Her face had ready-made drama: jet-black hair framing kabuki-white skin. Her gray-blue eyes could smolder on cue or, more readily, crease into a smile. The sultry voice and famously knowing laugh suggested a woman who had been places, had fun there and come back intact. Suzanne Pleshette was a perfect fit for the movies' golden age, in sophisticated romantic comedy (think of a brunette Carole Lombard, a springier Rosalind Russell) or the kind of elevated soap opera where she could lure a man to hell or sacrifice all in a tearful close-up. I see her swapping love banter with Cary Grant, taming Gary Cooper.
Unfortunately for her, Hollywood had stopped making the kinds of films that would have made Pleshette a star two decades before she got there. So she played Bob Newhart's wife Emily on his-six-year sitcom in the 1970s. That's how Pleshette is being remembered, on her death Saturday from respiratory failure. In 2006 she had undergone chemotherapy for lung cancer. But I prefer to think of her as one of those stars who got away — away from stardom, when the old dream factory forgot how to manufacture domestic glamour. She had all the goods, but at the wrong time.
She was born in New York City, the daughter of the manager of the Paramount Theatre in its movie-and-big-band heyday. She was on TV and on Broadway by her 20th birthday. She replaced Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker, as Helen Keller's teacher Annie Sullivan, and played opposite the young Tom Poston in The Golden Fleecing. Warner Bros. signed her to help fill its burgeoning TV production slate, which included such effluvia as 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye. But Warners was in the young-blond business, promoting girls (Diane McBain, Connie Stevens) and boys (Edd Byrnes, Troy Donahue) who embodied California's Aryan ethos. The very New York Pleshette had just arrived, and already she didn't fit.
More often than not, she was cast as the nice, bright girl whose charisma can't match the snazzy blondes the hero has fallen for. As a frumpy spinster in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), she loses Rod Taylor to up-market Tippi Hedren, then loses her life to the avian horde. She seems to have secured Donahue's love in the 1962 Rome Adventure until she catches him being kissed by mantrap Angie Dickinson. (Pleshette was married to Donahue for eight months in 1964.) Somehow her intelligence, which should have registered as high voltage — "intense" — was perceived by the studio as low-wattage: "sensible. " Being considered comfortable instead of dangerous had its compensations. It meant she would be a welcome presence in America's homes.
Annie Sullivan had a deaf-mute for her student; The Bob Newhart Show's Emily Hartley, also a teacher, had a class full of difficult charges. Husband Bob, a Chicago psychologist, was a ditherer whose tone mixed resignation with exasperation. The personalities of his patients and neighbors mostly verged on the clinical. The show's mild joke was that they were all dependent on Bob, who was dependent on Emily — the one grownup on the show. In a famous episode, Bob frets when he learns that her IQ is 22 points higher than his. To her it's no big deal; she has the grace not to consider herself superior. That's how a 70s TV wife subtly stooped to a level of equality with her insecure mate.
As combination wife, den mother and sounding board — the norm by which all the kooks on the show were measured and found wanting (though funny) — Pleshette made sardonic seem cozy. Essentially the straight woman, she could assert herself in a scene just by being there; she was the footnote you want to read before getting to the main text. Her voice could coax, critique and forgive in one sentence; she was champion of the verbal raised eyebrow, but never in contempt, always in amusement. Though Emily and Bob were more or less post-sexual, they often ended an episode in bed, rehashing the day's events, he still complaining, she offering the vocal equivalent of warm pats and cold compresses.
Newhart obviously thought Pleshette was a crucial anchor to his comic dinghy. In his subsequent sitcom Newhart, he had a different wife (Mary Frann) and a new set of kooks (including Poston). But in the last scene of the final episode he wakes, startled, to find Emily-Suzanne in their old bed, as if the eight years in New England had been a dream.
Other sitcoms, from Will & Grace to 8 Simple Rules, borrowed Pleshette's line-reading skills and Mensa warmth. She did voice work for Disney, lending her dusky chops to Zira in The Lion King II, Zeniba in the English-language version of Spirited Away. She also got a chance to play an old-Hollywood meanie: Leona Helmsley in a TV bio-pic, The Queen of Mean. And in a nice rounding off of her life, Pleshette married fellow Newhart alum Poston in 2001, 42 years after appearing with him on Broadway. He died last April.
"I don't sit around and wait for great parts," she once said. "I'm an actress, and I love being one, and I'll probably be doing it till I�m 72... " Not quite. She died 12 days before her 71st birthday. But on late shows and in reruns, Suzanne Pleshette will still be the soul of comic common sense, still sending out beams of a very reasonable radiance.