“Suzanne Pleshette is the sort to make truck drivers whistle and wolves come running, but there’s a lot more than that. There’s intrigue and delicate sophistication, sound balance, and a keen mind along with star talent.” That’s how columnist Hedda Hopper described the young actress in 1962. She had already made a big splash on Broadway as Anne Bancroft’s replacement in “The Miracle Worker” and was doing tons of work on television and in mostly forgettable films (her early work in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” being an exception). In an era of sexpots and bubbleheads, Pleshette was the beauty with the brains so of course Hollywood wasn’t sure what to do with her. As another reporter wrote that year, “Beauty and sex aren’t everything in the land of make-believe, it’s just that no one can remember what comes next. Suzanne Pleshette might be the answer.”
For her part, Pleshette had an awareness of herself that belied her twenty-five years. “I think my personality precedes my looks. I’m candid to a fault without being cruel. I have a faculty for saying what I think without editing what I say. I have a great zest for life. I look forward to every day and the people that I meet. I love any situation that affords humor and I’ll respond to it.”
Can’t ask for more than that. She caught a break in films with “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” (I remember watching that zany farce at the Chicago’s Granada Theatre in June 1969) and then three years later entered the pantheon of immortal TV wives when she nabbed the role of Emily Hartley on the old “Bob Newhart Show.” Like Mary Tyler Moore’s Laura Petrie before her, Pleshette’s Emily started out as a straight man and foil for her befuddled psychologist husband, but her comic timing and acting chops were so apparent that soon whole episodes were centered around her character. Her TV immortality was assured when she appeared on the final episode of Newhart’s second TV series. The entire series, in which Newhart and actress Mary Frann played Vermont innkeepers, was passed off a dream when Bob woke up in bed next to Suzanne Pleshette in their old Chicago apartment. Newhart starts describing his crazy life at the New England Inn causing Suzanne’s Emily Hartley to quip, “That’s the last time you eat Japanese food before bed.” The best series ending in the history of television.
Suzanne Pleshette died this weekend after a battle with lung cancer. She was hoping to be able to attend the ceremony on Hollywood Boulevard next Thursday (on what would have been her 71st birthday) to receive her long overdue star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She will be remembered for her husky voice, her bawdy mouth (she could out-swear a sailor), and her many close friendships. She married another Newhart regular, Tom Poston, in 2001 after they were both widowed and it was a great love match. Poston died last year, and then Pleshette got sick herself.
At a Newhart reunion gathering a few months ago, she talked about the time she told Bob that she and Poston had been lovers years earlier, when they were appearing in a play on Broadway in 1959. “I told Bob I used to fuck him,” Pleshette recalled. “And Bob, as usual, said ‘That's more information than I need.’” Someone asked how she thought Newhart and Pleshette might have fared as a real-life married couple. “Suzanne and Bob?” she asked, aghast. “He would have killed himself!” Newhart had to agree. “I would have spent most of my time apologizing to people for her language.”