January 31, 1938 – Suzanne Pleshette:
“Telephone operators have called me ‘sir’ since I was 6.”
I have two strong, but distinct memories of Suzanne Pleshette: the sexy, sardonic, sultry dark-haired stunner of 1960s movie melodramas, and the mature and light comedienne but still sexy wife on 142 half-hour episodes of television’s The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78).
The Bob Newhart Show was about Chicago psychologist Bob Hartley (Bob Newhart) and his beautiful wife Emily (Pleshette). They’re frequently interrupted by their dim-witted airline pilot friend and neighbor, Howard Borden (Bill Daily). At his clinic, Bob shares the services of witty receptionist Carol Kester (the late Marcia Wallace) with orthodontist Jerry Robinson (Peter Bonerz). Bob has a crazy cast of characters as his many patients.
On the series finale, Happy Trails To You (1978), Bob takes a job teaching psychology at a college in Oregon. After a going-away party and a tearful farewell, the Hartleys move away to start a new life. While the credits roll, the cast takes their final bows, thanking the audience for six years of support.
And then Bob Newhart went on to star in another sitcom, Newhart, as Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon. Newhart (1982- 1990) ran for 184 half-hour episodes over eight seasons.
True surprises are rare on television series. Newhart had one of the best, for its series finale which attracted almost 30 million viewers. During the last two minutes of the episode, Newhart as Dick Louden, who had spent the previous eight seasons in a small, rural Vermont town that is home to many eccentric characters, wakes up in an oddly familiar bedroom. He says: ”Honey, wake up, you won’t believe the dream I just had…”, right before Pleshette, as his wife, Emily on The Bob Newhart Show, rolls over in bed. The eight seasons of Newhart, and therefore the very existence of Dick, his sweater-wearing wife, Joanna (Mary Frann), and the entire cast of crazies had been nothing but a wacky, indigestion-fueled fantasy within the more realistic world of Newhart’s earlier series.
It was Newhart’s real-life wife, Ginnie Newhart, who first came up with the idea for the ending. At a holiday party during the series’ sixth season, Newhart told her that he was thinking about leaving the show after CBS moved it to a new time slot. Newhart: ”Without missing a beat, she said, ‘You ought to end it with a dream sequence where you wake up in bed with Suzy’.” Pleshette was at the party, and Newhart proposed the idea to her. She loved the idea.
Today the Newhart series finale is considered a classic, joining M*A*S*H, St. Elsewhere, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, and Mad Men on any list of the greatest series-enders ever.
My second distinct memory of Pleshette is the early part of her career, when, elegantly dressed, she would play rich, young and independent girls, starting with the Jerry Lewis movie The Geisha Boy (1958). In her second film, Rome Adventure (1962), she plays a librarian, who, dismissed for stocking a “risqué” book, goes to Rome to find romance. Among the ruins, she finally goes for pretty American art student Troy Donahue over the considerable Italian charms of Rossano Brazzi.
In 1964, Pleshette married blond, blue-eyed teen heartthrob Donahue, a marriage that only lasted a year. Time enough for the couple to star together in Raoul Walsh‘s western, A Distant Trumpet (1964), where Donahue is an expressionless cavalry lieutenant defending a fort who falls for Pleshette, the wife of his commanding officer. Both stars look rather too 1960s to be convincing as characters in the Old West. Pleshette:
“Troy was a sweet, good man. We just were never destined to be married. We just didn’t have the same values. But I’m not bitter. He taught me how to laugh.”
Donahue became famous in a series of “generation gap dramas” in the early-1960s. When his career began to slip away, Pleshette’s bloomed. She appeared in two melodramas back-to-back: Fate Is The Hunter (1964), as a stewardess, the only survivor of a plane crash, and Youngblood Hawke (1964) as an editor nurturing the writing talent of a truck driver, played by hottie James Franciscus.
