A Classic TV Retrospective of a Female Icon
It’s almost five decades since Suzanne Pleshette was first introduced to millions of viewers as Emily Hartley, the smart and sassy TV wife with the sexy gravelly voice on The Bob Newhart Show, which originally aired on CBS from the fall of 1972 to the spring of 1978.
The sultry brunette with large “bedroom eyes” (explain that later), Pleshette played Emily as a hip and hot television spouse, much differently than say Florence Henderson interpreted Carol Brady on The Brady Bunch. Pleshette’s Emily was kind of like a steroid-induced Laura Petrie, Mary Tyler Moore’s character from The Dick Van Dyke Show. But whereas Laura engineered the Petrie household, and made certain to have dinner on the table for her TV-writer-husband Rob (Van Dyke), the wise-cracking Emily was a school-teacher by day and was sure to entertain her TV psychologist-hubbie Bob Hartley (played by Newhart), especially after a long day’s journey into work with his psychiatric ward of mentally-challenged patients.
The New York Times critic Frank Rich once described as Pleshette’s Emily as “the sensible yet woolly wife,” on the Bob Newhart sitcom, the star of which once appeared with her on The Tonight Show shortly before they were paired in the series. A few of B-Newhart producers had seen the segment and knew immediately that they had found their Emily.
Pleshette went on to earn two Emmy nominations for the role and, according to TV Guide at the time, Bob Newhart was finding himself “outtalked” by Pleshette on the set about 12 to 1 but professed to be unperturbed by the phenomenon. “I don’t tangle with any lady who didn’t give Johnny a chance to exercise his mouth — even to sneer — for 10 whole minutes,” the actor said.
Besides Pleshette’s voice, one of her other most appealing physical traits was her significantly ground-breaking and relatively short brunette locks. In the first season or so of The Bob Newhart Show, Emily’s hair was coifed with a shag or mullet cut, the style made popular by David Cassidy on The Partridge Family. But also like Shirley Jones, Cassidy’s TV Partridge parent and step-mom in real life, Pleshsette’s short do was reminiscent of by Mia Farrow — during her Rosemary’s Baby days — although clearly in a much happier way.
“Now — THAT’S a woman who could wear short hair,” says Margaret Wendt. “Some women can wear short hair and others should not. Suzanne made short hair sexy. She had that whole look, down — the dark hair, the bangs, and those thick eyelashes. When I was growing up, everybody wanted a Suzanne Pleshette hairstyle. The first time my friends and I each cut our hair we wanted it to look like hers. We were all California girls with the long hair, and all that, and we never really wanted to cut our hair. The closest we came to getting any kind of haircut was knowing Vidal Sasoon. We attended prestigious Catholic schools and we all thought we ‘it’…everyone’s cup of tea, and more. But then all of a sudden, we saw Suzanne Pleshette and everything changed. So, all the Catholic school girls in my class went and had their hair cut just like her.”
Pleshette’s short hair as Emily represented a straight forward confidence. Her performance as Emily both embraced and personified television’s first working-professional wife of her generation with a clear-cut mind of her own. Although she certainly had her flaws and fears (of flying, for one), Emily didn’t pull any punches, and Pleshette didn’t hold back in her interpretation of the part. Certainly, too, it was more than abundantly clear on several occasions that she and Bob had a very strong and consistent sexual relationship, mostly evidenced by the very coy but subtle and frequent seductions ignited by Emily.
Although there were what might be considered too many people in their lives (including Bill Daily’s very bold, lonesome and very child-like airline pilot Howard Borden, who lived next door to the Hartley’s in their high-rise apartment building), that did not stop Emily and Bob from playing in the sheets; and play they did…at one particular moment in TV history that is like no other (i.e. the “bedroom eyes” reference now comes into play).
From 1982 to 1990, Bob appeared in yet another CBS sitcom with his name on it, this one simply titled, Newhart, in which he played a Vermont inn-keeper named Dick Loudon. This time, his on-screen wife was Joanna Loudon, played by Mary Frann (who died in 1998). Although Pleshette was not a regular fixture on the series, her future-husband Tom Poston played the inn’s fix-it man, and she ended up making a memorable surprise cameo in Newhart’s final episode — a motion and a notion that, although did not bode well with Frann, somehow fit with Pleshette’s gutsy persona.
