NEWHART's tapestry of Vermont weirdos was an important part of the show, and perhaps Jeff Doucette's character of Harley Estin was the most likable of them all. Because while Harley was every bit as idiosyncratic as the others (his quirk was an uncanny knack for losing a job), he was also very sympathy-evoking. Sure, he caused his share of headaches for Newhart's character, but he always did so inadvertently, by being charmingly bumbling in whatever his current employment -- or employment search. Mr. Doucette graciously answered some questions for me, and he reveals some interesting on-set insights (like why Tom Poston seemed to intentionally blow a line every episode) and also gives a picture of what it means to be a "recurring" on a hit series. --Mike Malloy
How did you come to be cast on NEWHART as Harley Estin, and how did you come to be a recurring character? Were you initially hired for that Beavers Club episode only, or did they already have you in mind to be a semi-regular?
Originally Harley was a one-episode joke to emphasize how easy it is for a guy to get into the Beavers even though he seemingly doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. Bob, of course, got rejected from the Beavers. But I got a lot of laughs with just a few lines and the writers fell in love with my character and delivery, so they kept writing Harley back into the show. Eventually, it was more or less decided that I was Tom Poston’s good friend and, of course, perpetually unemployed.
I remember the audition vividly. Barry Kemp and a few of the producers were there. I was in a hit play at the time called TWO IDIOTS IN HOLLYWOOD. I was one of the idiots, of course. My character was a sort of big innocent dummy, and so I used that for the audition. Also it helped that I threw in a little Wisconsin accent (it just came out as it does sometimes- I was raised in Milwaukee). It didn’t matter that Newhart took place in Vermont. I guess it just sounded funny, and Barry Kemp loves funny.
All conventional TV sitcoms have a regular cast, but NEWHART had a giant cast of semi-regular characters -- the townsfolk -- too. What do you think that added to the show?
The local idiots, as I called them, added a whole lot of color and stupidity for the very straight-faced Bob to react off of. But every one of them was lovable in their stupidity, which made it harder for Bob to just write them off. He tried to act rationally in a group of off-the-wall characters. Bob just couldn’t win. With so many of them always around, all that was on the other side of the Inn’s walls seemed very present, very weird, and very real. The chemistry was perfect. It was a perfect formula for hilarity. We were normal, and he was the stranger in the strange land.
What does it mean to be a semi-regular on a hit sitcom? Could you book other work in between your appearances, or were you kept on a sort of retainer?
Only a contract keeps you exclusive to a show. If you’re recurring on a show there’s absolutely no guarantee that you’ll ever do another episode. You’re at the mercy of the writers and producers. I’m going through that now with DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. I’ve done 10 or so shows in the last five years, but who knows when I’ll do another.
While I was doing NEWHART, I was also recurring regularly on a sitcom called E.R. with Elliot Gould, Mary McDonald, Conchata Ferrel, George Clooney, and a whole slew of really talented people, and a few other shows like BEVERLY HILLS 90210 in which I played the school janitor who was blackmailing one of the kids over a legacy key that gave him access to test questions. I actually signed a contract with Fox to do ALIEN NATION after my fifth year on the NEWHART. By that time NEWHART had all new writers and producers and they ended up killing Harley off in some kind of car accident on a bridge. The good news is that they named the bridge The Harley Estin Memorial Bridge. So I was killed off for a joke. I thought it was pretty funny. At least I went out on a laugh.
I went back to visit the set one day after signing the contract with ALIEN NATION. It was then that I first heard that Harley had been killed off. When the writers showed up for a run-through, I stood out on the middle of the stage and looked up into the darkness where they gathered to watch the run-through and yelled up, “All right, I’m really pissed. Which one of you guys killed me off?” There was dead silence. It was then that I learned that all the writers and producers were all new. They didn’t know what to say to me. Awkward to say the least. I was a little embarrassed because I expected a laugh. Finally I yelled up, “I’m only joking. Nice to meet you guys.” I hope they all got the joke.
"He and I do the same thing for a living:
We're both looking for work,"
explains Harley in episode "Still the Beavers."
Most all actors have gone through lean years, so was it vindicating (and strangely ironic) to have steady work as a chronically jobless character? Did you get to suggest any material for the character, and if so, was any of it from your own job-hunting experiences?
No, I never suggested storylines for Harley. Those writers were brilliant. I was amazed at all the clever ways they kept playing off of one joke. One time I approached one of the writers and jokingly said that I found the way they worded my lines as really being kind of weird. “Who would talk that way” I said. He was so apologetic, “Oh, I’m sorry. Do you want us to change some of your lines?” I told him not to worry. My job as an actor is not to question the way the lines are written, but instead to figure out that if those lines were said, what kind of person would say them that way. The weird speech patterns actually helped me define the character. He told me that the writers used to fight to see who could read my lines in the writer’s room. Wow, what a compliment. So I told him not to change a thing. Don’t mess with success.
Do you have a favorite episode or bit that you did as Harley?
There were so many. The one I remember most is an episode where I apply to be the maid at the Inn. I come in all dressed in a suit and ready to impress. I explain to Joanna that when I saw the ad in the paper it was “like a Beacon.” I guess my whole face brightened up and my eyes went wide, and it always got a laugh. Then Joanna told me I didn’t get the job, and I said something about being a penguin or something and I waddled out the door.
That was also one of my favorite episodes. It really showed all the sides of Harley, down on his luck, optimistic, hopeful, eager, incompetent, and unlucky.
