Exactly 20 years ago, the Christmas classic “Elf” went into production on Dec. 9, 2002.
A year later, it became an instant comedy classic, telling a “fish out of water” tale about Buddy the Elf, who travels from the North Pole to New York to meet his biological father.
Comedy legend Bob Newhart, 93, joined WTOP to reflect on his dual role as Papa Elf and the film’s narrator, as well as his long career of standup comedy and TV sitcom glory.
“I read it and I told my wife, ‘I think this is going to be a perennial, this is going to be the same as ‘Miracle on 34th Street,'” Newhart told WTOP. “It was warm, it was well-written, well-directed by Jon Favreau. … People wanted to believe in it. … People need that charming, wonderful thing about the Christmas spirit and its way of powering the sleigh.”
He remains in awe of what Will Ferrell was able to pull off as Buddy, creating a childlike innocence saying, “Smiling is my favorite,” and shouting, “Santa! Oh my God! I know him!”
“Will was marvelous,” Newhart said. “It could have been a jerk, a guy you dismiss right away, but with Will’s charm, you believed him and wanted him to succeed. … All those years on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ that’s sketch acting, and this is acting, they’re two different forms of acting, sketch is much broader, and Will was able to make that transition.”
To this day, he believes Favreau (“Iron Man”) doesn’t get enough credit as a director.
“What Jon did in the movie, another example of how wise he was, it’s what they call forced perception,” Newhart said. “All of my scenes with Will, I’m 10 to 12 feet behind him, so I look smaller,” similar to what Peter Jackson did with the Hobbits in “Lord of the Rings.”
Playing Buddy’s dad, Walter Hobbs, was the late James Caan, who died this year.
“I took several of my grandkids along with my wife and my daughter and went to a screening of it,” Newhart said. “We were laughing and having a great time. Jimmy Caan was there with his wife. I’m pretty much all in the front part of the movie, so at my final scene, I got up and started to leave and said, ‘Well, that’s all I’m in.’ He laughed!”
He also misses the late Ed Asner, who played Santa Claus and died last year.
“We were on the same lot, the Radford Lot, which was ‘Mary Tyler Moore,’ our show and then ‘Seinfeld’ later on,” Newhart said. “We’d see each other, we’d go to the commissary, it was, ‘Hi, Ed,’ ‘Hi, Bob,’ and we’d have lunch and they were great times.”
Born in Illinois in 1929, Newhart became a household name with his 1960 comedy album “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” which won the Grammy for Album of the Year. For the next 12 years, he hit the road performing standup with his stammering delivery, as well as playing Major Major in the Mike Nichols film “Catch-22” (1970).
“I was so thrilled to be asked to be in a Mike Nichols film, along with Buck Henry and Alan Arkin, Dick Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, Jon Voight, Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles,” Newhart said. “Arthur Price from MGM came to me and he said, ‘Would you like to do television?’ I said, ‘I’d love to, because I’d like to get off the road and be with my family.'”
Enter “The Bob Newhart Show” (1972-1978) on CBS in which he played the Chicago psychologist Robert Hartley. Created by David Davis and Lorenzo Music, the series ranked No. 41 on the WGA Greatest TV Shows with beloved episodes like “Over the River and Through the Woods” and “Death Be My Destiny.” What is his personal favorite episode?
“There was a show where I walk in and Carol says, ‘You have a new patient.’ I go in and a guy is there with his dummy. I say, ‘What can I do for you?’ He says, ‘Danny wants to go out on his own.’ It’s impossible because the guy who’s telling me is applying the voice for Danny! It was wonderful to do the takes. The hardest part was looking at the ventriloquist.”
He next starred in “Newhart” (1982-1990), playing Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon. It culminated in an all-time great series finale as the town is turned into a golf course. Dick and his wife Joanna decide to stay and keep running the inn in the middle of the golf course, getting hit by balls before finally waking up to realize that it was just a dream.
“It was my wife’s idea,” Newhart said. “We were going to a Christmas party, waiting in line to get a picture taken, I said to my wife, ‘I think this is going to be my last year.’ … She said without a second’s pause, ‘You ought to end the show in a dream sequence because there’s so many inexplicable people: Larry, Daryl and Daryl were right out of ‘Deliverance!'”
Along the way, Newhart also voiced the animated mouse Bernard across Eva Gabor’s Miss Bianca in Disney’s “The Rescuers” (1977) and “The Rescuers Down Under” (1990).
“It’s just your voice, so we’d do four or five pages, then that’s animated, so it would be maybe two or three months and then you’d be back there,” Newhart said. “They’d say, ‘OK, you’ve just flown on the back of an albatross from D.C. to Louisiana. How do you think you’d feel?’ I’d say, ‘I’d be tired.’ We’d have these serious discussions. I had to bite my lip!”
In the end, how does he want to be remembered?
“When you devote a career to making people laugh, what better thing in the world is that?” Newhart said. “I feel very good about my career. One of the greatest sounds in the world is laughter. I fell in love with it the first time I heard it and 60 years later I was still doing it.”