Nov. 5, 2013 at 4:15 AM ET
Comedian Bob Newhart is standing quietly in line at a pharmacy. It’s a fake drug store, the one frequented by Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) on “The Big Bang Theory” and featured in the first scene of this week’s episode.
In "real" life, the audience, anxious for the CBS show’s taping to begin, has no idea Newhart is guest starring again on the sitcom that gave him his first Emmy in September. The pharmacy is on the far left of the soundstage, and the audience can only see the action on monitors in front of them. When the camera finally pulls back and reveals Newhart’s reprisal of Professor Proton, there are gasps and shrieks followed by mad applause.
After the first take, Newhart waves at the audience and blows kisses. The first time Newhart played Arthur Jeffries, aka Professor Proton, last year, the producers kept him backstage until his first scene, and the 84-year-old comedy legend fretted that no one would recognize him. But the audience broke out in raucous applause then too, and he felt “like a rock star.”
Now, he’s a rock star with a special trophy who is learning what it means to be recognized as a part of America’s No. 1 scripted show.
“I was up in Seattle visiting my daughter,” Newhart said during an interview. “She just had a baby girl. We went up to a restaurant and two young girls came up to me and said, ‘Are you Professor Proton?’ I had to think for a while—‘Yes, yes, I am!’”
Of course, Newhart is much more than that. To legions of fans, he is the beloved Dr. Bob Hartley from the ‘70s sitcom “The Bob Newhart Show” or innkeeper Dick Loudon from the ‘80s comedy “Newhart.” He’s also a familiar face on the big screen and stand-up comedy giant known for his straight-man skills and stuttering delivery. But Newhart’s rise to fame began in the 1960’s with his bestselling comedy albums—records that another special guest star in this week’s “Big Bang” cherishes.
“I listened to Bob Newhart’s albums as a little kid,” said Bill Nye (yes, the Science Guy) during an interview. “I was absolutely fascinated with his timing. He would be on the phone with Abraham Lincoln, and as a little kid, I’d think, ‘Wait you couldn’t do that, because there was no phone!’ His timing today strikes me as the same. I just love it. I love standing there waiting for him to lay it down at the perfect time. He’s the real deal. And he acts like I’m some peer—just like him. I don’t know what else to do so I just roll with it. ‘Yes, Bob, I’m an actor just like you.’”
That’s right—“Big Bang” fans, there’s a double treat in this week’s “The Proton Displacement” which explores Professor Proton’s enduring bitterness with his rival, Bill Nye the Science Guy (playing himself), why Leonard and Sheldon became friends, and forces Sheldon to confront a hard truth about himself.
“It’s a touching story in a way,” Newhart said. “It’s very funny too, but it has a moment that I think will move people. All of these actors are just wonderful. Jim Parsons is so unusual; his timing is immaculate. You either hear the muse or you don’t and they all hear their muse. This isn’t the run-of-the-mill show. It’s very intelligent, which is rare that something this intelligent would be that popular.”
“Big Bang’s” co-creator Chuck Lorre has been pursuing Newhart to guest star on one of his sitcoms for years. When he approached him again last year, Newhart was already a “Big Bang” fan himself, so he agreed. From the start, Newhart said he loved his character Professor Proton, a childhood TV inspiration of Leonard’s and Sheldon’s who is longing to be remembered for more than that.
Then, the unexpected happened in September when Newhart, who has been nominated for an Emmy six other times in his six-decade career, finally went home with the trophy for his Professor Proton performance. Winning and then receiving a standing ovation from an audience of his peers was “very special,” he said.
“There were many years that I didn’t even bother to submit my name because I told myself, ‘You don’t do the kind of work that gets Emmys,” Newhart said. “I was beaten out by Michael J. Fox, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. That was some pretty good competition—at least I lost to some heavyweights.”
Weeks after the Emmys, on set in Los Angeles, Newhart happens to have his golden statuette so that he can be photographed with it. At home, though, he’s not even sure where his Emmy lives.
“My wife thinks it’s ostentatious to put awards in the house,” he said. “She tends to hide them. Except for one, I got the Mark Twain award. It’s a bronze award and it went with the colors in our den. That one is out in the open. The rest you have to search for—go on a scavenger hunt and try to find Bob’s next award.”
That next prize just might come at next year’s Emmy Awards. TODAY won’t spoil Newhart’s best jokes on “Big Bang,” but suffice it to say that at one point in the episode he actually jaunts toward a hot lady, and in another instance, his classic stammer is brilliant.
This is how The Science Guy, who lands on the other side of a Professor Proton fit, explains it: “When people talk about comedic timing, it’s a chemical process in the brain. Chemical processes take place at a measurable rate. They’re not instantaneous. And so I gotta think that this timing we all admire is a result of the speed at which Bob’s brain works and calibrates it just to make you laugh—to make you change your expectations.”
In layman’s terms: Newhart’s simply funnier than most people. The audience agrees. At the end of the taping, Newhart joins the cast for a curtain call and the comedy icon receives another standing ovation.