It may not be Grand Hotel, but life at Vermont's quaint old Stratford Inn is far from routine. For example, here comes the hotel's slow-witted handyman George Utley (Tom Poston) to unveil the latest product from his workshop: a wooden replica of Mount Rushmore featuring the face of Mr. Green Jeans. Stephanie Vanderkellen (Julia Duffy), the pampered Wasp princess who works at the inn as a maid, goes through the motions of dusting, but she is concentrating on putting her TV-producer boyfriend Michael (Peter Scolari) in his place, which is at her feet groveling. And just when a little order threatens to break out, in stomps a scraggly trio of backwoods brothers, two of whom never speak, leaving the third to make the group's ritual introduction, "I'm Larry. This is my brother Darryl. And this is my other brother Darryl."
Among such oddballs, one might be excused for overlooking the unassuming fellow over there behind the desk who runs the Stratford Inn, a mild-mannered writer and part-time TV talk-show host named Dick Loudon. All the more so since Loudon is played by Bob Newhart, who has made a career out of trying to shrink into the scenery. As a stand-up comic in the early 1960s, Newhart created a series of dryly satirical routines in which he portrayed a well- meaning, slightly befuddled organization man trying to cope with extraordinary events, from the discovery of tobacco to King Kong climbing up the Empire State Building. In his previous TV series, The Bob Newhart Show, he appeared as Bob Hartley, a psychologist who played second fiddle to the neurotics who trooped in and out of his office.
Like their star, Newhart's shows seem to revel in obscurity. Though it enjoyed six successful seasons on CBS in the 1970s, The Bob Newhart Show never escaped the shadow of its longtime lead-in on Saturday nights, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. His current series, Newhart, which debuted on CBS in 1982, has ranked consistently in the Nielsen Top 20 for the past three seasons. Yet tucked away on Monday nights following the higher-profile Kate & Allie, it has been the most unsung good show on TV.
This season may mark Newhart's breakthrough. In a small but risky schedule change, CBS separated its successful Monday-night pair of comedies and moved Newhart to the tougher 9 p.m. slot. Standing on its own for the first time, the program has moved up to 13th place on the Nielsen list -- a particularly impressive showing considering that its competition has included some heavily watched Monday Night Football contests as well as the seventh game of the World Series.
More important, Newhart is running with the easy, confident stride of a TV series at the peak of its form. Success has come without any of the usual sitcom crutches: not a single regular character is a wisecracking child, irreverent senior citizen or cute extraterrestrial. "Let's just say we're not a high-impact comedy like Laverne and Shirley," says Newhart, 57. "We give the audience credit for having some intelligence." Newhart's leisurely, low- voltage style sets the tone; instead of rapid-fire gag lines, he opts for shrewdly timed pauses, stammers and deadpan understatement. He gets his best laughs not so much by acting as by reacting. Says David Mirkin, who produces the show with Douglas Wyman: "Bob is the best 'oh' man in the business."