After six seasons of The Bob Newhart Show, the series’ titular, buttoned-down star wasn’t anxious to commit to another TV series. But once inspiration for an interesting premise struck him, and the right co-creator and team of writers came on board, Bob Newhart signed on to play Dick Loudon, a former New York City advertising exec who chucked it all and moved to Vermont with his wife to run a bed and breakfast while writing a series of how-to books on the side.
Newhart's ratings were strong enough after the second season for a third to be ordered, but the show's star and his staff knew some serious changes were needed if there was to be a fourth season. Luckily the network gave the series—which premiered 35 years ago—the necessary time to find its footing, and it continued on for a total of eight seasons, which culminated in one of the most memorable series finales in the history of the medium.
1. SOME ACTUAL HOTEL “PEOPLE WATCHING” INSPIRED THE SERIES.
Bob Newhart got the idea for Newhart while dining in the restaurant of a Hilton hotel in Seattle. After observing the various visitors for a while, he concluded that hotel guests are just as nonsensical as the patients Bob Hartley used to treat on The Bob Newhart Show. “I function well with a bunch of crazies around me I can react to,” Newhart told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. He pitched the idea to Barry Kemp, who’d previously worked as a writer on Taxi, and the two worked together on a pilot script. Kemp eventually suggested setting the show in Vermont; Newhart agreed, as “after you’ve done three or four rain jokes, you’ve kind of run out of material as far as Seattle is concerned.”
2. IF YOU’RE EVER IN VERMONT, YOU CAN SPEND THE NIGHT AT THE STRATFORD.
The exterior shots of the Stratford Inn are actually the Waybury Inn in East Middlebury, Vermont. It was built by John Foote in 1810 as a boarding house and tavern for local workers and stagecoach travelers passing through the Green Mountains. It’s still in business, complete with an autographed photo of Bob Newhart in the lobby and a few assorted props from the show on display.
3. MARY FRANN BALKED AT PLAYING THE SMILING, INDULGENT WIFE.
When Mary Frann was hired to play Joanna Loudon, Bob Newhart immediately took her aside and warned her, “You’re going to have a tough job because Suzy (Suzanne Pleshette, Newhart’s previous sitcom wife) and I, we had this wonderful rapport, and they’re going to compare you to it, and it’s going to be tough on you.” After a few seasons, Frann rebelled a bit against her restrictive “straight man” role by relentlessly mugging whenever she was on-camera. Sadly, her efforts had the opposite effect; Newhart would subtly distance himself from her and the camera would follow him.
4. BOB NEWHART AND TOM POSTON WERE OLD FRIENDS.
Tom Poston was a longtime personal friend of Bob Newhart’s who would occasionally pop up on The Bob Newhart Show as Bob’s old college roommate and partner-in-juvenile-pranks, “The Peeper.” Poston landed a regular co-starring role on Newhart as George Utley, the seemingly bumbling handyman who also exhibited unexpected moments of brilliant insight. Barry Kemp originally had Jerry Van Dyke in mind for the role of George, but in the end Newhart convinced Kemp that Poston, whose trademark was subtly underplaying a character, was a better overall fit for the character than Van Dyke’s broad style of comedy.
5. LARRY, DARRYL, AND DARRYL ARRIVED SOONER ON THE SCENE THAN YOU MAY REMEMBER.
The trio of backwoodsmen known as Larry, Darryl, and Darryl actually made their first appearance in the series’ second episode. Dick hired their “company,” Anything for a Buck, to unearth the 300-year-old body of a woman buried in the Stratford Inn’s basement. The audience’s reaction to the brothers did not go unnoticed by Newhart and co-creator Kemp, and they were one of the first additions to the regular cast when Newhart underwent a makeover after season two.
6. THE SHOW WASN’T AFRAID TO MAKE RADICAL CHANGES.
Newhart was one of the rare shows that actually improved after a major retooling and the addition of several new characters. Newhart himself has said that, in hindsight, part of the problem with the first two seasons was that there were two characters that weren’t really working: Kirk Devane (the owner of the Minuteman Café, played by Steven Kampmann) and Leslie Vanderkellen (the Stratford’s original maid, played by Jennifer Holmes). Holmes was the first casualty; her Leslie was a student at Dartmouth who was also an Olympic-caliber skier, and was frankly just too nice to be funny, so she was let go at the end of season one. Kirk’s shtick as a pathological liar became a little too one-note, and his lustful pursuit of Leslie had nowhere to go after her character was axed. The writers tried a few different story lines for Kirk, but nothing seemed to click and Kampmann’s contract was not renewed for season three.
The characters weren’t the only thing to change on Newhart. At the beginning of season two, they began recording the show on film rather than videotape (at Newhart’s request). Season three brought several more major changes, including the addition of brothers Larry, Darryl, and Darryl as the new owners of the Minuteman Café, and Leslie’s vain, spoiled cousin Stephanie Vanderkellen (Julia Duffy) as the hotel’s reluctant new maid.
The writers also decided that there weren’t unlimited laughs to be found in the publishing world, so in addition to writing how-to books, Dick Loudon began hosting a local talk show, Vermont Today. The producer of that show was uppity yuppie Michael Harris, played by Peter Scolari. The quirky new characters combined with the oddball talk show guests gave Newhart an element of surrealism reminiscent of Green Acres, and the previously middling ratings steadily improved.
