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What comedian Bob Newhart calls his "button-down mind" has produced some of the most successful, critically acclaimed television of the late 20th century. An inductee in the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Hall of Fame, Newhart is the recipient of this year's Mark Twain Prize, given by the Kennedy Center to honor "an artist who has made a significant contribution to American humor."
George Robert Newhart was born Sept. 5, 1929, in Chicago. He graduated from the city's Loyola University in 1952, served two years in the U.S. Army, and then returned to Chicago where he worked as a certified public accountant. As a break from their day jobs (and to pick up extra cash), Newhart and friends would write and perform comedy routines that aired on local radio. A recording industry executive heard tapes of the deadpan sketches, and soon Newhart was playing his first stand-up comedy date, at a Houston nightclub. The performance featured what would become a signature Newhart routine: the one-sided telephone conversation (including a call in which a publicity agent discusses PR strategy with client Abraham Lincoln). Newhart's debut club routine became the 1960 album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,; it earned Newhart Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Best Comedy Performance, and became the first comedy album to top record charts.
Newhart's first foray into TV -- 1961's The Bob Newhart Show, a comedy-variety program -- won critical acclaim including Emmy and Peabody Awards, but got low ratings. When the show was cancelled after one season, Newhart went back to the stand-up circuit. He appeared occasionally in TV guest spots and in small roles in movies including Hell is for Heroes, (1962) and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Catch-22 (both in 1970).
In 1972, Newhart again ventured into TV with The Bob Newhart Show, a sitcom that cast him as Chicago psychologist Bob Hartley. The show made Newhart a TV star; but after six successful, award-winning seasons, Newhart thought the series had run its course, and it went off the air. In 1982, the comedian returned to TV with another eponymous show, Newhart, in which he starred as Dick Loudon, onetime urbanite turned Vermont innkeeper. The show was embraced by critics and fans. In 1990, when Newhart chose to end it, he did so with a trademark, wry twist: The season finale revealed that the entire Newhart series had been a dream in the mind of Bob Hartley. A fourth series, Bob, debuted in 1992 but never found an audience and was cancelled within the year. Since then, Newhart has been involved with two other short-lived situation comedies: 1997's George & Leo and 1999's Sports Pages.
Newhart's other projects include voicing animated Disney features The Rescuers (1977) and The Rescuers Down Under (1990).
Hear Scott Simon's interview with Bob Newhart, broadcast Oct. 7, 2000.
Hear a 1998 interview with Bob Newhart, rebroadcast on Fresh Air April 6, 2001.
Visit the "Button-Down Mind Online" Web site for Newhart fans.