With her smoky voice and large “bedroom eyes,” Suzanne Pleshette redefined the TV sitcom wife in the ‘70s by playing the smart, satirical Emily Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show. The New York native already had a successful stage career when producers noticed her natural chemistry with Bob Newhart during an appearance on Johnny Carson.
Pleshette was a woman of many talents, with one of the deepest voices in show business. From her silver screen accolades to her small-screen triumphs, Pleshette made history throughout her career. She claimed her best skill was talking, and she always had a lot to say. Let’s take a look back at Pleshette’s extraordinary life.
Born Into the Business
On a cold January day in 1937, in Brooklyn Heights, New York, Geraldine and Eugene Pleshette welcomed their only daughter, Suzanne. She was destined for stardom before coming out of the womb because her parents were both in the entertainment industry. She was also the most beautiful baby.
Pleshette’s mother was a dancer and artist who performed under the stage name Geraldine Rivers. Meanwhile, her father, Eugene, was the stage manager of the Paramount Theater in New York. He later became a network executive at ABC. She was around the entertainment industry since birth, which inspired her to pursue the arts.
Getting All the Right Tools
As an only child, Pleshette’s parents wanted to give their daughter the best education. She attended Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts, which has notable alumni like Al Pacino and Jessica Walter. After graduation, she went to Syracuse University for one semester but decided to transfer to Finch College.
Pleshette later completed her studies at the prestigious acting school, the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. She was under the guidance of renowned acting teacher Sanford Meisner. With the best acting education money could buy, Pleshette was ready to hit the ground running and start her career.
Just Getting Started
Blessed with natural beauty, a fine figure, and a husky voice that made her seem older, Pleshette quickly achieved success on the stage, the big screen, and the small screen. In 1957, Pleshette made her Broadway debut as part of the supporting cast for the play Compulsion, about the Leopold and Loeb murder case.
Initially, she was cast as “The Fourth Girl,” but she took over a more prominent part during the play’s run. That same year, Pleshette made her TV debut in a single episode of the short-lived series, Harbourmaster. It wasn’t a breakout role, but it wouldn’t take long for her to become a star.
After her small role in Harbourmaster, Pleshette was chosen for the female lead opposite Jerry Lewis in his 1958 comedy, The Geisha Boy. She also appeared in Gold Fleecing in 1959, opposite Tom Poston, whom she would marry over four decades later. These roles were minor, but her triumph came on stage.
In 1961, Pleshette replaced Anne Bancroft (who had just won a Tony award) as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. She starred opposite 14-year-old Patty Duke as Helen Keller. The reviews were positive and showed her star potential. Once Pleshette started acting, her career never lagged until she got sick later in life.
Now thought of as her most famous cinematic role, Pleshette starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic, The Birds. As the brunette schoolteacher rejected by the film’s hero, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), Pleshette’s warm character perfectly contrasts with Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren).
It’s hard to imagine why Taylor’s Mitch would reject Pleshette’s Annie, but immoral blondes always triumph for looks rather than moral reasons in Hitchcock’s dark vision of society. Although she died in the end, Pleshette was a standout, and it gave her more opportunities.
A Missed Opportunity
Pleshette continued to use her looks and smarts to portray strong women on screen. And to think, she nearly got two other iconic roles in the ’60s. In 1959, she was one of two finalists to play Louise as the lead in the Broadway production of Gypsy.
Not long after, Dick Van Dyke approached Pleshette to play his wife on his upcoming sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show. Unfortunately, Pleshette had to decline because she was already contractually committed to a pilot for Norman Lear. The show went nowhere, and she missed a great opportunity.
Meow… or Not
Later in the ‘60s, William Dozier thought the 28-year-old Pleshette would be the perfect woman for a role in the Batman series. Pleshette was his first choice to slip into the skintight catsuit as Catwoman. However, they couldn’t come to a deal.
It would have been the purr-fect opportunity, but Pleshette passed, and Julie Newmar got the part. It’s fun to wonder what would have happened if she had starred as Catwoman. Would she have been more permanent, halting the careers of Lee Meriweather and Earth Kitt? We will never know.
