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Television's Mr. Nice Guy Takes His Mild Manners to 'George & Leo'

On The Set With Bob Newhart

Bob Newhart drives through the much-photographed main gate at Paramount Studio and parks near Stage 20, where he's filming a new comedy series. For the next 13 weeks, "it's my home away from home," says the actor who's already had four self-titled shows.

"George & Leo," which co-stars Judd Hirsch, debuts Monday, 9:30-10 p.m., on CBS.

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Once on the set, Mr. Newhart talks with Mr. Hirsch - who plays the loudmouth, overbearing Leo with complete relish - about tonight's filming. The two Emmy winners, who never met before starting this series, are developing a healthy camaraderie.

"Working with Judd," Newhart explains, "is like playing a game of tennis. You hit the ball, and it's right back. That's what I get from Judd. He puts you on the defensive, and that's good."

The sound stage looks as if you've been transported to Martha's Vineyard. Along with the bookstore George (played by Newhart) owns, there's the interior of his home and the restaurant where his son is chef. Look out the window of his living room, and you see the water and the boats. Blowers cause a mild breeze to sway the bushes, while lighting makes the sea background glisten. You can almost smell the clams baking.

In the story line for the sitcom, George's son is marrying Leo's daughter, and Leo is a professional magician, when he isn't delivering laundered money for the gang in Las Vegas. He walked out on his family 10 years ago, and most recently he walked away from the gang, taking its suitcase of money with him.

"You can understand why his daughter isn't thrilled to have him show up on her wedding day," Newhart adds.

The dialogue begins with Leo saying to George, "You stammer." Newhart ad-libs, "Only when I'm around obnoxious people." The crew laughs, and the line stays in.

Once the audience arrives and fills the bleacher-like seats in front of the sets, Newhart comes out and greets them. With his years of doing stand-up comedy, he soon has everyone laughing.

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The crew uses five cameras, and each scene is filmed twice. During one scene, Hirsch breaks up at Newhart's deadpan reading of a line. Obviously there's some chemistry developing.

Creators of the show, Dan Staley and Rob Long, say the two stars are "the odd couple of Martha's Vineyard." They wrote the series for Newhart and were really excited when Hirsch was eager to join.

Later when the episode is completed, Newhart says, "My last series, 'Bob,' was not a pleasant experience. I was told they were presenting a new 'me' - someone the public hadn't seen before. 'Don't you want to stretch as an actor?' was their frequent question. I soon learned the only place an actor should stretch is on an exercise video."

It became evident the public didn't want to see a new Newhart. They liked the meek and mild, stammering and unassuming character they were familiar with.

Newhart felt he'd had it, and told his wife, Ginnie, he was going to stay home and perfect his golf game.

Last year, while on the eighth hole at a country club, he saw Leslie Moonves, the new president of CBS. Mr. Moonves called to Newhart, "I'm going to put you back on TV." Remembering the unhappy year and a half of his last series (under an earlier regime at CBS), Newhart replied, "I'm not sure if I want that or not."

Then, one day he told Ginnie, "I can't play golf for the rest of my life; I'm going to go nuts. I mean, if the only thing I have to show for all day is breaking 84 on the golf course, it's not very productive." "You miss working," she said matter-of-factly.

Ginnie has played vital roles in her husband's career. Remember when "Newhart" was planning its final episode? It was Ginnie who had the idea of ending it not with Newhart as the proprietor of a Vermont inn, but with him waking up with his former TV wife, Suzanne Pleshette. She was his spouse in the earlier "Bob Newhart Show" where he played a psychologist. It was as if the other show had all been a dream.

That closing segment is regarded by many in the industry as one of the best scripts in TV history.

"George & Leo" is a new ballgame. Unlike the other series, Newhart doesn't have a TV wife; he's a widower. Also, for the first time his name is not in the title.

"Well," he smiles slowly, "in a way it is. My real name is George Robert Newhart."

Of course, the difference is he has a co-star who has won two Emmys for "Taxi" and acclaim on Broadway. (Newhart has also won an Emmy, for "The Bob Newhart Show" in 1962.)

Newhart and Hirsch are so different - in temperament and in their approach to work. Ginnie, again, supplies an answer. She concedes that they are definitely opposites. But check out Newhart's pals, she says. In real life, his best friend is the abrasive comic who puts down everyone, Don Rickles.

Opposites do attract. CBS is hoping that continues to be true.

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