Tom Poston, the tall, pasty-faced comic who found fame and fortune playing a clueless everyman on such hit television shows as “Newhart” and “Mork and Mindy,” has died. He was 85.
Poston, who was married to Suzanne Pleshette of “The Bob Newhart Show,” died Monday night at home after a brief illness, a family representative, Tanner Gibson, said Tuesday. The nature of his illness was not disclosed.
Bob Newhart remembered Poston as a “versatile and veteran performer and a kindhearted individual.”
“Tom was always the ‘go-to guy’ on ‘Newhart’ in addition to being a good and longtime friend,” Newhart said in a statement Tuesday.
Billy Crystal, who starred in the 1978 film “Rabbit Test” in which Poston also appeared, was another admirer.
“How rare that a gentle, sweet person could be so incredibly funny,” Crystal said in a statement. “I grew up watching Tom on ‘The Steve Allen Show’ as a kid. What an incredible gift to become friends with him and to learn about comedy from a true professional. He was a combination of Stan Laurel and Jack Benny. We will all miss him.”
Poston’s run as a comic bumbler began in the mid-1950s with “The Steve Allen Show” after Allen plucked the character actor from the Broadway stage to join an ensemble of eccentrics he would conduct “man in the street” interviews with.
Don Knotts was the shaky Mr. Morrison, Louis Nye was the suave, overconfident Gordon Hathaway and Poston’s character was so unnerved by the television cameras that he couldn’t remember who he was. He won an Emmy playing “The Man Who Can’t Remember His Name.”
But when Allen moved the show from New York to Los Angeles in 1959, Poston stayed behind.
“Hollywood’s not for me right now; I’m a Broadway cat,” he told a reporter at the time.
When he did finally move west, he quickly began appearing in variety shows, sitcoms and films.
His movie credits included “Cold Turkey,” “The Happy Hooker,” “Rabbit Test” and, more recently, “Christmas With the Kranks,” “Beethoven’s 5th” and “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.”
On “Mork and Mindy,” which starred Robin Williams as a space alien, Poston was Franklin Delano Bickley, the mindless boozer with the annoying dog. On “Newhart,” he was George Utley, the handyman who couldn’t fix anything at the New England inn run by Newhart’s character. And on Newhart’s show “Bob,” he was the star’s dim-bulb former college roommate.
“These guys are about a half-step behind life’s parade,” Poston commented in a 1983 interview. “The ink on their instruction sheets is beginning to fade. But they can function and cope and don’t realize they are driving people up the walls.
“In ways I don’t like to admit, I’m a goof-up myself,” Poston continued. “It’s an essential part of my character. When these guys screw up it reminds me of my own incompetence with the small frustrations of life.”
From Broadway to Bob Newhart
Goof-up or not, Poston was a versatile actor who made his Broadway debut in 1947 playing five roles in Jose Ferrer’s “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
One role called for him to engage in a duel, fall 10 feet, roll across the stage and vanish into the orchestra pit. Other actors had auditioned and failed but Poston, who in his youth had been an acrobat with the Flying Zepleys, did the stunt perfectly.
He went on to play secondary roles in Broadway comedies and starred at regional theaters in such shows as “Romanoff and Juliet” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” For 10 years he was also a panelist on the popular TV quiz show “To Tell the Truth.”
He made guest appearances on scores of television shows, including “Studio One,” “The Phil Silvers Show,” “The Defenders,” “Get Smart,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Love Boat,” “St. Elsewhere,” “The Simpsons,” “Coach,” “Murphy Brown,” “Home Improvement,” “Touched by an Angel,” “Will & Grace,” “Dream On,” “Just Shoot Me!” and “That ’70s Show.”
Poston and his first wife, Jean Sullivan, had a daughter, Francesca, before their marriage ended in divorce. He married his second wife, Kay Hudson, after they met while appearing in the St. Louis Light Opera, and they had a son, Jason, and daughter, Hudson.
Poston and Pleshette, who had appeared together in the 1959 Broadway play “The Golden Fleecing,” had had a brief fling before marrying other people. Both now widowed, they reunited in 2000 and married the following year.
Their paths had crossed on “The Bob Newhart Show” in the 1970s. Poston made several guest appearances on the sitcom in which Pleshette played Newhart’s wife.
In 2006, Pleshette underwent chemotherapy for lung cancer that her agent said was caught at an early stage.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 17, 1921, Thomas Poston moved from city to city as a child as his father hunted for work during the Depression. As a teenager, he made money as a boxer.
Following two years at Bethany College he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and flew troops to the European war zone during World War II.
Hunting for a postwar occupation, Poston read an interview with Charles Jehlinger, creative head of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and was inspired to sign up for a two-year course at the Academy.
Besides Pleshette, Poston is survived by his children, Francesca Hudson and Jason Poston.
A private service was planned for immediate family. Details of a public memorial service were to be announced later.