'Newhart' finale at 30: Bob Newhart reveals the surprising true story behind the sitcom's classic surprise ending

Bob Newhart in the CBS sitcom 'Newhart.' The series aired its final episode 30 years ago in 1990. (Photo: CBS / Courtesy: Everett Collection)
Bob Newhart in the CBS sitcom 'Newhart.' The series aired its final episode 30 years ago in 1990. (Photo: CBS / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

It was Christmastime in Los Angeles circa 1987, but Bob Newhart wasn’t experiencing a lot of good tidings and joy. For six seasons, the stand-up comic-turned-television star had been headlining the CBS sitcom, Newhart, as author and small-town Vermont inn owner, Dick Loudon. It was his second hit sitcom for the network following the beloved 1970s series, The Bob Newhart Show, which paired him with fellow TV legend, Suzanne Pleshette. Although Newhart was a hit with critics and viewers, the star felt that CBS wasn’t necessarily championing his new comedy the way that it should.

While at a Christmas party with his wife, Virginia, he confessed that he was seriously considering ending the show. “Ginny knew I was unhappy with CBS,” Newhart tells Yahoo Entertainment now. “She told me, ‘You know what the final show should be? You wake up in bed with Suzie and you describe this dream you had about owning an inn in Vermont.’ I said, ‘Honey, that’s a great idea!’ Suzanne was actually at the same party, and we told her about it when we saw her. She said, ‘I’ll be there in a New York minute.’”

Ultimately, Newhart made peace with CBS and Newhart continued on for two more seasons. But when the time came to write the actual series finale, he had the perfect ending ready to go. “I gave the idea to the writers, and they filled out the rest,” he says of the surprise “It was all a dream!” reveal on “The Last Newhart,” which premiered 30 years ago on May 21, 1990. What started as a casual Christmas conversation between husband and wife immediately entered TV history as one of the all-time great finales.

Even before the final shot, “The Last Newhart,” took some big creative risks. The episode begins with a Japanese businessman buying the Vermont town Dick and his wife, Joanna (Mary Frann), call home and tearing it down to build a golf course. While they refuse to sell their inn, the rest of the town’s eccentric citizens happily take the money and run. Five years later, though, their neighbors — everyone from handyman George Utley (Tom Poston) to the three brothers Larry, Darryl and Darryl (William Sanderson, Tony Papenfuss and John Voldstad) all return professing guilt at having fled and plan to stay forever with Dick and Joanna. Unable to be heard above the cacophony, Dick leaves the room and is promptly hit in the head by a stray golf ball.

Cut to the bedroom from The Bob Newhart Show, where psychologist Bob Hartley wakes up next to his wife, Emily. “All right Bob, what is it?” Pleshette asks, as the studio audience cheers and claps in obvious surprise and delight. “I was an innkeeper in this crazy little town in Vermont,” Newhart says. “Nothing made sense in this place,” rattling off all the oddities that defined his dream life. “That settles it — no more Japanese food before you go to bed,” Pleshette replies. Newhart gets the last gag of the series: “Go to sleep, Emily. You know, you really should wear more sweaters.”

Newhart wasn’t the only 1980s series to reveal to viewers that what they had been watching was a dream; Newhart himself points to the popular dramas Dallas and St. Elsewhere as two obvious predecessors. But “The Last Newhart” has become the defining example of that particular plot twist, one that’s been referenced and parodied numerous times over the past three decades. “It always presents a problem for people when they're writing that final show,” Newhart says of the enduring legacy of Newhart’s surprise ending. “I remember on The Big Bang Theory, I talked to Chuck Lorre, and they weren't sure how to end the show. [Newhart had a recurring role as Professor Proton on that series.] I said, ‘Well, I've had a great deal of success waking up in bed with my wife!’”

Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Newhart about “The Last Newhart,” as well as his very first comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, which launched his storied career 60 years ago.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 12: Bob Newhart attends An Evening With Bob Newhart on February 12, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/WireImage)
Bob Newhart attends An Evening With Bob Newhart on February 12, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/WireImage)

Yahoo Entertainment: Legend has it that the writers penned an alternate ending of the series finale where Bob goes to heaven and meets God, who would have been played by George Burns or George C. Scott.

