Lots of people live lives of quiet desperation in jobs they hate. But not Bob Newhart.
No sooner had he become an accountant in the 1950s than he knew he had to get out. “I just made the decision that I was going to try comedy, and if didn't work, then I knew it didn't work,” he said. “Then I would go back and do whatever. But at least I wouldn't torture myself the rest of my life, wondering whatever would have happened....”
As a transition, he began working as an advertising copywriter in Chicago; on the side, Newhart and a co-worker entertained each other with comedic phone calls, which they would record and send to radio stations as audition tapes. That eventually led to Newhart’s first stand-up album, 1960's “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” which sold 1.5 million copies and won Grammys for best new artist and album of the year.
His deadpan, everyman comedy routines were a breath of fresh air in a world of controversial comics such as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. Among his bits: portraying a harried driving instructor dealing with the worst student in the world.
Though Newhart had roles in films such as 1968's “Hot Millions” and 1971’s “Cold Turkey,” TV proved a better fit. His 1961 comedy-variety series “The Bob Newhart Show” won an Emmy and Peabody, but it lasted only one season. Nevertheless, he jumped at the chance to play a Chicago psychologist in “The Bob Newhart Show,” which became a classic from 1972 to 1978. Four years later, he returned in “Newhart,” which ended its run in 1990.
Though two subsequent sitcoms, “Bob” and “George and Leo,” were disappointments, Newhart kept busy with stand-up comedy through the 2000s. He also played Papa Elf in the 2003 movie “Elf” and the head librarian in the TNT movie franchise “The Librarian,” earning an Emmy nomination for the latter in 2008.