Monday, December 27, 2010

Quick Q's for a Newhart co-star #2 -- John Voldstad

Above is a photo that actor John Voldstad personalized to me on April 6, 2003, and below is the interview from that same meeting.

Mr. Voldstad was nice as could be (really and truly), so I feel sheepish writing my opinion here that NEWHART's famous trio of backwoodsmen (of which Voldstad played "Darryl #2") unfortunately evolved into a cartoon version of their earlier selves. In their few First Season appearances, these three brothers didn't ham it up. They were still relatively realistic, vaguely menacing (even if slack-jawed) hillbilly characters, and they came off so much funnier that way. In later seasons, the two basic types of jokes involving LD&D had them doing cartoonishly primitive backwoods activities (usually involving roadkill in a greasy burlap sack) or trying to surprise the audience with throwaway gags about some bit of uncharacteristic behavior (e.g. them watching the BRADY BUNCH: BRADY BRIDES tv special).

So let's not forget what great tv characters these three were in their earlier appearances. And regardless of my feelings, they were popular throughout the series' entire run, and they are -- next to NEWHART's series finale -- one of the best-remembered elements of the show.

Larry, Darryl and Darryl were, for a time, the breakout characters of NEWHART. There was audience applause every time you made an appearance.

Yeah, it was funny how that happened. Bob liked us, so he decided to keep us around.

You made your first appearance on NEWHART's second episode….

Right. Yeah.

Was there ever any worry that the brothers were a one-joke character -- that you would eventually run out of gags or become stale?

We weren't worried about that, because the guys -- they were all good writers. [The cast] all worked as an ensemble. It was a whole ensemble. So they weren't worried about coming up with bits for us that often.

What about William Sanderson's famous introduction every time the brothers made an entrance? How did you keep that fresh?

I don't know. Every time we came in, it seemed like the audience reacted that way to, "Hi, my name's Larry. This is my brother…" It's not like we did anything [different]. People just laughed. I don't understand it, really; [I guess] they liked the characters. We were backwoods guys.

I've heard you mention in interviews that you show up now for auditions and casting people are surprised you can speak.

No, they're not surprised. They look forward to hearing you talk. They actually call you in to see … what you sound like. It's like the silent movies, you know.

Is there a "Darryl curse" on your acting career?

No, no curse. Not really. I'm … I'm…. No, no curse. [laughs]

What about cameoing in some of Newhart's later stuff? I know they did that BOB NEWHART SHOW tv special where the brothers were elevator repairmen.

Oh yeah! And then on GEORGE & LEO, when he had that show, he had everyone come back on (ed note--for the GEORGE & LEO episode entitled "The Cameo Show").

Have you maintained friendships with--?

Yeah, all the time. Still call. We're still like brothers. And I call Bob and those guys. Send Christmas cards. We're still like one big family. I took Kristen (sp.?) to see Bob in Cerritos just last year, performing his stand-up. {The show] was like a big family, so it was kind of sad when the show ended, because you felt like you were leaving your family.

But near the end of NEWHART, there were so many changes to the show: Michael and Stephanie got married, had a kid, etc. Did that signal that the end was obviously near?

Not at all, because Bob had intended for the show to go on for another year (ed note--there are many reports to the contrary). So things look like that, and then everything ended up not working out that way.

It was a great show.

Thanks. It was a good group of people. Hard to find anything like that since. Haven't really.

--Mike Malloy

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How many characters are played by multiple actors on Bob's sitcoms?

In my Q&A with Dave Coulier (see previous post), we discussed the change of actresses in GEORGE & LEO's "Casey" role. And that got me wondering: What other characters from Bob's four major sitcoms -- THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, NEWHART, BOB or GEORGE & LEO -- were portrayed by multiple actors?

Off the top of my head, I remember that Arthur Vanderkellen (Stephanie's father) on NEWHART was played by one actor (who turns out to be one Richard Roat, an actor with whom I'm not familiar) only to be replaced by the famous thespian Jose Ferrer when the millionaire part became a recurring character. Insofar as I know, Roat only played him in that one appearance, the episode "It Happened One Afternoon Part 2."

Any other characters portrayed by multiple actors? Let me know! --Mike Malloy

Quick Q's for a Newhart co-star #1 -- Dave Coulier

On GEORGE & LEO, Dave Coulier plays a Catholic priest named Father Rick (or just plain "Rick," as he prefers to be called) whose approach is so relaxed and non-judgmental that it causes Newhart's character, George Stoody, to ask, "Satan is still bad, right?" I asked the gracious Mr. Coulier these questions on January 4, 2003 at the Grand Lux Cafe in West Hollywood.

You made an episodic appearance on NEWHART ("The Prodigal Darryl"), where one of the Darryls runs away to hang out with you. And Newhart's character, Dick Loudon, has to help track him down. Did you meet Mr. Newhart on that occasion?