Bob Newhart: That was a red herring! We did that to mislead the tabloids. [Laughs] [We said] that we were going to cast George Burns as God and he and I would have a conversation. We never contacted George because we never intended on shooting it! But it broke in one of the tabloids that George Burns would play God on the finale of Newhart, and they got their fingers burned. So when we filmed the ending with Suzanne, they didn't know whether to believe it or not believe it, so they left us alone! We were able to keep it quiet for I think about four or five weeks.

You kept it a secret from the rest of the cast as well, right?

I told the cast maybe a couple days before, but the crew [didn’t know]. They were going to go for dinner and then we were going to shoot the show. We told them, "Oh, when you come back we've added a scene. Camera A, you're here, B, you're here, C, you're there. And whatever happens, just keep shooting." We put Suzie on a set two blocks away from our set, and when the time came we sent a golf cart to pick her up.

We built a set that recreated the bedroom from The Bob Newhart Show, and when we revealed it — not Suzie and myself, but just the set — the audience started applauding, because they remembered it! And then, they saw Suzie and I, and they immediately started cheering. That's one of the advantages of doing this show in front of a live audience: So many shows today are one-camera shows and they're done without an audience, and it feels sterile. Having an audience drives you: They get a better performance out of you, the writers and everybody concerned.

Larry, Darryl and Darryl on the series finale of 'Newhart' (Photo: CBS/YouTube)
Larry, Darryl and Darryl on the series finale of Newhart. (Photo: CBS/YouTube)

You can really feel their surprise and joy in that moment.

That was true with Larry, Darryl, and Darryl, too. They were only supposed to be on for one time in the second or third episode of Newhart, but they got such a big reaction from the audience when the show was over. I said to the writers, "We've got to have those guys back — the audience loved them." And with no audience, we wouldn't have found that out. They just would have come in for one show and that would have been it, but they wound up being in, I think, almost half the shows. And in the finale, we had them come in with their wives, one of whom was played by Lisa Kudrow! She was marvelous; even then you could tell she was going to go to the top by the way she delivered her lines. Then she wound up on Friends and was wonderful on that, too.

Lisa Kudrow (second from left) played one of Larry, Darryl and Darryl's wives on the series finale of 'Newhart' (Photo: CBS/YouTube)
Lisa Kudrow (second from left) played one of Larry, Darryl and Darryl's wives on the series finale of Newhart. (Photo: CBS/YouTube)

Did you expect the finale to have the impact that it did?

You know what happened? After we filmed the show, the writers came to me and said, “It’s running 35 minutes with commercials, and it’s supposed to be 30 minutes, but we can’t get it down anymore.” So we went to CBS and said, "You've got to let us spill over into the show behind us." They allowed us to air the [longer] show and tried to notify as many cities as possible, but apparently, a lot of them didn’t know anything about the five extra minutes, so they didn’t air them! I remember that happened with some stations in upstate New York. People were talking about the ending, and those viewers in New York were saying, “What are you talking about?” They only saw the edited version!

How would that version have ended? Just with Dick getting hit with the golf ball?

Yeah, probably the golf ball. Right after that we went right into the bedroom. I’ll always remember Suzie’s line: “OK, no more Japanese food before you go to bed.” [Laughs] We couldn’t really ad lib, because the cameras had to move on certain lines, so your pretty much have to lock it in and stick to the script.

Besides the 30th anniversary of Newhart’s series finale, 2020 is also the 60th anniversary of your first comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. How did the success of that record shape your career?

Well, for one thing, it kept me from going back into accounting! [Laughs] I remember that I played a club after I made the album, but before it had been released, and I died every night. I mean, there wasn't even a cough — I would have welcomed a cough. So I figured the record might sell, I don't know, maybe 20,000 copies. That way, I could continue my stand-up career and maybe some people who heard the album would come to the nightclub.