Legendary TV scribe Arnie Kogen co-wrote two episodes of The Bob Newhart Show and regrets not writing for Newhart. He elaborates:
“Emily Hartley was the perfect TV wife for Bob Hartley. She could be bubble- headed but she was smart. She had an I.Q. higher than her psychiatrist husband. Pleshette herself once described the TV couple this way, ‘They loved each other but didn’t denigrate each other.’ Whatever else Suzanne Pleshette is known for, and she’s known for a lot, The Bob Newhart Show, the movie The Birds, she’ll probably be best remembered for that final episode of Newhart when innkeeper Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) wakes up and discovers he’s in bed with his wife from his previous TV series (Emily Hartley, as played by Pleshette) and that whole innkeeper series, all nine seasons of it, was a dream. A bad dream. [And that moment received] “one of the biggest laughs in TV history. It was a great idea….one of the strongest final episodes of a TV series — ever. It was a few years after I left Newhart but I wish I was involved.”
Another gifted and respected writer/producer in the television world is Dan Holm, who created NBC’s famous “Must See TV” campaign. The slogan itself was ignited in 1993 and helped to brand the network’s then-Thursday night comedies, which included Mad About You, Wings, Seinfeld and Frasier. As Holm recalls, “Cheers had just finished its original run, Seinfeld was new and not yet a big hit, and The Cosby Show was also by then off the air. So, Warren Littlefield (NBC ‘s then-president of entertainment) wanted to brand the night and remind viewers that NBC Thursday was ‘appointment television.’”
As such, Holm clearly knows his way around classic television characters and contributes his thoughts on Suzanne Pleshette, who he remembers watching on The Bob Newhart Show when he was just a teenager.
“Suzanne Pleshette as Emily Hartley first came on my radar when I was in high school. Emily was a woman who was a mature kind of hip. She was educated, successful…had a great sense of humor and always effortlessly sexy. She was a devoted big-city wife with a practical quality. Her house was always in order and her head was screwed on straight. Her insight and no-nonsense approach made her the perfect antithesis to her TV husband Bob.
Pleshette herself shared her observations in playing Emily with author Joey Green who, in 1996, published Hi, Bob! — a companion book to first Bob Newhart Show, in which he posed the question, “What does Emily Joyce Hartley, a beautiful, affectionate, sophisticated and vivacious pillar of strength, see in bottled-up Bob Hartley.” To which Pleshette replied,
“I think she was bright, funny, loving, kind, nurturing, sensual. I think she loved her husband. She was crazy about him. She loved her work and loved children because she worked with them. We know she was afraid of flying; she was phobic. She would often become annoyed at Bob at times when I think she could have showed a little more patience and understanding. I think she was Bob’s psychiatrist in the sense that wives are in helping you take a look at yourself. You know, he didn’t have to do that at his work. I mean, there he was the all-knowing, helping nurturer. But I think it was a very equal marriage. She brought money into that marriage, so she wasn’t dependent. She was there because she wanted to be because she was nuts about him. I didn’t think she was a feminist. Maybe I didn’t think of it because I’ve always lived my life that way. It just seemed so natural it never occurred to me. I might have been limited in my ability to really step back, as I say, and see all the things that we were doing. It just seemed quite natural.
“At first I was trying to lighten my whole persona because it was [a] comedy and finally when I just played the truth of it and let all those things that were my own come out, the [Emily] character really took off. In the beginning, I was getting more laughs on my behavior than the dialogue because they were trying to write an ingénue, and I hadn’t been an ingénue since I was two. You know, there’s a lot more going on with me. And when they began to write to my intelligence, when they began to write to my kind of humor…one of the wonderful things they did was: every time I would tell a story about before I married Bob, I had a failed romance. And whenever Carol would tell a story, she was always hot stuff. I mean, that’s not the conventional thing to do. The conventional thing would have been to give me a historically successful dating background and to have made Carol the girl who never got the guy. But they went against the convention, and I think it was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.”
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