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13 Fun Facts About Newhart

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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.


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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

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Netflix's Most-Binged Shows of 2017, Ranked
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Netflix might know your TV habits better than you do. Recently, the entertainment company's normally tight-lipped number-crunchers looked at user data collected between November 1, 2016 and November 1, 2017 to see which series people were powering through and which ones they were digesting more slowly. By analyzing members’ average daily viewing habits, they were able to determine which programs were more likely to be “binged” (or watched for more than two hours per day) and which were more often “savored” (or watched for less than two hours per day) by viewers.

They found that the highest number of Netflix bingers glutted themselves on the true crime parody American Vandal, followed by the Brazilian sci-fi series 3%, and the drama-mystery 13 Reasons Why. Other shows that had viewers glued to the couch in 2017 included Anne with an E, the Canadian series based on L. M. Montgomery's 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, and the live-action Archie comics-inspired Riverdale.

In contrast, TV shows that viewers enjoyed more slowly included the Emmy-winning drama The Crown, followed by Big Mouth, Neo Yokio, A Series of Unfortunate Events, GLOW, Friends from College, and Ozark.

There's a dark side to this data, though: While the company isn't around to judge your sweatpants and the chip crumbs stuck to your couch, Netflix is privy to even your most embarrassing viewing habits. The company recently used this info to publicly call out a small group of users who turned their binges into full-fledged benders:

Oh, and if you're the one person in Antarctica binging Shameless, the streaming giant just outed you, too.

Netflix broke down their full findings in the infographic below and, Big Brother vibes aside, the data is pretty fascinating. It even includes survey data on which shows prompted viewers to “Netflix cheat” on their significant others and which shows were enjoyed by the entire family.

Netflix infographic "The Year in Bingeing"
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14 Fascinating Facts About Saturday Night Fever
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Paramount Pictures

We can tell by the way you use your walk that you're a fan of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 blockbuster that made John Travolta a mega-star and brought disco into the mainstream. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.) To enhance your appreciation of what was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time until Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) beat it, here's a groovy list of facts to celebrate the film's 40th birthday. Put on your boogie shoes and read! 

1. THERE WAS A PG-RATED VERSION OF IT, TOO.

Saturday Night Fever was an instant hit when it was released in December 1977, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. What's especially impressive is that it did this despite being rated R and thus (theoretically) inaccessible to teenagers, the very audience that a disco movie would (theoretically) appeal to. And so in March 1979, the film was re-released in a PG version, with all the profanity, sex, and violence either deleted or downplayed. This version took in another $8.9 million (about $30 million at 2016 ticket prices), bringing the film's U.S. total to $94.2 million. Both versions were released on VHS and laserdisc, though the R-rated cut didn't become widely available on home video until the DVD upgrade. 

2. IT WAS BASED ON A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT TURNED OUT TO BE SEMI-FICTIONAL.

"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a detailed look at the new generation of urban teenagers by British journalist Nik Cohn, was published in New York Magazine in June 1976. The central figure in the article was Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge," whose name was changed to Tony Manero for the movie. But years later, Cohn confessed: "[Vincent] is completely made-up, a total fabrication." The styles and attitudes Cohn had described were real, but not the main character. Cohn said he'd only recently arrived in Brooklyn, didn't know the scene well, and based Vincent on a Mod he'd known in London in the '60s.

3. THE BEE GEES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Most of the film had already been shot when music producer-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for it. The brothers, only modestly successful at that point and hard at work on their next album, didn't know what the movie was about but cranked out a few tunes in a weekend. They also repurposed several songs they'd been working on, including "Stayin' Alive," a demo version of which was prepared in time to be used in filming the opening "strut" sequence. (You'll notice Travolta struts in sync with the music.) So if the movie's signature songs didn't come until later, what were the cast members listening to when they shot the dance scenes? According to Travolta, it was Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. 

4. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM BROKE ALL KINDS OF RECORDS.

With 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, Saturday Night Fever was the top-selling soundtrack album of all time before being supplanted by The Bodyguard some 15 years later. It's also the only disco record (so far) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and one of only three soundtracks (besides The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to win that category. It was the number one album on the Billboard charts for the entire first half of 1978, and stayed on the charts until March 1980, long after the supposed death of disco.

5. THE MOVIE EXTENDED DISCO'S LIFESPAN BY A FEW YEARS.

Disco had been popular enough in the mid-1970s to land multiple disco tunes on the Billboard charts, but by the end of 1977, when Saturday Night Fever came out, the backlash had started and the trend was on its way out. But thanks to the movie (and its soundtrack), not only did disco not die out, it achieved more widespread, mainstream, middle-America success than it ever had before.

6. IT HAS SOME ROCKY CONNECTIONS.


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First connection: It was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen, whose previous film was Rocky. Ultimately, that didn’t work out and Avildsen was replaced with John Badham a few weeks before shooting began. Second connection: Tony has a Rocky poster on his bedroom wall. Third connection: Saturday Night Fever’s 1983 sequel, Staying Alive, was directed by ... Sylvester Stallone.