During the ‘60s, Pleshette worked with many big names like Steve McQueen in the 1996 Western drama Nevada Smith and Ian McShane in If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. Her performance in If It’s Tuesday earned her a Laurel Award nomination.
In the film 40 Pounds of Trouble, Pleshette starred opposite Tony Curtis and Phil Silvers. It was the first motion picture filmed at Disneyland, and Universal Pictures distributed it. Later on, she was in several Disney films, most notably The Shaggy D.A. Everyone in the industry recognized her talents.
Drama to Comedy
Pleshette had an active film career in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She dealt with heavier subjects early on, playing a flight attendant who survives a plane crash in Fate Is the Hunter. In A Rage to Live, she starred as a sexually compulsive heiress.
However, Pleshette settled into comedies like If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, about a busload of unhappy tourists. She was spectacular in comedy films because of her wit and satirical manner. But it was on television that she received the most recognition.
Pleshette shined on the small screen and was honored many times for her work. She was nominated for an Emmy Award four times, first in 1962 for a guest appearance in Dr. Kildare and twice for The Bob Newhart Show. She was always honored to be nominated.
She might have been more memorable on TV, but she did receive award nominations for her film work as well. She was nominated for a Golden Globe award twice, first for the 1962 film Rome Adventure and second for the 1991 television movie Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean.
Mrs. Suzanne Pleshette Donahue
In 1964, Pleshette and her Rome Adventure and A Distant Trumpet co-star, Troy Donahue, got married. He was the handsome, blond heartthrob of the moment, and their relationship moved quickly. He was the guy everyone wanted to be with, and she caught his attention.
Unfortunately, just as quickly as they got married, they got divorced. Their marriage only lasted eight months, and we are sure many people were happy that Donahue was single again. Pleshette and Donahue went their separate ways, but she would find love again.
A Second Shot at Love
A few years after her short-lived marriage, Pleshette started dating oilman Tom Gallagher. The couple got married in 1968, and they wanted to start a family. Unfortunately, Pleshette suffered a miscarriage during their relationship, and the couple didn’t have children together.
Pleshette and Gallagher were together almost four decades before he passed away from lung cancer in 2000. After his death, Pleshette was asked about children, and she said, “I certainly would have had Tommy’s children. But my nurturing instincts are fulfilled in other ways. I’m a mother on every set.”
The Interview That Changed Her Career
After making appearances in series like Route 66, The Fugitive, The Invaders, The FBI, and Columbo, Pleshette was just waiting for her chance at a starring role. On May 19, 1971, TV producers noticed something special about Pleshette on The Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson.
There was a certain chemistry between her and the other guest, Bob Newhart. Shortly after her appearance, Pleshette was cast as Newhart’s wife, Emily Hartley, on The Bob Newhart Show. She already had a successful stage and film career, but this was her time to shine.
Redefining Sitcom Wives
Pleshette played Emily Hartley, a hip and hot housewife very different from Florence Henderson’s interpretation of Carol Brady on The Brady Bunch. Emily was a schoolteacher by day, but she was sure to entertain her psychologist husband, Bob Hartley (played by Newhart).
Emily’s teaching job didn’t receive much attention, but the character was confident, sexy, and anything but submissive like other sitcom wives of the ‘70s. Newhart said one of his favorite episodes was when his character learns that Pleshette has a considerably higher IQ than him.
Everyone Wanted to Look Like Her
During the first season of The Bob Newhart Show in 1971, Emily’s hair was coifed with a shag mullet. Pleshette was one of the few people who could make this style look glamorous. She had the whole look down with the dark hair, bangs, and thick eyelashes.
All the teens during that time wanted to cut their hair like Pleshette. Her short hair as Emily represented a straightforward confidence. Pleshette’s role personified TV’s first working-professional wife of her generation with a mind of her own. She didn’t hold back in her interpretation.
Keeping It Spicy
On The Bob Newhart Show, it is clear on several occasions that Emily and Bob had a strong and consistent sex life. It was most evident by the coy, yet subtle and frequent seductions started by Emily. It was also one of the few sitcoms where the married couple didn’t have children.
Although there were always people in their lives, like their next-door neighbor, played by Bill Daily, that did not stop Bob and Emily from playing between the sheets. It made the series so exciting and unique compared to other shows on TV.
