From the Archives: Tom Poston, 85; comedic actor was bumbling handyman on ‘Newhart’

Times Staff Writer

Tom Poston, a familiar comedic presence on television since the 1950s, when he was an Emmy Award-winning regular on “The Steve Allen Show” but who may be best remembered as the bumbling handyman on the popular situation comedy “Newhart,” has died. He was 85.

The husband of actress Suzanne Pleshette, Poston died Monday at his home in Los Angeles after a brief illness, said family representative Tanner Gibson.

Poston launched his career in 1947 in Jose Ferrer’s Broadway production of “Cyrano de Bergerac.” He later appeared in live television dramatic anthologies such as “Studio One” and “Goodyear Television Playhouse.”


But he soon established himself as a comedic actor who gained national exposure on Allen’s comedy-variety show, which ran from 1956 to 1961, first on NBC and then ABC.

In the 1970s, Poston made occasional guest appearances on “The Bob Newhart Show” as Newhart’s college chum. But he earned lasting recognition playing handyman George Utley on “Newhart” throughout the sitcom’s 1982-90 run.

In a statement Tuesday, Newhart described his friend Poston as a “versatile and veteran performer and a kindhearted individual” who “was always the go-to guy on ‘Newhart.’ ”

Peter Scolari, a fellow “Newhart” cast member, said that “as a comedian, Tom was truly unique.”

“Here’s a guy who worked on Broadway with Bert Lahr [in a Burlesque revue] and Jose Ferrer,” Scolari told The Times. “On ‘Newhart,’ he was by then about 70 and as fresh and feeling a comedic actor as you’d ever want to work with. There was an unbridled joy in Tom.”

Poston had appeared in Broadway comedies such as “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” in the 1950s. But it was his work as host of “Entertainment,” a local daily comedy-variety show in New York, that caught the attention of two writers for “The Steve Allen Show,” whose comedic stock company included Don Knotts and Louis Nye.

In Allen’s famous man-in-the-street sketches, Poston was the man who could never remember his name.

When Allen was auditioning actors for the sketch, Poston recalled in a 1982 interview with the Newhouse News Service, “I was, naturally, scared to death.”

“He asked me my name and darned if my mind didn’t go blank. I sat there like a big dope and held my head. Steve thought I was kidding. He said, ‘Hey, that’s great! We’ll use it.’ From then on, I was a regular.”

Tim Conway, a longtime friend who toured with Poston in “The Odd Couple,” was an early fan.

Poston, Knotts and Nye, Conway said, “all had a way of presenting comedy without ever saying anything. You could read it on their faces. They didn’t need words. Don with that character of the scared guy and Tom as that character of just being vague [in the man-in-the-street sketches] was enough to bring laughter.”

Of his comedic characters such as George Utley on “Newhart,” Poston told United Press International in 1983: “These guys are about a half-step behind life’s parade. The ink on their instruction sheets is beginning to fade. But they function and cope and don’t realize they are driving people up the walls.”

Poston seemed to prefer playing second bananas.

Asked whether he’d like to one day star in his own show, he said: “I don’t know if I would want to see [his supporting roles] stretched to the point of having to carry the burden of a show.... I’d rather be working my head off as a supporting actor than be a giant star unable to get a job.

“Anyhow, my parts are really prime roles for an actor to play. They are terrific fun. I’m having the time of my life doing what I do.”

Born in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 17, 1921, Poston was a student at Bethany College in West Virginia when he enlisted in the Army Air Forces during World War II. After serving as a pilot in France, he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.

Among his numerous other TV credits are “Mork & Mindy,” in which he played Franklin Delano Bickley. He also was a regular panelist on the game show “To Tell the Truth.” His film credits include “Soldier in the Rain,” “Cold Turkey,” “Christmas with the Kranks” and “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.”

In addition to Pleshette, his third wife, Poston is survived by his children, Francesca, Hudson and Jason.

A private funeral service will be held for his immediate family. Details of a public memorial service are pending. Instead of flowers, the family suggests contributions be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.


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