Bob Newhart has starred in two seminal sitcoms, won the Mark Twain Award for American Humor and multiple Grammys. His one-sided conversation routines have done almost as much for the telephone as Ma Bell.
But the beloved comic had never won an Emmy — until this year. Newhart, 84, picked up an award for his guest appearance on “The Big Bang Theory” as Professor Proton, a role he reprised last week.
Newhart, who will perform Friday at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, talked by phone last week about the recognition, the loss of former co-star Marcia Wallace and his love for Richard Pryor.
Q: Congrats on the Emmy. Why do you think it took so long?
A: “The Bob Newhart Show” kind of lived in the shadow of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which was a great show. We were kind of an appendage. After a while, I didn’t bother submitting myself because I didn’t want to go through the process. I could just sit at home and say, “Well, I would have won if I had put my name in.” Stand-ups rarely win. I think there’s this misconception that Jerry Seinfeld is just being Jerry Seinfeld or Bill Cosby is just being Cosby and it’s not really acting. Well, when you’re speaking other people’s words and you have to hit your mark, that’s acting. But I think the reason I lost seven times is that other people were better than me. I didn’t brood over it.
Q: Where are you keeping the Emmy?
A: It’s temporarily in the living room, but my wife thinks displaying awards is kind of like bragging, so she tends to hide them in the house. If you came to my house looking for them, it’d be like a scavenger hunt. I do get to keep the Mark Twain brown statue in the den, but that’s only because it goes with the decor.
Q: How did you wind up doing “Big Bang”?
A: Chuck Lorre, the creator, had been after me a couple times to do various shows, but for one reason or another, we never got around to it. When he came to me in January for his annual turndown, I told him I’d do “Big Bang” if it was a recurring character that comes back a couple times and that it’s all in front of a live audience. That’s the only way I know how to do it. Laugh tracks turn me off. The acting is better when you know your material is being judged.
Q: What do you watch on TV?
A: “Modern Family.” I don’t watch that much television. I shot a movie in Capetown, South Africa, a couple years ago and my wife and I decided to go on a safari. It was mind-blowing. That world hasn’t changed at all. Animals are still hunting each other. So now I search the dial for nature films.
Q: We lost Marcia Wallace recently. What did she bring to “The Bob Newhart Show”?
A: I think everybody knew a Marcia in their office, you know, the receptionist who got everything that was going on, unbeknownst to her bosses. She was kind of the glue that held it together. I told Mary Frann when we started “Newhart” that the two of us can’t be crazy. If we’re nuts, we don’t have a show. We have to be the pole so the rest of the tent can get wacky.
Q: When you started doing stand-up, getting a phone call was still kind of a big deal. Do you think your phone routines resonate to a younger generation that are on their cells all the time?
A: Huh. No, they probably don’t resonate for the reasons you pointed out. Phones are getting so small it’s hard to tell now if they’re talking on a phone or if they’re schizophrenic. I’m glad you can’t talk on your cells while the plane is in the air. That would drive me crazy.
Q: I know you take a lot of vacations with Don Rickles. Where’s the best place you’ve traveled to?
A: The one we love the most is Venice. On a separate trip with my wife, she had an idea. ‘You know how they say in the States to always follow truck drivers because they know the best places to eat? Well, why don’t we follow the gondoliers to their favorite restaurant?’ So that’s what we did. It was terrible. My wife didn’t want to offend them, so she put the sardines in a cigarette box and we left. Next thing you know, we’re being followed by about a hundred cats.
Q: There was a terrific documentary recently on Richard Pryor and you’re quoted at length about your admiration for him.
A: It was so appropriate that he was the first winner of the Mark Twain Award because Twain told stories about life on the Mississippi at the turn of the 19th century. Richard did the same with stories from the inner city, a world I would not have known otherwise. The language never bothered me. You can’t take that away.
I presented him with an award one time. He was in a wheelchair at the time. We were backstage and he looked up at me and said, “I stole your album! I stole your album! When I was a kid in Peoria, I tucked it under my jacket and walked out of the store.” I said, “Richard, you know I get a quarter for every copy that’s sold.” He said, “Somebody give me a quarter!”