Yeah, briefly.

Did he remember you on down the line? Did that have anything to do [with you getting cast on GEORGE & LEO]?

No, he did not remember me. But you know, it's hard when you do that many episodes, trying to remember the characters.

I know Mr. Newhart has a sort of paternal thing for a lot of other stand-up comedians.

Yeah. I know his friend Tom Poston. Tom Poston and I -- and another friend of mine, Dave Thomas -- we go out to lunch once a month. And we just sit and tell lies to each other, stories and stuff. And Tom has a lot of fond memories of Bob.

How did you book the GEORGE & LEO part? Were you just hired for "The Wedding" episode, and it just became a recurring character?

The producers called and asked if I wanted to do several episodes, and I said, "Well, what's the character?" And they said, "It's kind of a funky priest." And I said, "Hey, I'm in." And most of my scenes were just me just me and Bob; I would counsel Bob Newhart. So for me it was just great.

Now I know Mr. Newhart had a Catholic upbringing and even worked that into his stand-up routine. Did he have any input into the Father Rick character?

Well, I had a Catholic upbringing as well. Went to Catholic schools my whole life. Went to an all-boys Catholic high school. So I didn't need any coaching as far as…

Not to imply that you needed help….

[jokes] I'm an Orthodox Jew, I just don't look like one, for crying out loud!

Do you happen to know anything about the actress switch in the role of Casey, the daughter? She went from being played by Bess Meyer to being played by Robyn Lively. What happened there?

I showed up for work one day, and that was a big change.

Kinda like Darrin on BEWITCHED.

Kinda like Bob Saget in FULL HOUSE.

How so?

We shot the entire FULL HOUSE pilot with another actor. Bob [Saget] was in New York, doing the CBS morning program. (…)

You've worked with your share of Bobs. Now, I pulled out my old GEORGE & LEO tapes and I laughed my head off. They're really good!

Great show, great show.

I know they changed the time slot once. To what do you attribute its cancellation? Did it just not get its rating shares?

I think it's the philosophy at the network. Unless you pull big numbers in a specific demographic nowadays, your show is gone.

But isn't Monday night supposed to be strong, solid -- but not particularly flashy -- numbers? Didn't Bob Newhart "make" Monday nights?

Yeah, he did. When you see somebody like Bob Newhart co-starring with Judd Hirsch -- two really talented comedic actors like that -- to do a show that was that well produced and that well written, to see it pulled, to not have a chance, really speaks about what the corporate climate is as far as network television. Shows really aren't given a chance to develop and find their audience. You get maybe a season, maybe a season and a half. So it was kind of a shame, because it was a really funny show. --Mike Malloy

Monday, December 6, 2010

Forgotten Newhart #1 -- MARATHON (TV Movie, 1980)

This inaugural "Forgotten Newhart" post should probably be titled "Rightfully Forgotten Newhart," as the 1980 telefilm MARATHON represents a misstep in Bob's creative output. While it's a TV movie that concerns distance running (still a popular form of exercise at the time of this writing) and extramarital affairs (a subject as old as Bathsheba and which shows no signs of disappearing), MARATHON manages to be ridiculously dated. It's second main flaw is our funnyman's unconvincingness as an avid runner (which isn't even the actor's fault during the marathon finale -- read on).

The story has the L.A.-based middle-aged Walter Burton (Newhart) entering a 10k race where he meets -- and becomes instantly smitten with -- a younger woman, Barrie (Leigh Taylor-Young). Then a chance encounter has Barrie turning up at his work. They start spending (unconsummated) time together, and when it looks as if Walter's wife (Anita Gillette) must miss Walter's birthday weekend because of an out-of-town business trip, the two make plans for a celebratory getaway in New York City. It's supposed to be an unlikely getaway of sex and running the New York Marathon (I would think that no serious runners would mix those two energy drains within a couple days of each other).

Walter's two jogging buddies are Saul (Herb Edelman) and Bud (Dick Gautier). And the script makes both characters as one-dimensional as they can get. Bud is the girl-crazy sleazebag, and Saul is the new-age fanatic and health-food nut. It might normally be okay for TV-movie supporting characters like these to be a little cardboard-y, but Saul's one defining characteristic -- his late '70s brand of trendy SoCal alternative health -- happens to be a supremely dated one. There is talk of his primal-scream therapy and his diet of desiccated liver -- not something that will play to all generations.

Worse yet, Saul carries with him a so-called "computer" (really just a glorified calculator -- or hell, maybe just a regular calculator) that is another dated element of MARATHON. When pushing buttons, the (ahem) "computer" makes a musical series of beeps and bloops that sound so basic they wouldn't have even been used in the most primitive version of Pong. What's worse, this (ahem) computer becomes a metaphor for the "life-force" (Saul's explanation about why middle-aged men feel compelled to do the stupid things they do), and so every time Walter's actions are spurred by The Life-Force, we have to endure these hideous beeps and bloops again.