7. TRAVOLTA WAS ALREADY SO FAMOUS THAT MAKING THE MOVIE WAS A HASSLE.

Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a movie star, but he was already a teen heartthrob because of the popular sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a delinquent teenager with the hilarious and timeless catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose." Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, many of them squealing teenage girls. (Badham said there were also a lot of teenage boys holding signs expressing their hatred for Travolta for being more desirable than themselves.)

Co-star Donna Pescow said, "The fans—oh, my God, they were all over him. It was scary to watch." Badham said, "By noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home." Since it was nearly impossible to keep the crowds away (or quiet), Badham and the crew resorted to filming in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. 

8. THE WHITE CASTLE EMPLOYEES WEREN'T ACTING WHEN THEY LOOKED SHOCKED. 


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In the brief scene where Tony, his boys, and Stephanie are loudly eating at White Castle, those were the real burger-flippers, not actors. Badham told them to just go about their business. He also told his actors to cut loose and surprise the White Castlers in whatever way they saw fit. The shot that's in the movie appears to be a reaction to Joey standing on the table and barking, but Badham said it was actually in response to something else: "Double J (actor Paul Pape) pulling his pants down and mooning the entire staff of the White Castle."

9. THE FEMALE LEAD GOT THE PART THANKS TO A SERENDIPITOUS CAB RIDE.

Casting the role of Tony's dance partner, Stephanie, proved difficult. Hundreds of women auditioned, but nobody seemed right. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney was looking for her big break into show business. As fate would have it, she shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be producer Robert Stigwood's nephew. He mentioned that his uncle was working on a movie, and Gorney replied, "Oh, am I in it?"— her standard joke whenever she heard about a film being made. The nephew wound up submitting Gorney as a candidate, and the rest is history. 

10. TRAVOLTA’S GIRLFRIEND DIED DURING FILMING.

John Travolta stars in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Paramount Pictures

Travolta met Diana Hyland on the set of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, in which she played his mother. (She was 18 years older than him.) They had been dating for six months when Hyland succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 41, after filming just four episodes of her new gig on Eight Is Enough. Travolta was able to leave Saturday Night Fever and fly to L.A. in time to be with her before she died, then had to return to work. 

11. THE COMPOSER HAD TO SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE A NIXED SONG.

For Tony and Stephanie's rehearsal scene about 30 minutes into the movie, Badham had used the song "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs, going so far as to shoot the scene, including the dialogue, with the song actually playing in the background. (That's usually a no-no, for exactly the reasons you're about to read about.) According to Badham, no sooner had they wrapped the scene than Scaggs' people reached out to say they couldn't use the song after all, as Scaggs was thinking of pursuing a disco project of his own. Badham now had to have the actors re-dub the dialogue (since the version he'd recorded was tainted by "Lowdown"); what's more, he had to find a new song that would fit the choreography and tempo of the dancing. Composer David Shire rose to the occasion, writing a piece of instrumental music that met the specifications, and that’s what we hear in the movie. 

12. THEY MADE UP A DANCE BECAUSE THE CHOREOGRAPHER DIDN'T SHOW UP.

In another rehearsal scene 55 minutes into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the "tango hustle," which looks like a combination of both of those dances. This was something Travolta and Gorney invented as a matter of necessity: the film's choreographer didn't realize he was supposed to be on the set that day, and the actors didn't have any steps prepared. The tango hustle, alas, never quite caught on.  

13. TONY’S ICONIC WHITE SUIT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

Travolta and Badham both assumed Tony's disco outfit would be black, as men's suits tended to be at the time. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them it should be white, partly to symbolize the character's journey to enlightenment but also for practical reasons: a dark suit doesn't photograph very well in a dark discotheque. 

14. TONY’S SUIT WAS LATER SOLD FOR $2000—THEN FOR $145,500.

Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a cheap men's clothing store in Brooklyn (swamped by teenage fans, of course) and bought the suit off the rack—three identical suits, actually, so they wouldn't have to stop filming when one became soaked with Travolta's sweat. Two of the suits disappeared after the movie was finished; the remaining one, inscribed by Travolta, was bought at a charity auction in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who cited Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite movies. He paid about $2000 for it. In 1995, he sold it for $145,500 to an anonymous bidder through Christie's auction house.

In 2012, after a lengthy search, curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum found the owner (who still preferred to remain anonymous) and persuaded him to lend it for an exhibit of Hollywood costumes. It is now presumably back in that man's care, whoever he may be. (P.S. Badham says on the 2002 DVD commentary that the suit is on display at the Smithsonian, a tidbit repeated by NPR in 2006 and Vanity Fair in 2007. But they must be mistaken. The suit’s sale in 1995 and rediscovery for the 2012 museum exhibit are verified facts; the suit isn't in the Smithsonian's online catalogue; and finally, a 2007 Washington Post story about the Smithsonian lists the suit as one of the items the museum director wanted to get.)

Additional sources:
John Badham DVD commentary
DVD featurettes

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