Despite his memorably cantankerous stints on the old “Mork & Mindy” and “Newhart” shows, Tom Poston had to audition for the role of a cranky old clown who lives in a closet on NBC’s quirky new sitcom “Committed.”
He also had to pull down his pants.
In the pilot episode, the clown was only given one line — “I think it’s a little weird” — so the show’s creators wrote an additional scene that involved dropping trou for those auditioning for the role.
“Tom, God bless him, he didn’t pantomime it as the other actors had. He dropped his trousers and had on these gold lame boxer shorts,” says co-creator and executive producer Eileen Heisler, still chuckling.
“I think almost everybody in town of a certain age was interviewed for it,” says the 83-year-old Poston over breakfast at a Beverly Hills hotel. “It just was a remarkable fit for me ... he comes up with things that are funny. They make sense to the clown, and to me, but they are sometimes unexpected by others.”
NBC ordered 13 episodes of “Committed” (9:30 p.m. EST Tuesdays) — a relationship comedy about phobic neurotic Nate (Josh Cooke) and free-spirited Marni (Jennifer Finnigan.)
Poston’s nameless clown lives in Marni’s flat and was inspired by a visit the show’s creators once made to a friend’s New York apartment. They saw an old guy in a bathrobe walk out of a room little bigger than a closet and start making a cup of tea. The friend called him “a dying clown,” told them to ignore him, and explained his presence was part of the terms of the lease.
“He was not as funny as Tom Poston,” says Heisler, noting how each appearance he makes on the show is “like a little treat.”
Because Poston can make the smallest moment count, she says, “We can do very tiny stories for him, like one he did, that hasn’t aired yet, where he’s just waiting for a peach to ripen ... he can get a huge laugh on just ’Tah-Dah!’ We say that he can land a joke on the head of pin.”
Born in Ohio, Poston studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, after serving as an Air Corps pilot in World War II.
As a kid and teenager he’d been part of an aerobatic and tumbling troupe. Those skills helped him get his first job on Broadway, playing five different roles in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” starring Jose Ferrer.
One of the roles was the Spanish officer who falls from the parapet after Cyrano stabs him. Poston recalls the audition with wry humor:
“About 30 guys were lined up on stage, each one of them saying he’s willing to fall off this high parapet on to his head. I was standing next to a heavy, fat man — 300 pounds or so — who said he would do it ... all I could think of was ‘This is what I’m getting into — people actually willing to die to get a part in a Broadway show!’ It was terrifying.”
Poston got the job because he was the only one who could handle the fall, even though he didn’t know how to project his voice above the play’s sound of cannon and gunfire. The first night he had to utter the Spanish officer’s one line — “Who are these men who rush on death?” He was inaudible.
In the ’50s he hosted a daytime TV musical variety show “Entertainment” that ran 2½ hours a day, five days a week.
“I once timed it and I ad-libbed 35, 36 minutes a day. You can imagine how clever that was. It was filled with, ‘Wasn’t that wonderful!’ ‘Yes, that was wonderful!’ ‘Isn’t that wonderful!”’
Well he was wonderful enough to get hired for “The Steve Allen Show,” famously portraying the know-nothing, can’t-remember-anything man on the street and winning an Emmy for it in 1959.
But he’s even better known for co-starring alongside Bob Newhart as crabby neighbor Mr. Bickley on eight seasons of “Newhart,” and briefly on “Bob.”
So is his wife, Suzanne Pleshette, who for six seasons played Emily Hartley on the earlier “The Bob Newhart Show.”
For a couple of seasons on that ’70s series, Poston played Newhart’s old college roommate, Cliff “The Peeper” Murdock. But he had first met Pleshette back in 1959 when they starred together on Broadway in “Golden Fleecing.”
“We were friends, and more than friends,” he said, almost blushing. But life and career separated them. Her burgeoning career took her to California. He stayed in New York, where his daughter from a first marriage lived. They remained friends through his second marriage and Pleshette’s marriage to businessman Tom Gallagher.
When both became widowed they realized “over a tuna melt” that they were still right for each other.
He had Pleshette’s cousin, a jeweler, make a ring containing the “really big rock” she had asked for in the form of an unpolished piece of gravel, and he went down on one knee to ask her to marry him.
“She thought I fell and tried to help me up,” he jokes. (They married in May 2001.)
“We’re so happy. It’s wonderful. It’s marvelous,” he beams, his gentle, hangdog face flushed with joy.
The 68-year-old Pleshette has a real ring now with diamonds that “shake, rattle and roll.”
“It’s a weird, unaccountable thing,” he says, twisting his ring, fondly. “All my golfing life this finger hurt ... but the day that Suzanne put this ring on this finger it’s never hurt since.”