Suzanne Pleshette, 70, ‘Newhart’ Actress, Dies
Suzanne Pleshette, the husky-voiced actress who redefined the television sitcom wife in the 1970s, playing the smart, sardonic Emily Hartley on “The Bob Newhart Show,” died Saturday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 70.
Ms. Pleshette died of respiratory failure, her lawyer, Robert Finkelstein, told The Associated Press. Ms. Pleshette had undergone chemotherapy in 2006 for lung cancer.
A native New Yorker, Ms. Pleshette already had a full career on stage and screen in 1971 when producers saw her on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” and noticed a chemistry between her and another guest, Mr. Newhart. She was soon cast as the wife of Mr. Newhart’s character, a mild-mannered Chicago psychologist, and the series ran six seasons, from 1972 to 1978, as part of CBS’s ratings-winning Saturday night lineup.
Emily Hartley’s work life (as a schoolteacher) did not receive much attention, but the character was confident, sexy and anything but submissive to her husband.
Moviegoers knew Ms. Pleshette from a string of Hollywood features, and her low-key performances often transcended thankless roles in bad movies. She made her film debut in a 1958 Jerry Lewis comedy, “The Geisha Boy,” in a supporting role as a romantic WAC sergeant. She came to teenage audiences’ attention in her second movie, “Rome Adventure” (1962), a good-girl, bad-girl romance opposite Troy Donahue, the beautiful blond heartthrob of the moment. (Ms. Pleshette played the virgin.) After making another film together in 1964, she and Mr. Donahue married, but the marriage lasted only eight months.
Alfred Hitchcock fans knew Ms. Pleshette best as the pretty small-town teacher who not only loses the guy (Rod Taylor) to the blonde (Tippi Hedren), but is also pecked to death by an angry flock in “The Birds” (1963). Because she was a method actress, “Hitch didn’t know what to do with me,” Ms. Pleshette said in a 1999 Film Quarterly interview with other Hitchcock heroines. “He regretted the day that he hired me.” Many disagreed with that conclusion.
Suzanne Pleshette was born Jan. 31, 1937, in Brooklyn Heights, to Eugene Pleshette, who managed the Paramount and Brooklyn Paramount theaters, and Gloria Kaplan Pleshette, a former dancer.
An only child, Ms. Pleshette attended the New York High School of the Performing Arts, then Syracuse University and transferred to Finch College, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She also studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and with its teaching star Sanford Meisner.
Her professional career began in 1957 with her television debut, a single episode in a short-lived adventure series, “Harbourmaster,” and her Broadway debut in “Compulsion,” a drama about the Leopold and Loeb murder case, in which she played Fourth Girl but soon moved up to a supporting role. In 1959, she appeared in “Golden Fleecing,” a comedy set in Venice, opposite Tom Poston, whom she would marry four decades later.
Her real Broadway triumph came in February 1961 when she replaced Anne Bancroft (who had just won a Tony Award) as Annie Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker,” opposite 14-year-old Patty Duke. Her reviews were admiring.
Ms. Pleshette returned to Broadway once more, some two decades later. “Special Occasions” (1982), a play about a divorced couple, was so ravaged by theater critics that it closed after a series of previews and one regular performance. Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times, excoriated the play but praised Ms. Pleshette’s performance: “The throaty voice, wide-open smiles and quick intelligence are as alluring as ever,” he wrote.
Ms. Pleshette had an active film career in the 1960s and the first half of the ’70s. She starred in several Disney movies, including “The Shaggy D.A.” (1976). Early on, she dealt with heavier subjects, playing a flight attendant who survives an airline crash in “Fate Is the Hunter” (1964), a sexually compulsive heiress in “A Rage to Live” (1965) and a book editor trying to save a successful young author from himself in “Youngblood Hawke” (1964). Eventually, though, she seemed to settle into comedies, like “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” (1969), about a busload of unhappy American tourists.
But it was in television that she received the greatest recognition. She was nominated for an Emmy Award four times, first in 1962 for a guest performance in “Dr. Kildare,” twice for “The Bob Newhart Show” (1977 and 1978) and in 1991 for playing the title role in the television movie “Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean.”
She was never in a hit series again (although there were efforts), but she continued to appear in television movies and as a guest in popular series into the 21st century. Her last role was as Megan Mullally’s estranged mother in several episodes of NBC’s “Will & Grace” from 2002 to 2004.
After her divorce from Mr. Donahue, Ms. Pleshette married twice. In 1968, she wed Tom Gallagher, a businessman, a marriage that lasted until his death in 2000. In 2001 she wed Tom Poston, her long-ago Broadway co-star, who had also been a guest star on “The Bob Newhart Show” and a regular in Mr. Newhart’s second sitcom, “Newhart,” in the 1980s. He died last year.
Arguably Ms. Pleshette’s most memorable television moment was not in “The Bob Newhart Show” but in the final episode of “Newhart.” On May 21, 1990, Mr. Newhart’s character, Dick Loudon, was hit in the head by a golf ball and woke up to find himself in Dr. Robert Hartley’s bed, with his beautiful, unfailingly sane wife, Emily, at his side. The whole second sitcom had been a nightmare.
The episode was considered one of the most successful series finales in television history, partly because it managed to remain a secret until it was broadcast. As time passed, some found the scene a useful metaphor for hopes that a difficult situation might turn out to be just a bad dream. In 1999, a headline in the humor publication The Onion read, “Universe Ends as God Wakes Up Next to Suzanne Pleshette.”