In this world of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, it seems that almost any two celebrities can be connected. But you might not instantly link Bob Newhart to Fred Willard. You’ll need to reach back into the recesses of your pop culture minds a bit for this one.
The first stop on our journey is the third season of The Bob Newhart Show, when Fred played Bob’s sister Ellen’s ex-fiancé John Tobin. In the episode Tobin’s Back in Town, Willard plays a leather-clad swinger and reveals early signs of his emerging comic genius.
Next Bob and Fred co-starred in the Buck Henry movie First Family. Newhart, of course, played President Manfred Link to Willard’s Presidential Assistant Feebleman. This star-studded film is an underrated gem of a movie worth revisiting if you haven’t seen it in a long time – especially if you miss Gilda Radner and Madeline Kahn as much as we do.
And when Bob was honored with the Mark Twain Prize in 2002, Fred was one of the performers there to pay him homage. He took the stage along with Newhart’s old friends Suzanne Pleshette, Tom Poston, Tim Conway, Don Rickles, and the Smothers Brothers.
So when the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences celebrated Bob’s 50 years in show business recently, Willard came to pay homage to Bob and marveled at his staying power. Hear Fred’s theory about why Bob is as popular now as he always has been in this interview we shot for the Archive of American Television.