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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Feb. 22, 2010 | 1:22 AM

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Bob Newhart At the Aero

“This is not Billy Wilder’s life, or Cary Grant.  I made a few movies.” -Bob Newhart

While the statement above might seem like a typical example of Bob Newhart’s dry wit, it’s also essentially true.  Newhart has had a career that spans five decades, but for most people movies are not the first thing that comes to mind when you mention his name.  But Newhart has appeared in an eclectic assortment of films dating back to 1962, when he appeared in Don Siegel’s “Hell is for Heroes.”  His more recent credits have included stints opposite Will Ferrell in “Elf” and Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde 2”.  But many of Newhart’s most interesting films are rarely screened, and deserve a second look. 

Enter the American Cinematheque, who gave a sold out crowd at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica a treat by programming a double bill of “Cold Turkey” (1971) and “Hot Millions” (1968).  “Hot Millions” is available on DVD and download from the new Warner Archive site, but “Cold Turkey” has yet to see a DVD release of any sort.  “Cold Turkey” also carries the distinction of being the only feature film to be directed by television legend Norman Lear.  It’s the kind of movie that Hollywood would never make now, as the plot centers around a small town who’s promised $25 million by a tobacco company if they can quit smoking for 30 days.  Considering that the MPAA is practically handing out R ratings to filmmakers who even dare to show a cigarette in a movie these days, “Cold Turkey” seems like a minor miracle.

“Hot Millions” finds Newhart’s paranoid accountant character trying to catch Peter Ustinov in the act of embezzling money from a large American corporation with the aid of their giant computer.  Newhart has a lot of funny exchanges with Ustinov in the film, and it’s even funnier to see him shift into lecherous mode as he tries to put the moves on a young Maggie Smith.  On a side note, it’s almost uncanny how tricks and mannerisms Ricky Gervais seems to have lifted from Peter Ustinov.  It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a remake with Newhart in a cameo.

As entertaining as the two films were, the house was packed to see the man himself, and Newhart didn’t disappoint.  Appearing for discussion in between the two films, he took questions from the audience and regaled the crowd with a series of priceless anecdotes from his long show business career.  He gave his wife credit for coming up with the idea for the famous final episode of “Newhart” where he wakes up next to Suzanne Pleshette on the set of “The Bob Newhart Show,” and he had hilarious stories about appearing with Frank Sinatra on The Tonight Show, the first time his wife met Don Rickles, and working for Mike Nichols while hung over on the set of “Catch-22.” 

The crowd got an unexpected treat when Newhart called Norman Lear out of the audience to join him on stage.  Lear seemed very touched by the way “Cold Turkey” had played with the crowd and said he’d never had a chance to see the film with an audience before.  He also revealed that he shot the pilot of “All in the Family” three different times before someone finally picked it up.  Newhart had some similar problems with CBS when he was doing his show for them in the 90’s and got a big laugh when he turned to Lear and asked “Can you imagine a network being unfair?”  A class act if there ever was one, Lear seemed reluctant to steer the spotlight away from Newhart and left the stage after a few minutes. 

Now 80, Newhart shows few signs of slowing down.  His comedy album “The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart” seems as fresh as it did 50 years ago, and Newhart said that he still does about twenty stand-up dates a year.  A good comedian always knows his audience, and Bob Newhart wrapped up his American Cinematheque appearance by referencing Billy Wilder once gain.  Addressing the question of why he continues to do stand up, Newhart claimed he did it to avoid the alternative: ” Sitting in a dark room on Sunset Blvd. with Erich Von Stroheim bringing me my favorite Newhart episodes.”

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