Suzanne Pleshette: A Brassy and Bawdy Beauty

Suzanne PleshetteLast Friday, I was doing some research for a podcast and ended up watching 1991’s The Bob Newhart Show 19th Anniversary Special. It essentially picked up where the famed Newhart finale left off and reunited the core group of The Bob Newhart Show (BNS) characters. I’m not ashamed to admit that I ended up watching it twice because it was just so good to watch the old clips and to see the characters together again. I wondered if there would ever be another reunion. On Saturday night, I learned that it wasn’t to be.

Suzanne Pleshette began her career on stage and was cast for both her beauty and her throaty voice. In 1994, she recalled, “When I was four, I was answering the phone, and (the callers) thought I was my father. So I often got quirky roles because I was never the conventional ingenue.”

She began her film career in the Jerry Lewis comedy The Geisha Boy and went on to roles in memorable films like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The Shaggy D.A., The Ugly Dachshund, and Nevada Smith. She appeared in two movies with fellow teen idol Troy Donahue and they were married for eight months before divorcing. Pleshette had several roles on Broadway as well, including replacing Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker, opposite Patty Duke.

She retired from acting when she married her second husband, wealthy businessman Tom Gallagher, in 1968. After hanging around the house for six months, she recalled that he told her, “You’re getting to be awfully boring. Go back to work.” Thankfully, for all of us, she did.

During an early Tonight Show appearance, she reportedly told legendary Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper that, if she ever dissed her again, she’d knock Hopper off her chair. Host Johnny Carson got such a kick out of the brassy Pleshette that she became a frequent guest. Those appearances would lead to her most memorable role.

When the BNS was in development, the series creators/writers, David Davis and Lorenzo Music, were having a difficult time finding someone to play Newhart’s wife. Pleshette and Newhart were both Tonight Show guests one night and their chemistry was immediately apparent.

Davis told TV Guide, “She was revealing her own frailties, talking freely about being over 30. She was bubble-headed but smart, loving toward her husband but relentless about his imperfections. We were trying to get away from the standard TV wife, and we knew that whoever we picked would have to be offbeat enough and strong enough to carry the show along with Newhart. We didn’t dream Suzanne would accept the part.”

Pleshette received Emmy nominations for her roles as Emily Hartley but, like everyone else on that classic show, never took the statue home.

When the show ended after a successful six seasons, Pleshette went on to perform in numerous television movies, most notably playing the “queen of mean,” Leona Helmsley. She was a series regular on several subsequent programs but none were a big success. They include Suzanne Pleshette Is Maggie Briggs, The Boys Are Back, Bridges to Cross, Nightingales, and Good Morning, Miami.

When John Ritter died in 2003, Pleshette was called in to help keep 8 Simple Rules afloat by playing Katey Sagal’s mother. Pleshette had known Ritter from his 1974 appearance on the BNS. She had always made a point of helping guest stars around the BNS set, making introductions and inviting them to the cast’s weekly lunch date. Pleshette was gratified to know that stars like Ritter did the same when they got their own shows.

One of her most celebrated appearances was in the last episode of Newhart’s second sitcom, Newhart. In that show’s final moments, we learned that the entire series was actually a dream of Bob Hartley from BNS. Newhart’s real-life wife, Virginia, came up with the idea for the famous finale at a party that Pleshette was also attending. Newhart immediately asked his friend if she would be willing to do it and she replied, “If I’m in Timbuktu, I’ll fly home to do that.”

The audience’s reaction to seeing the old BNS bedroom set was huge and immediate. In a 1990 interview, Pleshette said, “And then they heard this mumble under the covers, and nobody does my octave, you know. And I think they suspected it might be me, but when that dark hair came up from under the covers, they stood and screamed.”

The 1991 BNS reunion special picked up where the Newhart episode left off and reunited the core castmembers. The group had remained close over the years and got together for lunch dates.

In 2003, Newhart and Pleshette appeared onstage as the Hartleys for the CBS at 75 special. Bob awoke from another bad dream, this time about a California governor with a thick German accent. During the exchange, Pleshette asked about the Newhart show’s old handyman (played by Tom Poston) whom she found rather sexy.

She had briefly dated Poston in the 1960s in New York and the two remained friends over the years. In 2000, Pleshette lost Gallagher to lung cancer. Poston had earlier lost his wife and called her to commiserate. The two ended up rekindling their romance, married in 2001, and became virtually inseparable. Friend Tim Conway commented, “They are a romantic duo. It’s almost embarrassing. You have to put cold water on them.” Their bliss was unfortunately much too short as Poston died in April 2007 of respiratory failure.

He left her a wealthy woman. Because he wasn’t known for being a good tipper, she buried him with a $20 bill to tip the man at the pearly gates of heaven.

Pleshette was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006 and was sick when Poston passed away. The cancer was about the size of a speck of sand and she responded well to chemotherapy treatments.

In Summer 2007, she was hospitalized for a pulmonary infection and developed pneumonia. When she appeared for a reunion of the BNS cast in September, she arrived in a wheelchair. She had been released from the hospital just four days earlier and asked that her hands not be photographed because of the IV bruises. She happily proclaimed that she was cancer free and reunited with her old friends. It was unfortunately the final reunion of the group.

Surrounded by her family, Pleshette passed away on Saturday night from respiratory failure. She was scheduled to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on January 31, her 71st birthday. Friends hoped that she would make it to the ceremony but it wasn’t to be. The event will likely still go on.

Newhart said of his bawdy friend, “Although she was quite sick, she was one of those people you thought would go on forever. If anyone could beat cancer, it was Suzy — she was such an indomitable spirit.”

Though she had a long and varied career, the beautiful Pleshette will always be best remembered as Bob Newhart’s TV wife. In recalling the Hartleys’ appearance on the Newhart finale, USA Today’s Robert Bianco said, “They were together again. For those of us who loved them, they will be together forever.” Amen. TV Series Finale home page

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3 Comments · Read them below or add one

  1. dragonkroyt says

    She was the best tv wife of the 70’s — her comic timing, her warmth, her vulnerability, her wonderful sense of humour — she made Emily Hartley seem more real than Carol Brady, Shirley Partridge or Edith Bunker — Saturday nights on CBS wouldn’t have been the same without her or Bob or Carol or Howard or Jerry or Mr Carlin — her movie roles ran the gamut from glamourous and sexy (A Rage to Live,Mister Buddwing) to smart and sassy (If This is Tuesday, it Must be Belgium,Support Your Local Gunfighter) to dramatic and slightly sarky (The Birds) — she was a delight on The Tonight Show == Suzanne Pleshette should have been given a Hollywood star earlier – whatever genre she worked in she was pure gold — goes to prove that the Emmys are a joke because she never got one for BSN

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