Question: Please answer a question that has been bugging me for years. What was the name of the town in New England on Newhart? Annette L.
Televisionary: In the series, which ran from October 1982 to September 1990 on CBS, Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) and wife Joanna (Mary Frann) moved from New York to quaint Norwich, Vt., to fix up and run the historic Stratford Inn. Norwich is a real Vermont town and the Stratford's exterior is that of a real inn, but it's the Waybury Inn and it's actually in East Middlebury. Newhart Executive Producer Barry Kemp discovered it while scouting locations after Newhart thought up the idea while staying in a Seattle inn, and they agreed New England would be a logical setting.
Newhart, who'd enjoyed a successful six-year run with the classic Bob Newhart Show, was itching to return to network TV when he looked around the inn and found inspiration. "I had some time to kill and I couldn't help noticing how many characters come and go in a place like that," he told TV Guide in 1983. "Little frictions, crazy things."
The comedian's instincts were on the money, as usual. Working the same formula that paid off in his earlier series "The Duke of Deadpan" and his dry-as-a-desert humor worked best when surrounded by a cast of crazies Newhart opened his TV inn, populated it with the required eccentrics and soon had another hit on his hands.
The late Frann, who, sadly, died in 1998 at age 55, had pretty big shoes to fill when the show first launched. Her Joanna was very similar to the earlier Newhart Show's Emily Hartley (Suzanne Pleshette), so she had to establish herself as a straight-man character in her own right. "In many ways Mary has the toughest job in the show," Newhart acknowledged in 1983. "She has to pour a lot of coffee and deliver a lot of exposition. And there is the inevitable comparison to the old show and Suzie.... [B]ut she knows how to deliver a line. Every comedian knows that a good straight person is absolutely essential."
Newhart was good about providing such support, but even he got confused now and then. While taping a scene in which Joanna appeared in Dick's study wearing a slinky nightgown, for instance, Newhart accidentally called his TV wife Emily. "He didn't even realize he'd said it," Frann recalled in 1983. "I stopped and went out to the audience and said, 'Now I ask you, folks. If you were the new wife, and you were standing in front of your husband in a black nightgown, and he called you by his first wife's name, what would do? I mean, you might take that if you were wearing jeans, but a nightgown!' The audience went completely berserk."
The Newhart producers made a solid choice in casting Frann and it paid off for the show. Throw in strong supporting work from Peter Scolari (Bosom Buddies) and Julia Duffy (Designing Women) and it's obvious the creative forces behind the series knew quite a bit about backing up the star offensive player with a strong backcourt. However, there are times on any show when producers have only the fates to thank for very happy accidents. Taxi, a show Kemp worked on earlier in his career, had Christopher Lloyd's "Reverend Jim" Ignatowski, who was originally intended as a one-shot and ended up being a star of the show. Newhart had three celebrated cementhead siblings.
"[I]t struck me, let's have three brothers named Larry, Darryl and Darryl," Kemp said of creating the series' second episode, which called for the one-time appearance of three scruffy handymen. "We knew that in having two brothers with the same name, we had something unspeakable, but still funny. We also decided the Darryls wouldn't talk."
Of course, what's funny in the writers' room doesn't necessarily translate to the screen, or even to the soundstage in front of an audience, so Kemp was nervous about how the three actors cast in the parts William Sanderson (Larry), Tony Papenfuss (Darryl No. 1) and John Voldstad (Darryl No. 2) would go over. But as soon as Sanderson's Larry introduced himself and his brothers, the audience "exploded," the producer recalled. "The reaction was so immediate, I loved it," Newhart added. "My first question was, 'When can we have them back?'"
Well, they stuck around for the show's entire run, as it turned out, and the idea behind the characters Kemp described it as "three guys sharing one brain, and Larry has most of it" caught on so well that the trio got a lot of fan mail, much of it from teens who liked their outfits. Sanderson in particular got notice for Larry's habit of keeping a quarter in his ear, a character trait the actor first tried in Coal Miner's Daughter after researching his role in that movie and spotting an old photo of a man doing the same thing with a half-dollar. And Sanderson's interesting points didn't end there; he also had a law degree and, while growing up in Memphis, spent a good deal of time playing football with Elvis Presley and crew. ("I did some pretty dumb things to impress Elvis, like playing too rough in football or hitting his car too hard in the bumper cars at the park," Sanderson confessed. "But he never really got mad.")
Such supporting players make or break a show and Newhart knew it well. "Jack Benny used to give many of the good lines to Phil Harris or Mary or Rochester," the star explained. "People told him he was giving all the funny things away. 'Yes,' said Jack, 'but I'll be back next week.'"