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Bob Newhart: 91 Years of Faith, Family and Funny

The funnyman, who celebrates his 91st birthday on September 5, 2020, intends to keep us laughing for years to come.

Comedian Bob Newhart performs one of his famous phone-conversation comedy routines

Though he’s celebrating his 91st birthday in 2020, actor and comedian Bob Newhart has no intention of retiring after more than 60 years in show business. As he said in a recent interview with Closer Weekly magazine, “I don’t think I’ll ever stop performing. It’s in my blood.”

Newhart was born on September 5, 1929, in Oak Park, Illinois, the only boy among four children. One of his three sisters—Mary Joan, who passed away in 2018—was a nun, a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His father was part-owner of a plumbing and heating-supply business.

Newhart was educated in Catholic schools and attended Loyola University of Chicago, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business management. He was drafted into the Army in in 1952, serving stateside during the Korean War as a personnel manager.

Discharged in 1954, Newhart attended law school for a time but grew disillusioned and withdrew when he was asked to undertake unethical actions while serving an internship. It was then he entered the business world, working as an accountant for United States Gypsum. He later joked about rectifying petty cash imbalances by taking money out of his own pocket.

In 1958, Newhart took a position as an advertising copywriter for Fred A. Niles, a film and television producer in Chicago, and it was there that his unlikely journey to a career in comedy began. He and a colleague used to conduct telephone conversations for laughs, creating humorous scenarios and swapping funny lines. Eventually, they began recording the calls and sending them to local radio stations, hoping to get air time.

Before long, though, the co-worker relocated to New York City, so Newhart adapted the routines, creating the familiar one-sided conversations for which he’s so well-known. A deejay to whom he had sent some tapes shared them with the head of talent at Warner Bros. Records, and in 1958, Newhart signed with the label.

Newhart had a record deal before he’d even performed stand-up before a live audience—certainly not the typical path success that comedians followed in those days.

On April Fool’s Day, 1960, Newhart’s first album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, was released to immediate acclaim. It reached #1 on Billboard’s pop album chart, the first comedy album ever to do so. It also earned a Grammy Award for Album of the Year and Newhart was awarded the Grammy for Best New Artist.Six months later, Newhart’s follow-up album, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back!, was released and it also proved to be a success, winning the Grammy for the Best Comedy Performance in the Spoken Word category. The two albums, for a time, were simultaneously ranked #1 and #2 on the Billboard chart.

In 1961, Newhart hosted a variety show on NBC entitled The Bob Newhart Show. Although it lasted just a single season, he garnered an Emmy Award nomination and a Peabody Award.

Over a seven-year span from 1961, Newhart released five more comedy albums while making frequent guest appearances on variety programs, such as The Dean Martin Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. Newhart later guest-hosted The Tonight Show 87 times.

In 1972, Newhart starred as psychologist Bob Hartley on the sitcom The Bob Newhart Show; Suzanne Pleshette played Bob’s wife, Emily. The show, which ran for six seasons, was a hit with audiences and critics alike.

A decade later, Newhart starred in another sitcom, Newhart, this time portraying Dick Louden, an author turned innkeeper in rural Vermont. That very popular program aired for eight seasons.

It wasn’t until 2013, though, when Newhart guested as Arthur Jeffies (a.k.a. Professor Proton) on The Big Bang Theory, that he received his one and only Emmy Award (he was nominated eight other times) in the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series category.

Newhart has not lacked for accolades and honors, however. He’s a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame, was ranked at 17 in TV Guide‘s list of the 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time, received the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and is depicted, in his familiar role of psychologist Bob Hartley, in a bronze statue that is on permanent display in the sculpture park at Chicago’s Navy Pier complex. His 2006 memoir, I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This!, even became a New York Times best seller.

A devoted family man, Newhart and his wife, Virginia—or Ginnie, as he calls her—raised four children together. The Newharts, who were set up on a blind date by comedian Buddy Hackett (Ginnie babysat Hackett’s kids at the time), have been married more than 55 years.

How did the Newharts manage to stick together for so long in a town where lengthy marriages are rarer than hen’s teeth?

“Being Catholic has a lot to do with it,” Newhart told Patrick Novecosky of Legatus magazine. “You work a little harder. You don’t just have your first fight and walk out the door.”

His faith was never more important to Newhart than when Ginnie was diagnosed with liver cancer. “During the week, I’ll go to church twice a week. … [Ginnie] had a liver transplant [in 2008]. She’s in the prime of health now. I kind of go and thank Him for that. That was a very emotional time.”

Though he and Ginnie resided in Los Angeles, Newhart has never had much use for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. His focus is on his family. “I have four kids and 10 grandchildren. I’ve always said: I don’t care how successful you’ve been in this business, if you haven’t had a good family life, what have you really achieved? Not an awful lot. You can be the richest man in the world and look back at your marriages that were disasters and what have you really accomplished? That’s the way I look at life.”

Newhart shared with Novecosky his suspicion that the Man Upstairs enjoys a good joke, too: “I think God has an incredible sense of humor. All you have to do is look around the world. There’s no question that He has an incredible sense of humor.”

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