She Loved Playing Emily
Pleshette thoroughly enjoyed playing Emily Hartley throughout the show’s six seasons. She said that in the beginning, Pleshette tried to lighten the whole persona because it was a comedy series. When she got comfortable in the role, she let go of those things, and Emily shined.
When the writers started playing off of Pleshette’s intelligence and her kind of humor, she felt the character was more genuine. Pleshette also added that Emily was Bob’s psychiatrist in the sense that wives help you look at yourself. People liked that her character evolved over the seasons.
“TV’s Perfect Wife”
Even after The Bob Newhart Show ended, Pleshette’s Emily Hartley was considered television’s perfect wife. Her character was right up there with Laura Petrie from the Dick Van Dyke Show, a role Pleshette had to turn down a decade earlier. She got the recognition she deserved.
Pleshette continued working and was often the best thing about the TV movies, miniseries, or guest spots she appeared in over the following three decades. She was once compared to Elizabeth Taylor for her similar looks, and some called her the comedic version of Taylor.
Making TV History
Although The Bob Newhart Show ended in 1978, Newhart went on to star in another series using his name called Newhart. The show is about Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) and his wife Joanna, who relocated from New York to a small town in Vermont to run the historic Stafford Inn.
In the series finale of Newhart, Dick Loudon wakes up in bed next to Pleshette as Emily Hartley. It’s revealed that the entire series was a dream of Bob Hartley’s from The Bob Newhart Show. It was one of the most incredible moments in TV, and Pleshette was honored to bring back her character.
Although she was working in the entertainment industry and had a busy career, Pleshette still found time to have a unique side job. From 1969 to 1980, she designed sheets for JP Stevens & Co. Her home must have had plenty of extra sheets for when guests would visit.
In her spare time, Pleshette reportedly wrote screenplays under a pen name, but no one knows what name she used. Therefore, few people know what scripts she wrote because she didn’t list them under Suzanne Pleshette. Surprisingly, she had the time to do all these things.
A Brief Retirement
Before landing the part on The Bob Newhart Show, Pleshette briefly retired from acting in 1968 after marrying her second husband. However, after about six months of sitting around the house, she started to grow bored, and her husband told her to go back to work.
Pleshette started to think about how she could return to acting without having to get up at 5 a.m. or go out of town for weeks on movie locations. She thought about what she could do best, and that was talking. Pleshette decided talk shows were her best bet.
Johnny Carson to the Rescue
Pleshette called up her agent and asked to get booked on Johnny Carson. His late-night talk show was the most popular at the time, and she wouldn’t have to wake up early for the appearance. Luckily, she could outtalk anyone, and the producers were interested.
Over the next decade, Pleshette had a few dozen appearances on Johnny Carson. Bob Newhart once said that he “was finding himself outtalked by Suzanne on set about 12 to 1,” but he wasn’t bothered by the phenomenon. Pleshette could even outtalk Carson.
Columbo Was Uncomfortable
Not everyone liked Peter Falk on the set of Columbo. When Pleshette guest-starred on the show, she said her experience was not entirely positive. She appeared in a Season 1 episode titled “Dead Weight,” but she wasn’t happy with Falk.
Pleshette had known Falk since she was 14 and said, “Peter was a bad boy on that show. Peter had a deal to direct in his contract. I don’t think they really wanted him to direct.” Falk stayed home the day they filmed the episode, which brought the show to a standstill.
Between a Falk and a Hard Place
Although she only appeared on one episode, Pleshette had a lot to say about her experience filming Columbo. Pleshette was disappointed by Falk’s decision to boycott the show because he was the main character. Everyone was relying on him, and they had to use a stand-in to continue filming.
Pleshette couldn’t wait around for Falk because she had another job, and it was the first time she needed the money. Universal execs asked if she knew he was going to stay home, but she had no clue. Falk put Pleshette in an uncomfortable position.
Patty Duke Is a What?!
When Pleshette took over for Anne Bancroft in Broadway’s The Miracle Worker, she didn’t have a pleasant experience. It was her first big show but starring alongside 14-year-old Patty Duke was a nightmare. She might have received positive reviews, but backstage she was miserable.