7. THE STARS KNEW HOW TO GET THE AUDIENCE TO LAUGH WITH THEM AND AT THEM.
Unlike most sitcom stars, Newhart preferred to go out and do his own audience warm-up before each episode was filmed. It helped him keep in touch with his stand-up roots and relieved any pre-show jitters. Tom Poston had his own crowd-bonding ritual: he would purposely blow a line in his first scene and then utter an expletive. The studio audience would roar with laughter, and he would consider them sufficiently “loose” enough to appreciate the rest of the show.
8. “LARRY” WORE A LUCKY QUARTER IN HIS EAR.
William Sanderson, who played Larry, graduated from Memphis State University with a BBA and JD, but the acting bug bit him before he sat for the bar exam. Despite this educational pedigree, Sanderson remained very much a good ol’ Memphis boy at heart. While working on Newhart he sipped Jack Daniels and read the Bible in his dressing room between takes, and he constantly chewed tobacco. He had a habit of leaving his spittle cups all over the set, to the disgust of his co-workers.
The part of Larry was actually written with veteran character actor Tracey Walter in mind, but Walter was asked to audition for the role and in the end Sanderson (who had worked with Walter in Coal Miner’s Daughter) managed to steal the part away from him. Sanderson partially attributed his success to the lucky coin he’d worn in his ear at the audition (and which he continued to wear while in character), because he’d done the same when he had auditioned for Coal Miner’s Daughter.
9. THE DARRYLS WEREN’T ALLOWED TO SPEAK TO THE PRESS.
Tony Papenfuss (First Darryl) and John Voldstad (Second Darryl) are both classically trained actors who had years of stage experience on their resumes when they landed their Newhart parts. Both actors’ agents actually advised them against accepting the roles, since they were non-speaking parts. (Did they mind never getting to talk? “They never said anything to me about it,” Sanderson told PennLive.com in 2015.) One aspect the duo was less enthusiastic about was the fact that MTM Enterprises, who owned the characters, would not let the actors appear in public in character, nor were they allowed to talk to the press.
10. ART IMITATED LIFE IN AT LEAST ONE EPISODE.
Steven Kampmann lived in Vermont for several years after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. While still working on Newhart, he talked to the writers about an article he’d read in the Burlington Free Press about recent UFO sightings in Richford, Vermont. That news story was the basis for the season one episode entitled “Heaven Knows Mr. Utley.” Interestingly enough, that area of Vermont is still reportedly being visited by extra-terrestrials.
11. BOB NEWHART PREFERRED A LESS IS MORE APPROACH.
Bob Newhart was reportedly as laid back in real life as his character appeared to be on the show. Watch carefully and you’ll notice that in most scenes he remains fairly stationary, either standing behind the check-in desk or sitting down on the sofa. He preferred to let the other cast members do all the walking around; the less he had to do, other than delivering his lines, the better. He also didn’t waste time once the final “Cut!” was called; he traditionally left the set once filming wrapped and headed straight for home while still wearing his stage wardrobe. Someone from the wardrobe department would stop by the Newhart home later and collect “Dick’s” clothes and return them to the studio.
12. NEWHART’S WIFE WAS ALLEGEDLY THE GENIUS BEHIND THAT CLASSIC CLOSING SCENE.
Newhart writer Dan O’Shannon has gone on record disputing the story, but both Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette have explained the genesis for the final episode as follows: At the end of season six, Bob Newhart was seriously considering calling it quits with the series. He was unhappy with CBS over several issues and felt that he and his crew weren’t being treated fairly. He and his wife, Ginny, were at a Christmas party when he finally voiced his intention to quit aloud. Ginny quickly suggested that he should end the show on a dream sequence, since there were so many inexplicable things about the show: “You should wake up in bed with Suzy and explain that you’d had a dream about owning an inn.”
As luck would have it, Suzanne Pleshette was at the same party and Bob was able to discuss the idea with her later that evening. She immediately agreed, but ended up waiting two more years to do it since Newhart settled his issues with CBS and stayed with the show for two more seasons.
13. THE CLOSING SCENE WAS THE RESULT OF A MASTERFUL STEALTH OPERATION.
The filming of that classic scene in the series finale was conducted with the utmost secrecy. A fake final act was written and included in the script given to the rest of the cast. The Hartleys’ Chicago bedroom set was built on a separate stage and Suzanne Pleshette was confined to a dressing room for six hours so that no one would see her. There was no rehearsal for scene, and the rest of the cast wasn’t let in on the secret until 20 minutes before it was actually filmed. After that slice of television history was in the can, Suzanne slipped out quietly without attending the wrap party, even though she had been invited. She later stated that she would have felt uncomfortable, particularly around Mary Frann, since that concluding scene basically negated every previous episode of the series.
Additional sources: Chicago Tribune, February 3, 1985 Orange Coast Magazine, February 1987 Emmy TV Legends interview with Suzanne Pleshette
Telephone interview with Terry Bolo, Julia Duffy's stand-in for six seasons