Suzanne Pleshette, sultry-voiced comic partner of Newhart; at 70

Email|Print| Text size + By Dennis McLellan
Los Angeles Times / January 21, 2008

LOS ANGELES - Suzanne Pleshette, the dark-haired, smoky-voiced actress who played Bob Newhart's sardonic and sexy wife, Emily Hartley, for six years on the 1970s sitcom "The Bob Newhart Show," has died. She was 70.

The widow of comic actor Tom Poston, Ms. Pleshette died of respiratory failure late Saturday evening at her Los Angeles home, Robert Finkelstein, an entertainment lawyer and family friend, told the Associated Press. She had undergone chemotherapy in 2006 for lung cancer.

Poston died in April at age 85 after a brief illness.

"She was a pro's pro," Bob Newhart said. "Although we knew she was quite sick, she was one of those people that you thought would go on forever."

Ms. Pleshette had one of the deepest, most distinctive voices in show business. "Telephone operators have called me 'sir' since I was 6," she once said.

A stage-trained New York actress, she made her movie debut in the 1958 Jerry Lewis comedy "The Geisha Boy." Ms. Pleshette appeared in such films as Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," "Nevada Smith," "Youngblood Hawke," "A Rage to Live," and "Fate Is the Hunter."

She also appeared with Troy Donahue, to whom she was married for eight months in 1964, in the 1962 romantic drama "Rome Adventure" and the 1964 western "A Distant Trumpet."

On Broadway in 1961, Ms. Pleshette replaced Anne Bancroft in the role of Annie Sullivan in "The Miracle Worker" opposite Patty Duke as Helen Keller.

And on television in 1991, she earned an Emmy Award nomination for playing the title role in the TV-movie "Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean."

But she had a flair for comedy.

Among her screen credits were "40 Pounds of Trouble," "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium," "Support Your Local Gunfighter," "The Shaggy D.A.," "The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin," "The Ugly Dachshund," and "Blackbeard's Ghost."

Ms. Pleshette retired from acting after marrying her second husband, businessman Tom Gallagher, in 1968. But after hanging around the house for six months, she told TV Guide in 1972, "My loving husband said, 'You're getting to be awfully boring. Go back to work.' "

After trying to figure out how she could return to work without having to get up at 5 a.m. or go out of town for weeks on movie locations, she recalled, "I said to myself, 'What can you do best? Talk,' I said. 'So what better than the talk shows on TV?' I said. I picked up the phone and asked my agent to try to book me with Johnny Carson."

She made a couple of dozen appearances on the Carson show over the next few years, including one with fellow guest Newhart - a show seen by writers David Davis and Lorenzo Music, the creators of the upcoming Newhart series.

"Suzanne started talking, and I looked at Lorenzo and Lorenzo looked at me," Davis told TV Guide. "There she was, just what we were looking for.

"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."

Ms. Pleshette told the magazine that "Bob is just like my husband, Tommy, letting me go bumbling and stumbling through life. And the way it's written, the part is me. There's the stream of non-sequiturs by which I live. There are fights. I'm allowed to be demonstrative. But the core of the marriage is good."

Her role as Emily earned her two Emmy Award nominations.

Off-camera, Ms. Pleshette was known for being what an Orlando Sentinel reporter once described as "an earthy dame, an Auntie Mame who isn't afraid to tell a dirty story." Or, as TV Guide put it in 1972: "Her conversations - mostly meandering monologues - are sprinkled with aphorisms, anecdotes, salty opinions, and X-rated expletives."

She enjoyed talking so much that during the making of "The Geisha Boy," Lewis took to calling her "Big Mouth."

Newhart, according to the TV Guide article, "was finding himself outtalked by Suzanne on the set about 12 to 1 but professed to be unperturbed by the phenomenon."

"I don't tangle," Newhart said, "with any lady who didn't give Johnny a chance to exercise his mouth - even to sneer - for 10 whole minutes."

Although Newhart got a new TV wife, played by Mary Frann, for his 1982-90 "Newhart," Ms. Pleshette had the last laugh - making a memorable surprise guest appearance at the end of the series' final episode.

It had Newhart waking up in the bedroom of his "The Bob Newhart Show" home with Ms. Pleshette at his side. He went on to tell her of the crazy dream he'd just had of running an inn filled with odd characters. Ms. Pleshette's Emily tells Bob he should watch what he eats before going to bed.

In a 1990 interview with "CBS This Morning," Ms. Pleshette recalled that when the "Newhart" studio audience saw the familiar bedroom set from the old series, she heard a shocked intake of breath.

"And then they heard this mumble under the covers, and nobody does my octave, you know," she recalled. "And I think they suspected it might be me, but when that dark hair came up from under the covers, they stood and screamed."

Ms. Pleshette was born Jan. 31, 1937, in New York. Her mother had been a dancer, and her father was the manager of the New York and Brooklyn Paramount theaters during their big-band days.

After attending the New York High School of the Performing Arts - "I found myself there," Ms. Pleshette later said - she spent a semester at Syracuse University and a semester at Finch College before moving on to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre and acting teacher Sanford Meisner.

Ms. Pleshette was married to Gallagher from 1968 until his death in 2000.

She first met - and dated - Poston when they appeared together in the 1959 Broadway comedy "Golden Fleecing." They were both dealing with the deaths of their spouses in 2000 when they got back together and were married the next year.

"They are a romantic duo," Tim Conway, a friend of Poston's, told People magazine in 2001. "It's almost embarrassing."

Details on survivors were not immediately available.

Material from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this obituary.

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