Legends & Legacies View More

A Whiskey Voice and a Lively Heart

Published: 1/19/2013

Actress Suzanne Pleshette poses in this 1974 file photo. Pleshette, star of films and Broadway plays who found her greatest fame portraying Bob Newhart's sardonic wife on television's long-running On the fifth anniversary of Suzanne Pleshette's death, Gigi Anders remembers her unique charm. Originally published January 2008 on Obit-Mag.com.

The first time I saw Suzanne Pleshette was in The Birds in 1963. I was just a little kid. My mom took me to see the Hitchcock movie, and afterward I asked her, "Why did Mitch [Rod Taylor] like Melanie [Tippi Hedren] more than Annie [Suzanne Pleshette]?"

My mom said, "Because Melanie's a glamorous blonde in high heels, and Annie's a brainy brunette with a man's voice and a drinking problem."

"She only drank because Mitch left her," I said. "And her voice is neat. It's different. She's much nicer and more interesting than Melanie."

"The birds ate Annie," my mom said.

"Is that what happens to nice and interesting women?"

"It is in the movies."
 

 

 

I've loved Suzanne Pleshette ever since. She was feminine but not girlie, stylish but not vapid, sardonic but not mean (even though she convincingly played The Queen of Mean, Leona Helmsley, in the eponymous 1990 TV movie). Pleshette never took herself or her looks too seriously. She was the kind of woman a woman would like. Maybe that's why, despite her deep, dark beauty, she never got the sexpot roles.

"When Warren Beatty called a girl up," she once said, "it was usually to try to get her into the sack. But he called me to find out what kind of bologna I used. I just don't have what it takes, I guess."

Watching her lob conversational bon mots to Johnny Carson in the '70s, I always got the impression that she was in on the joke, that she got it. She always made gentle fun of her husband, Tommy – Texas oilman Tom Gallagher, to whom she was married from 1968 until his death in 2000. (Her first marriage, to Troy Donahue in 1964, lasted eight months; after Gallagher died, she married actor Tom Poston, an old friend, who died in 2007.) And she always looked polished, well turned-out, more New York than L.A.

The native New Yorker and only child was born on Jan. 31, 1937, in Brooklyn Heights. Her father, Eugene, was a theater manager and network executive, and her mother, Geraldine, was a ballerina. Pleshette went to The School of Performing Arts, to Syracuse, and then Finch College in Manhattan.

She started her acting career on TV in 1957, replaced another great and brainy brunette, Anne Bancroft, as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker on Broadway, and co-starred in a ton of mostly forgettable movies – except The Birds, of course – as well as several Disney comedies spanning 32 years (The Ugly Dachshund, The Shaggy D.A., The Lion King II: Simba's Pride).

Where she shone, though, where we could most appreciate her earthy glamour, was on TV. Over 47 years she guest-starred on all kinds of shows (Love, American Style; Law & Order; Will & Grace), and when I discovered her in something I was watching, the program took on the warmth of her personality.

Most people, though, knew Pleshette best from her role as Emily, Chicago shrink Bob Hartley's gorgeous yet grounded wife on the hit series The Bob Newhart Show, which ran from 1972 to 1978. In 1990, she returned as Emily for the famous finale of the sitcom Newhart, in which Bob Newhart's character, a Vermont innkeeper named Dick Loudon, suddenly awakens from a nightmare to discover that he's really Dr. Bob Hartley, and there's his beloved wife, Emily, sleeping peacefully right next to him. The whole Vermont fantasy was just a bad dream because Bob had eaten too much sushi the night before.
 

 

 

 

 

I wish I could say that Suzanne Pleshette's passing, on Jan. 19 at her Los Angeles home, was also just a bad dream. But it's true. She had respiratory failure and had had chemotherapy for lung cancer in 2006. So sadly I have to say so long, Suzanne. I loved you for your easy allure, your ready wit, the way you could mix bawdiness and class. And by the way, forget Warren Beatty and his bologna. You always had what it takes.

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