Then I called friends of mine in Chicago and they asked, "Bob, whatever happened to that comedy record you made?" So I called Warner Brothers and said, "Hi, I'm Bob Newhart. I made a comedy record for you people in January." And they said, "Yeah, it's going crazy in Minneapolis!” Then it started going crazy everywhere. They were advertising when different cuts would be on the radio, like “The Curse of the U.S.S. Codfish will be on at 3:30 in the afternoon,” and “The Driving Instructor will be on at 7:15.” Then the Warner Brothers people said, "We would like to have you go to the Grammys,” which weren’t even televised then. And that's the year I won Best New Artist, Best Spoken Word and then Album of the Year. I was totally unprepared for that; I would hear my name announced, and go up and thank everybody. I ran out of things to say to people! It was quite a time. [The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was the first comedy album to win the Grammy for Album of the Year.]

Another thing that happened was that The Button-Down Mind became the first comedy album to ever go to number one on the Billboard chart. Later on, my daughter — who is in the record business — told me, “Dad, did you know you had another record within this record? You had the number one and number two album in the country," because the second album [The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back] went to number two, and then the second album went to number one, and the first album went to number two. So I had the first and second album on the Billboard charts for 30 weeks, which was later beat by Guns N' Roses in the 1990s. I always say, "Well, it went to a friend. Axl and I are very close — we talk on the phone all the time.” [Laughs]

The “Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue” routine still feels so timely today in the way that it pokes fun at commercializing the presidency.

Yes, I think it's more prophetic than it was even then. It just so happened that there was a huge sea change mentality that was taking place in comedy that I wanted to be a part of. There was Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Lenny Bruce, Johnny Winters and Mort Sahl who were all doing a different kind of comedy than had ever been done before. And I had been a copywriter on Madison Avenue, so I was aware of the advertising industry. As a matter of fact, the title of the album [comes from] the button-down shirt that was the uniform of the day on Madison Avenue. I had nothing to do with that — someone at Warner Brothers came up with the title — but so many of the cuts on the album had to do with merchandising.

Did you get to choose which live performances went on the album?

What happened was that we recorded one show on Friday and then two on Saturday. So we had three shots, and we were going to intermix whatever was the better take. But during the Friday night show, there was a drunk woman in the audience, and she kept yelling out, "That's a bunch of crap!” She kept repeating it during the whole show, and when we listened to the recording, you could barely hear me and she was as clear as a bell, saying “That’s a bunch of crap!” [Laughs] So that left us with the two Saturday shows, and the record used performances from those shows.

When you talk to younger comedians now, what’s the biggest difference between their experience and yours?

Well, we didn't have the comedy stores that they have today. When I was starting out, you wouldn't run into the other comics. I only met Mike and Elaine later, when I was in a movie for Mike — Catch-22. The only time you met other comics was when you started playing Vegas, and then you’d meet Skippy Green and Don Rickles. I still do stand-up, at least up until this year. I don't know when that's going to happen again; because [of the coronavirus] people are concerned about going into a performing arts center with 1,500 people. And when are people going to get over that? I don't know. There's a lot of concern about whether people are going to show up even once they say it’s OK.

I grew up hearing your voice in The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under as Bernard. What did you enjoy about that character?

Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor voiced Bernard and Miss Bianca in the Disney cartoon classic 'The Rescuers' (Photo: Walt Disney/courtesy Everett Collection)
Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor voiced Bernard and Miss Bianca in the Disney cartoon classic The Rescuers. (Photo: Walt Disney/courtesy Everett Collection)

I did those movies for my kids, so at least they would have me in a Disney movie. It’s a totally different routine: You go in and the writers at Disney just want your natural voice. They told me, "Don't mix it up or anything — we write from your voice." So you go in and it might be two months from the last time you were there, and you read the new lines. Then they go off and they start animating it. So that's a totally different process from stand-up or sitcoms.

Eva Gabor, who voiced Miss Bianca, has passed on, but if Disney approached you to appear in a new Rescuers movie would you be a part of it?

Well, that's possible. But sometimes I wake up and I have that old man's voice that I hate. So I would have to think long and hard about it, because I would do one session and then in the next I would have the old man voice, and then they would have trouble. [Laughs] So I think not. I’ve had a great career and a lot to be proud of, and it all started with that record album 60 years ago. I'm very proud of it, and of being a part of that generation of comics.

Newhart is not currently available to stream, but episodes can be watched on YouTube. The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart is available on Amazon.

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