Duke was jealous that she didn’t get bumped up to the star dressing room when Bancroft left. Pleshette said she acted like a bratty teenager. When the two stars had lunch together before the show, Pleshette told Duke, “Don’t provoke me. I have a terrible temper.”
Anne Bancroft Wasn’t Happy
Bancroft stepped away from her role in The Miracle Worker because she was about to star in the play’s film adaptation. She told the show’s producers that she wanted to take a break from the stage before filming. Bancroft thought they would never find anyone who could replace her.
Well, they told Bancroft, “You can leave now; we have Suzanne Pleshette.” They basically ripped the clothes off her back to give them to Pleshette, which made Bancroft furious. She was also annoyed that Pleshette got great reviews as Annie Sullivan.
Not Afraid to Fail
When Pleshette was offered The Miracle Worker, she said she was “much too fragile,” and everyone laughed because that was far from true. She had seen Bancroft in the play and thought she could never live up to that performance, but something switched in her mind.
Pleshette was around 22 at the time and thought, “So what if I fall on my a**.” She said, “What’s this journey about? If you’re not willing to fail, then you’ll never be great.” Pleshette was not afraid to face her fears head-on and try new things.
Scared About Being Sued
In 1990, Pleshette starred as Leona Helmsley in The Queen of Mean. The TV movie was about real-life businesswoman Leona Helmsley and her husband’s cutthroat control of their empire. After Pleshette finished filming, she almost had a meeting with Helmsley.
However, Pleshette was hesitant because Helmsley was waiting to be sentenced for tax evasion. Pleshette was scared that Helmsley would ask about the material in the film and sue the film company. Helmsley also thought their meeting could impact her trial, so they never met.
She Took Control of Her Career
In the late ‘50s, Pleshette signed a deal with Warner Bros. to do two films a year. She was already a Broadway star, and unlike the other actors she worked with at Warner Bros., Pleshette didn’t want to be loaned out; she would pick what she wanted to do.
With each movie she filmed under her Warner Bros. contract, Pleshette’s salary kept increasing. She was in control of her career and would make even more money on projects between the films. It was a high point for her because Pleshette did things her own way.
Turning Down Palm Springs Weekend
During her contract with Warner Bros., Pleshette was cast in the film Palm Springs Weekend. However, she refused to do it because she thought it would hurt her career. A studio exec got annoyed and said “The sign outside says, ‘Warner Brothers’ not ‘Pleshette Brothers’!”
Pleshette eventually got her way, but she was forced to appear in Wall of Noise instead. The role in Palm Springs Weekend went to Stefanie Powers, who was so upset that she had to take Pleshette’s place. Powers refused to speak to her for years afterward.
The Voice That Set Her Apart
Pleshette is known for her husky voice, which she has had for most of her life. She said that people thought she was a man when she talked on the phone as a child. It complimented her quick humor and sarcastic, no-nonsense remarks.
One thing that made her voice a little raspier was that she smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for almost 40 years until she quit in 1997. Pleshette said her favorite cigarette brand was Paul Mall. Unfortunately, her years of smoking came back to haunt her.
Her Greatest Love
While filming a guest appearance on The Fugitive in 1963, Pleshette met and fell fiercely in love with the show’s star, David Janssen. He was still married, but his relationship was on the rocks, as he told Pleshette. She was finalizing her own divorce from Troy Donahue.
Even though he was married, Pleshette and Janssen began a three-month love affair. However, she decided to end things because he delayed filing for divorce. Although they were only together for a short time, Pleshette said he was one of her greatest loves.
Stepping In to Help
When John Ritter died in 2003, Pleshette was called in to help keep 8 Simple Rules afloat by playing Katey Sagal’s mother. Pleshette had known Ritter for years since his guest appearance on The Bob Newhart Show. She always made a point to befriend the guest stars.
Pleshette was only on three episodes of the series, but she was happy to step in to help. She was gratified to know that stars like Ritter made the sets of their own shows as welcoming as she did when she starred on The Bob Newhart Show.
Love After Loss
After her second husband, Tommy Gallagher, passed away in 2000, Pleshette received a call from an old friend. Tom Poston, who worked with Pleshette in 1959, reached out to give his condolences. The two had remained friends over the years, and both recently lost their spouses.