While the above complaints can all just be written off as a matter of subjective taste, the movie's climax -- the scenes of the New York Marathon (filmed at the actual '79 Marathon) -- are inarguably flawed with a production-value issue: It doesn't look like Bob running the race! All the shots of Walter from behind actually employ a body double, and this double looks nothing like Newhart. He has darker hair (and more of it!) and a different body shape. What's worse: These aren't just harmless wide shots that are meant to be cut together with the actual footage of Newhart running; some of them draw attention to themselves, as when the body double runs through a fire hydrant and triumphantly raises his arms in victory.

And while earlier running scenes in the movie are 100% actual Newhart, the soft-looking actor is still not very convincing as a distance runner. But oh well -- it's just a fluffy made-for-TV comedy feature.

Even though Newhart doesn't look very physical in the movie, MARATHON does, ironically, offer Bob a couple rare moments of physical comedy (not something for which he's generally known). One such scene is set in the waiting area outside the office of Walter's boss. There Walter waits for a meeting, preoccupied with thoughts of Barrie and absent-mindedly fiddling with a scale model of his company's million-dollar satellite. He breaks the model only seconds before being called in to see his boss, and he frantically tries to put the model together again. Another scene has him, in an attempt to impress Barrie, struggling through yoga for the first time.

There are some droll moments along the way. John Hillerman (best known as Higgins from MAGNUM P.I.) puts in an enjoyably irritating performance as a stuffy pipe-sucking, throat-clearing professor. And fans of Bob will like surely like him again here, no matter how miscast. When introducing himself by name to Barrie, Walter considers giving a false name and decides a moment too late to use his real surname. It's some decent Newhart stammering: "I'm Walter. Uh, Smith. Uh, Burton. Uh, Smith, uh, Smith-Burton. There's a hyphen in there, but I, I never pronounce it."

MARATHON was available on VHS from USA Home Video (back in the "big box" packaging days) and in a light-blue budget video release. Surprisingly, it also seems to have gotten a budget DVD release. --Mike Malloy

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Where was Bettymania when it could have helped Bob?

Strange as it may seem, 88-year-old Betty White is plum in the middle of a career resurgence at the time of this writing. It all started (I think) with a Snickers ad during the Super Bowl, which led to a Facebook campaign to get Betty on SNL, which resulted in the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE appearance itself. Now Betty has a new movie (YOU AGAIN) and a new sitcom (HOT IN CLEVELAND).

But why couldn't this renaissance have come during one of her previous sitcom stints, the 1993 season of BOB? Where was Bettymania when it could have helped Newhart?

Obviously, they thought Ms. White, although not yet "re-discovered" then, had some ratings cachet at that time too, as Betty was brought in as part of a second-season re-tooling effort to boost BOB's ratings. The series began with a 1992-1993 season set in a comic-book production office, and when that turned out to be a ratings flop, the series came back in fall of 1993, with Bob's character now working for a greeting-card company. (The very first episode of the very first season had Bob's character quitting an artist job at a greeting-card company after being hired as an artist on the "Mad Dog" comic book. But when he returned to the greeting-card industry at the beginning of season two, it wasn't as an artist but as the new president of Schmitt Greetings).

The first season concluded open-endedly, with Bob and colleague about to play handball with a corporate honcho in order to save their comic from discontinuation. We never saw how that handball game came out, but when the series returned in the fall, Bob was starting at Schmitt Greetings, so we basically knew the score.

The first season drew complaints from longtime Newhart fans that this was "a different Bob" -- one that was made hipper and more current (which would be to miss the point with Newhart, who brilliantly plays the timeless, non-trendy "last sane man" archetype). Honestly, I don't remember the season that way, outside of a dumb joke that had Bob listening to Pearl Jam. He was surrounded at the comic book office by a bunch of nutty Gen-Xers, and he reacted in his usual way, I thought.

But they definitely "fuddy-duddied" up the second season, with an older cast (the only two returning regulars were Kaye and Trisha -- Bob's character's wife and daughter) and a distinctly stuffier industry (give me comic books over greeting cards any day!). Maybe the network show doctors thought bringing in some sitcom veterans like Betty White (THE GOLDEN GIRLS) and Jere Burns (DEAR JOHN) would make the difference. It didn't. The second season of BOB wasn't even a half season in before it was cancelled.

Betty White played Sylvia Schmitt, Schmitt Greeting's owner, who hired Bob's character as the new president. Frankly, it wasn't a memorable role for the actress. She's not ditzy like her GOLDEN GIRLS character, not a "hip granny" like her current screen persona. She's just there. Doubtless, she would have developed into a well-rounded character if given the chance. Of course, if given a chance, this entire second-season cast (although less exciting than the previous season's) would've probably found its groove. --Mike Malloy