Bob Newhart had modest expectations in 1960 when Warner Bros. Records released his first comedy album, "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart."
The recording, which included such seminal Newhart routines as Abraham Lincoln getting notes from his press agent before delivering the Gettysburg Address, was a marked contrast to the more edgy, controversial comedians of the day, such as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl.
"I never thought much would come of these record albums, to be honest," said the affable comedian during a recent lunch near his home in Bel-Air. "I thought maybe 25,000 copies might sell. Then it went crazy."
How crazy? "Button-Down Mind" sold 1.5 million copies and earned two Grammy Awards
Before Newhart became one of the hottest comedians on the scene, he was offered a role in the 1962 World War II film "Hell Is for Heroes." When the film finally started production several months later, Don Siegel was hired to direct and Steve McQueen was signed to star along with Bobby Darin and Fess Parker.
"It became a totally different movie," said Newhart.
By that time, Newhart was also in a totally different place in his career. He was being offered substantially more money to do nightclubs than he was making on the movie. So he came up with an idea to get out of the movie earlier than scheduled: He would suggest his character get killed.
"I would go up to Don Siegel and I'd say, 'You know when that tank comes over the hill, I could trip.' He said, 'Forget it. You're in the movie!' I was in it to the very end."
A few months shy of his 85th birthday, Newhart has entered the national treasure phase of his career, proving it's still very hip to be square.
Several generations of TV audiences have watched his classic CBS sitcoms — 1972-1978's "The Bob Newhart Show" and 1982-1990's "Newhart" in syndication and DVD. On Tuesday, Shout! Factory is releasing the entire "Bob Newhart Show" on DVD with several extra features, including new interviews with Newhart and other cast members, Bill Daily, Peter Bonerz and Jack Riley among them, and the 1991 CBS reunion special.
Newhart has also developed a fan base with young audiences thanks to his roles as Papa Elf in the 2003 Will Ferrell holiday comedy "Elf" and for his role as Arthur Jeffries on CBS' top-rated sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory."
Last September, Newhart finally won his first Emmy as the down-on-his-luck Jeffries, who, as Dr. Proton, had hosted a tacky children's science series that Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) watched as kids. In a recent episode, Sheldon, Leonard and the gang learn that Arthur has died. But Sheldon discovers that Arthur will be there by his side as his own personal Obi-Wan Kenobi.
"The plan is whenever Jim has a problem he comes to Obi-Wan to help him," said Newhart. "They told me the idea, and I thought it was great."
"Big Bang" show runner Steven Molaro came up with the idea of introducing a retired Mr. Wizard-esque character on the series. Series creator Chuck Lorre knew just the man.
"One of the smartest things I said in a while was, 'How about Bob Newhart?' I called because I know him personally and asked him," Lorre said. "He was wide open because he liked the show."
Getting to work with Newhart has been a remarkable experience for the cast and crew of the series. "He is the master of his craft," said Lorre. "You can't really anticipate what he's going to do because his rhythms are so unique and his own."
Newhart is also reprising his Emmy-nominated turn as head librarian Judson in the first two episodes of the upcoming TNT series "The Librarians," based on the three popular TNT "The Librarian" adventure movies starring Noah Wyle.
"He brings so much experience, so many life lesson, so many colors," said "Librarians" executive producer Dean Devlin. "I think probably the hardest thing about working with Bob is that everybody wants to talk to him. He is just a treasure trove of knowledge, anecdotes, great stories and wisdom."
Newhart does about 20 stand-up gigs a year and still finds it exciting to write — and rewrite — new routines.
"That is the enjoyment — taking a new piece of business, trying it out, expanding on it a little and making it a little longer," said Newhart. "Before you know it, you have five or six new minutes."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times