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