The two had a brief romance in 1959, but it wasn’t serious. After reconnecting in 2000, the two started dating and were married a year later. Pleshette said, “We commiserated with each other, and we ended up being married. I’m as happy as I’ve ever been.”
Her Last Role
One of Pleshette’s last on-screen roles was a guest appearance on Will & Grace. She played Karen’s estranged con-artist mom in three episodes. Pleshette’s low rasp made the perfect counterpart to Mullally’s squeaky voice. It was the perfect way to end her long career.
It took a big personality to make someone as irrepressible as Karen look like a trembling little girl. Pleshette enjoyed working with the Will & Grace cast for the two-part episode in 2002 and again in 2004. She was in her 60s at the time and ready to settle down.
A Sad Loss
Pleshette and her third Husband, Poston, had been friends for decades, but their marital bliss was cut short in 2007. Poston passed away on April 30, 2007, of respiratory failure. Their six years together were the happiest times in their lives, and they loved each other deeply.
The two were virtually inseparable until his death. When Poston died, Pleshette became a wealthy woman because he wasn’t known for being a good tipper. Pleshette said she buried him with a $20 bill to “tip the man at the pearly gates of Heaven.”
Making Light of a Sad Situation
In 2006, Pleshette was diagnosed with lung cancer while Poston was fighting his own medical issues. However, even while she was going through radiation and chemotherapy, Pleshette still had a wicked sense of humor and wrote a note to veteran Hollywood reporter, Army Archerd.
In her letter, Pleshette wrote, “Bad news; I lost all my hair. I look like sh*t; Tom has a catheter, and we have round-the-clock nurses, a walker, and a wheelchair. Good news; I’m saving a fortune on bikini waxes. Tom has lost his peripheral vision, so he doesn’t know.”
Gone Too Soon
Just eight months after Poston passed away, Pleshette died of respiratory failure in January 2008. She was just 12 days short of her 71st birthday. Although she caught and treated her lung cancer in time, Pleshette succumbed to other illnesses. Many people mourned her death.
Pleshette was remembered as being a down-to-earth person who loved to talk and tell her co-stars naughty stories. In everyone’s minds, she will always be Emily Hartley, the woman who changed the meaning of a sitcom wife. She was truly a revolutionary.
Fighting Till the End
A few months before Pleshette passed away, she was hospitalized for a pulmonary infection and pneumonia. A few weeks later, she appeared for the reunion of The Bob Newhart Show and arrived in a wheelchair. Pleshette had only been released from the hospital four days prior.
While she looked sick and fragile, she still had her quick wit. She made sure to tell the producers not to film her hands because of the IV bruises. Pleshette happily shared that she was cancer-free and was thrilled to reunite with her old friends.
A Star in Hollywood
On July 31, 2008, what would have been Pleshette’s 71st birthday, she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She requested that her star be placed in front of Frederick’s of Hollywood. Newhart, Arte Johnson, and Marcia Wallace spoke at the unveiling.
Her friends hoped she would make it to the ceremony, but she only had so much left in her. Newhart said, “Although she was quite sick, she was one of those people you thought would go on forever. If anyone could beat cancer, it was Suzy. She was an indomitable spirit.”
The Star That Got Away
After her death, Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss described Pleshette as the star who got away. He said, “When the old dream factory forgot how to manufacture domestic glamour, she had the goods, but at the wrong time.”
She created a legacy with Bob Newhart, but she never achieved the stardom she deserved. She came after Hollywood stopped making movies for the type of sophisticated female characters that she was born to play. However, Pleshette once said that her career was so long because she wasn’t always the star.
An Everlasting Legacy
In all senses of the word, Pleshette was a star. For some people, she seemed to be on every television, talk show, game show, and in every TV movie. Her bawdy sense of humor, love of dogs, men, cocktails, and cigarettes were what made her so special.
It’s hard to forget a woman like Suzanne Pleshette. When asked how she wanted to be remembered, she said, “As a good daughter, wife, and friend.” She might not have achieved the same level of stardom as other actresses from her time, but she carved out an important spot in Hollywood.