Pleshette, Suzanne

Pleshette had beauty, talent, great voice

From the Jan. 25 2008, Deseret News

Suzanne Pleshette has always been a particular favorite of mine, a unique actress who gained her greatest fame in the early 1970s as the wife of Bob Newhart in his first TV sitcom.

But major A-list stardom eluded Pleshette — especially on the big screen, despite some memorable films, including a couple of classics.

Her death last weekend at age 70 had me thinking about (and digging out) some of my favorite movies in which she starred or co-starred.

Pleshette's most famous film is Hitchcock's "The Birds," and she's great in a "sidekick" role, as a tough schoolteacher and jilted lover who is unceremoniously pecked to death by the title characters. Even as a kid in high school I remember thinking she was so much more interesting than Tippi Hedren that I wished Pleshette had the lead role.

Others on my list are "Fate Is the Hunter," with Pleshette as the survivor of an airline crash who helps Glenn Ford re-create the disaster; "Nevada Smith," in which she has a scene-stealing part as a swamp girl who meets an untimely death after being used by Steve McQueen; "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium," as a guide for a comical European tour; and a pair of James Garner vehicles, "Mister Buddwing" and "Support Your Local Gunfighter."

A dark-haired exotic beauty with a husky voice that could bring to mind Lauren Bacall and, later, Kathleen Turner, Pleshette earned her first big break in 1958 at age 21 when she was cast (as a surprisingly racist WAC sergeant) opposite Jerry Lewis in "The Geisha Boy." She was billed after Lewis and three others, her name leading four actors under the label "with these new personalities."

Then she bounced around Hollywood for more than a decade before "The Bob Newhart Show," but she never found that big role in that big movie that could push her star stock to another level.

During those years, Pleshette spent a lot of time doing dramatic TV guest shots, but she also signed a contract with Universal Pictures. Her first film for the studio was "Rome Adventure," in which she had the lead role but received fourth billing — as "introducing Suzanne Pleshette," unusual for a second movie, even if it was four years after her first.

Despite the Universal films and a string of Disney comedies, it wasn't until 1972 that Pleshette really hit her stride when she was cast in "The Bob Newhart Show" as Emily, the schoolteacher wife of psychologist Bob Hartley.

The supporting cast was full of seasoned comic players as eccentric patients, co-workers and, of course, Bill Daily as their obtuse airline-navigator neighbor. But Pleshette more than held her own, delivering with aplomb everything from sharp-tongued one-liners to that distinctive don't-you-dare stare.

And like Mary Tyler Moore on the decade-earlier "Dick Van Dyke Show," she also offered an intelligent woman married to an intelligent man who didn't bicker or put him down.

From "I Love Lucy" to "Everybody Loves Raymond," shouting matches have been a sitcom staple. But in "The Bob Newhart Show," there were quips and gags — and absolutely no doubt that these two people were crazy about each other.

And for men, it was comforting to think an ordinary shlub could win a gorgeous, witty wife who was so much fun.