There are certain celebs who live in a hallowed, nostalgic portion of our brain, where even if we haven't seen them recently in the entertainment world they once dominated, their very name still sparks a run of fond memories. Dick Van Dyke is one — witness the Internet furor recently when he was saved from a burning car near Los Angeles. And Bob Newhart, who turns 84 Thursday, is most definitely another.
Maybe you love him for the comedy albums; 1961's "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart" won him three Grammys, back in the day when we actually listened to comedy routines on vinyl albums.
Maybe you can recite parts of his routines in your head -- a classic has to be "The Driving Instructor," where an endlessly calm Newhart tries to help the world's most hapless would-be driver not kill everyone on the road. ("Oh, now we hit someone, Mrs. Webb! Remember you were going to watch the rear view mirror, remember? We covered that. The red light blinded you. The flashing red light blinded you? The flashing red light on the car you hit blinded you. Yes, officer, she was just telling me about it....")
And of course, maybe you remember him from his most famous roles, that of psychologist Dr. Bob Hartley on that 1970s classic "The Bob Newhart Show" or that of innkeeper Dick Loudon on 1980s sitcom "Newhart." Both shows had a lifespan well beyond their actual run on television. More than a few college students lost a few brain cells to that infamous drinking game "Hi Bob," where players watch "Bob Newhart" reruns and drink every time "Hi Bob" is said.
It was as Bob Hartley that Newhart wedged his button-down way into many of our hearts. Who didn't want a straight man like Hartley as your psychologist, your friend, your neighbor? He let the other characters go nuts around him because he was eternally the solid, helpful center, who wasn't perfect, but who stood in for everyone who's ever wondered, "What the heck have I gotten myself into?"
Newhart never wanted to be an action hero or a hunky romantic lead. That's part of what makes him great — the straight-man role came naturally to him and it showed. He supposedly once said, "I think you're lucky when you realize what you are. Spencer Tracy always played Spencer Tracy.... If you make fine bone china and you're recognized as the best in the world, you don't suddenly announce you're going to make automobiles. We see it so much in this business. We're so self-destructive. If you really do something well, you should stick to it."
We're so thankful he did. Happy birthday, and hi, Bob.