Pleshette was born in Brooklyn. Her parents were Jewish, the children of emigrants from Russia. Her mother was a dancer, and her father a stage manager. She graduated from the famed Manhattan High School of Performing Arts. She later graduated from Manhattan’s prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse with renowned acting teacher Sanford Meisner. Her Broadway debut was in a small role in Compulsion (1957) inspired by the infamous Leopold and Loeb case. She worked on Broadway four more times before heading to Hollywood, most notably in The Miracle Worker (1959), replacing Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan, teacher of the blind and deaf Helen Keller.
A Rage To Live (1965) made Pleshette a camp icon, playing a “nymphomaniac” whose promiscuity only leads to loneliness and despair. It’s hard out there for a slut. It was the sort of role that would have gone to Barbara Stanwyck or Susan Hayward a decade earlier.
In Nevada Smith (1966), opposite Steve McQueen, Pleshette is a grubby swamp girl whose beauty shines through her backwoods circumstances. She has a juicy death scene after being bitten by a snake.
She could play comedy with breezy performances in three innocuous Walt Disney productions: The Ugly Dachshund (1966), though she is upstaged by dogs; The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin (1967), portraying a saloon singer in a saloon, where she is the closest thing you can get to sexy in a Disney flick; and the love interest in Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968), where she has real chemistry with co-star Dean Jones.
Pleshette liked to work and she was unafraid of television from the start, with roles in Have Gun – Will Travel, Naked City, and Route 66. She appeared in a 1960 episode (directed by Paul Henreid) of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which led to Hitchcock casting her in The Birds (1963) as a warm, garden-loving schoolteacher, she is one of the first fatal victims of the killer birds, dying while protecting a child. Her tender brunette performance is a nice contrast with the cool blondeness of Tippi Hedren.
Plechette made several scintillating appearances on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. She was a favorite of Carson and they had a certain chemistry that producers couldn’t ignore, plus that alto speaking voice.
Because of those appearances with Carson, in 1967 she was offered the role of Emily Hartley, the smart, funny, attractive “career woman” wife on The Bob Newhart Show. Unusual for sitcoms of the period, the Hartleys had no children, like Pleshette herself, and they shared a double bed in which they discussed and solved the problems of their day. Pleshette stated:
“I certainly would have liked to have had children. But my nurturing instincts are fulfilled in other ways. I have a large extended family; I’m the mother on every set. So, if this is my particular karma, that’s fine.”
After the show ended, Pleshette continued to work in television. She had her own series and guested on many more. In 1990, Pleshette portrayed Manhattan hotel owner Leona Helmsley in the television film Leona Helmsley: The Queen Of Mean, earning Emmy and Golden Globe Award nominations. Her last appearances were in three episodes of Will & Grace playing the estranged mother of Megan Mullally‘s character Karen Walker.
Pleshette’s second marriage was to Texas oilman Tim Gallagher, from 1968 until his death in 2000. She then married actor Tom Poston, who occasionally guest-starred as Bob’s college roommate on the first Newhart series. Pleshette:
“I didn’t like him. I kept telling Bob, ‘Get rid of him.”
Poston was on all eight seasons of Newhart as dense caretaker George Utley. Poston and Pleshette had been involved romantically in 1959, when they acted together in the Broadway comedy Golden Fleecing. The deaths of their spouses brought Poston and Pleshette together again, and they married in 2001. They were together until his death from respiratory failure in 2007.
In 2006, Pleshette was diagnosed with lung cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. During treatment, she developed pneumonia which caused her to remain in the hospital for an extended period of time. She arrived at a Bob Newhart Show cast reunion in September 2007, in a wheelchair (she was seated in a regular chair during the actual telecast).
Pleshette’s final credits rolled in January 2008. She was buried next to Poston a year after he died. 12 days later, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on what would have been her 71st birthday. Her star was placed, at her request, in front of the Frederick’s of Hollywood flagship store. Newhart and Marcia Wallace spoke at the star’s unveiling. Tina Sinatra accepted the star on Pleshette’s behalf.