk a new and nervous patrolman through defusing a live shell discovered on a beach), "The Retirement Party", "Ledge Psychology", "The Krushchev Landing Rehearsal", and "A Friend With a Dog."
In a 2012 podcast interview with Marc Maron, comedian Shelley Berman accused Newhart of plagiarizing his improvisational telephone routine style, describing it as a "very special technique that couldn't really be imitated. It could be stolen. And it was." When asked by Maron if it was done maliciously, Berman replied, "Maliciously? He wouldn't do it maliciously. Nobody does that. But he did it to make a living. And he became a star." Berman later added, "I thought it was a rotten thing to do. I thought the agents who sold him - I thought they were just as guilty as everybody else. But, my God, to go into a town and do my show, and the critics saying that I borrowed some stuff from Newhart..."
In interviews, Newhart has never taken credit for originating the telephone concept, which he has noted was done earlier by Berman and Nichols and May, and earlier than that by George Jessel in his well-known sketch "Hello Mama", and even earlier in the 1913 recording "Cohen on the Telephone"; and would later be done by Lily Tomlin and Ellen DeGeneres, as well.
On September 20, 2006, Hyperion Books released Newhart's first book, I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This. The book is primarily a memoir, but features comic bits by Newhart, as well. Transcripts of many of Newhart's classic routines are woven in with the rest of the text. As actor David Hyde Pierce notes, "The only difference between Bob Newhart on stage and Bob Newhart offstage – is that there is no stage."
In addition to his Peabody Award and several Primetime Emmy Award nominations, Newhart's recognitions include:Three Grammy awards in 1961: Best New Artist, Album of the Year for The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart (the first comedy record to be honored as Album of the Year), and Best Comedy Performance (Spoken Word) for The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back!.
Newhart won the Golden Globe for Best TV Star - Male in 1961.
In 1993, Newhart was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame.
In 1996, Newhart was ranked number 17 on TV Guide's "50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time" list.
In 1998, Billboard recognized Newhart's first album as number 20 on their list of most popular albums of the past 40 years, and the only comedy album on the list.
On January 6, 1999 Newhart received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 6381 Hollywood Boulevard for his contribution to television.
In 2002, Newhart won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
In 2004, Newhart was named number 14 on "Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time".
On July 27, 2004, American cable television network TV Land unveiled a life-sized statue of Newhart on the Magnificent Mile in his native Chicago, depicting Dr. Robert Hartley from The Bob Newhart Show. The statue depicts Dr. Hartley sitting in his therapy practice chair with a pencil held between his hands, and a patients' sofa next to him. After an initial temporary installation in front of 430 North Michigan Avenue, the building used for exterior establishing shots of Hartley's office, the bronze set is now permanently located in the sculpture park in front of Chicago's Navy Pier entertainment complex. Visitors routinely sit on the couch and pose for photographs as Bob's patients.
On October 17, 2012, Loyola University Chicago honored him by naming their new theatre, the Newhart Family Theatre.
On September 15, 2013, Newhart won his first Primetime Emmy Award, for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series, for his portrayal of Professor Proton (Arthur Jeffries) on The Big Bang Theory.
On February 20, 2015, Newhart was honored with the Publicists of the International Cinematographers Guild Lifetime Achievement Award.
Newhart was introduced by Buddy Hackett to Virginia "Ginnie" Quinn, the daughter of character actor Bill Quinn. They were married on January 12, 1963. The couple have four children (Robert, Timothy, Jennifer, and Courtney), and nine grandchildren. They are Roman Catholic and raised their children as such. He is a member of the Good Shepherd Parish and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills, California.
Newhart's best friend was comedian Don Rickles, who nicknamed him "Charlie Everybody" for his everyman persona.
In 1985, Newhart was rushed to the emergency room, suffering with secondary polycythemia, after years of heavy smoking. He made a recovery, several weeks after, and has since quit smoking.
Newhart was an early home-computer hobbyist, purchasing the Commodore PET after its 1977 introduction. He wrote in 2001, "Later, I moved up to the 64 KB model and thought that was silly because it was more memory than I would ever possibly need."
Newhart sold his Wallace Neff-designed Bel Air mansion to Canadian Robert Quigg (developer) in May 2016 for $14.5 million.Hell Is for Heroes (1962, a World War II drama with a comedic monologue by Newhart) - Pvt. Driscoll
Hot Millions (1968) - Willard C. Gnatpole
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) - Dr. Mason Hume
Catch-22 (1970) - Maj. Major Major
Cold Turkey (1971) - Merwin Wren
The Rescuers (1977) - Bernard (voice)
Little Miss Marker (1980) - Regret
First Family (1980) - President Manfred Link
The Rescuers Down Under (1990) - Bernard (voice)
The Entertainers (1991) - Todd Wilson
In & Out (1997) - Tom Halliwell
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (1998) - Leonard the Polar Bear (voice)
Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (2003) - Sid Post
Elf (2003) - Papa Elf
The Librarian: Quest for the Spear (2004) - Judson
The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines (2006) - Judson
The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice (2008) - Judson
Horrible Bosses (2011) - Lou Sherman (cameo)
The Big Bang Theory (2013-2015, 4 episodes) - Arthur Jeffries / Professor Proton
The Librarians (2014) - Judson
Young Sheldon (2017) - Arthur Jeffries / Professor Proton