Steven Kampmann was still on the show as Mr. Newhart's major foil when you started. What do you know about the abrupt transition from Kampmann to Peter Scolari in filling that basic function on the series?
I don’t know anything about what went on behind the scenes. The first show I did, Steve was there, and the next season when I did a show he wasn’t. It was nice seeing Peter there, however, because we had worked together on BOSOM BUDDIES. Peter and Tom Hanks actually taught me how to juggle clubs and rings. Peter was always so open and friendly, and we became instant friends again.
Mr. Newhart reportedly warmed up the live audience with some of his stand-up routine. Did you get to hear that in the wings?
None of us ever missed it. It was like having back stage passes to a concert of a legend. WE all watched in admiration, such great routines, such timing, such economy, and such a master at playing the audience.
I don’t know if anyone has mentioned it, but Tom also had a sort of routine. Nine times out of ten, in his first scene, he would mess up a line (on purpose I think), and let out with an expletive of some kind. The live audience would crack up, and laugh as one at the mistake. It was a way of making them feel like they were all one instead of a bunch of individuals. Audience bonding. Genius.
Do you have any particular fond memory of working with Mr. Newhart?
My favorite memories center around the cast table readings on Mondays. There was always great camaraderie, "Welcome Backs," and talk about what happened last week or over the weekend. There were generally lots of laughs all around. When we started reading I could always count on a moment when my delivery caught all of them off guard. Laughter would erupt and Bob would look at me and give me one of those subtle little Newhart giggles. It meant everything to me.
One time my mom, my aunt, and a dear friend from Milwaukee came out to LA to visit. I took them on the set of NEWHART even though I wasn’t on the show that week. We walked in and Bob was rehearsing with Mary behind the front desk of the Inn. Bob looked up and saw me and yelled out, “Jeff!” He stopped the rehearsal and everyone came over to meet my guests. They fawned over them for almost twenty minutes, took pictures, answered questions, signed autographs. It was magical. What a great bunch of people to work with. I loved them all.
Who did you bond with in the cast?
Like I said, Peter and I knew each other from before. Peter even played on a softball team together for about three years.
Relationships on a set like that were pretty professional. I always thought Tom Poston was a genius, and what’s even better was that he was such a great guy. Bill Sanderson, John Voldstadt, Tony Pappenfuss and I used to talk a lot on breaks, and I always had a soft spot for Mary Frann, who was very maternal towards me, or maybe my character. I didn’t know which, but I loved it.
Bill Lanteau, Thomas Hill, and Todd Sussman were also a lot of fun to hang with. Every week there would be someone else new to meet and hang with. What was beautiful was that none of us were jealous of the other. We all had our special characters that only we could do. Bill Sanderson was always funny though, the way he would worry. Even though the audience would hoot and cheer every time Larry, Darryl and Darryl would enter, he somehow thought that I, or one of the other recurring characters would become more of a favorite and end up replacing him. That’s just Bill. Over the years a lot of my actor friends ended working on the show, so it would be like old home week. Hell, everyone was great. I honestly don’t remember any friction on the set at all. I think that whenever any might arise it was taken off set to a private meeting.
Do you still stay in touch with any of your NEWHART castmates?
I try to keep up with Bob a little through his daughter. But I haven’t seen too much of any of them since the show ended. I was terribly saddened with the loss of Tom, who was one of the funniest men I ever met, and Mary’s death was a total shock to me. I actually see a lot of the writers and producers pretty often as they travel on to other shows. I’ve worked with most of them through the years on whatever project they’re working on.
What have you heard about why NEWHART only got its first season onto DVD, despite a lot of fan clamor for the entire series?
I’ve always wondered about that myself. I also wonder why it isn’t re-running everywhere all the time. What I loved about the show was that it never had any pretensions of being a serious dramatic show like some of the sitcoms were doing back in the day. You remember how they all had one episode a year about AIDS, or women’s rights, or the cause of the day just so they could win an Emmy? NEWHART was just funny. No social points, no politics, just fun.
You seem to have found a lot of success with high-profile TV commercials these days. What are some of your most recent, and what else are you working on?
As far as commercials go, I have a national commercial for Chevy Volt that ran on the Super Bowl. I played Benjamin Franklin out flying a kite in a storm. I also have one for Target that should be airing soon where I play the dean of a college handing a diploma to a recent pharmacy grad.
Of course I’ve been recurring as Fr. Crowley, Eva Longoria’s long suffering priest, on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES for the last six years, and I just finished an episode of ZEKE AND LUTHER for Disney that should end up being a recurring role. I describe my character as Foghorn Leghorn in a suit. My family owns this small beach town and I sort of act as the big mouth mayor.
My wife and I also have a webseries we wrote and produced called BOLLYWOOD TO HOLLYWOOD. Catch it at www.bollywoodtohollywoodtv.com . It’s now being turned into a TV series (with a lot of re-writes) and an incredibly funny screenplay. We already have a lot of big talent signed on for the film, and now we’re raising money.
We kind of got into the whole Indo-American fusion thing three years ago when I went to India to star in a Jennifer Lynch film called HISSS. I was the villain in the film (a long way from Harley), a ruthless American dying of brain cancer who goes to India to hopefully get eternal life from a snake goddess. It also stars Irrfan Khan from SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and Bollywood bombshell Mallika Sherawat.
Other than that I just keep rolling along with a guest shot here and there, and a film role here and there, voice overs, cartoons and cool stuff like that. It’s the life of a character actor in Hollywood.