Hand color tinted photo of Suzanne Pleshette
Suzanne Pleshette (January 31, 1937 – January 19, 2008) was an American actress, on stage, screen and television.
After beginning her career in theatre, she began appearing in films in the early 1960s, such as Rome Adventure (1962) and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). She later appeared in various television productions, often in guest roles, and played the role of Emily Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show from 1972 until 1978, receiving Emmy Award nominations for her work.
She continued acting until 2004, and died from respiratory failure as a result of lung cancer in 2008.
Pleshette was born in Brooklyn Heights, New York City, of Russian heritage. Her mother, Geraldine (née Kaplan), was a dancer and artist who performed under the stage name Geraldine Rivers. Her father, Eugene Pleshette, was a stage manager, network executive and manager of the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn. She graduated from Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts and then attended Syracuse University for one semester before transferring to Finch College.
Reviewers described her appearance and demeanor as sardonic and her voice as sultry.
Pleshette began her career as a stage actress. She made her Broadway debut in Meyer Levin’s 1957 play Compulsion, adapted from his novel inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case. Two years later she was featured in the comedy Golden Fleecing starring Tom Poston, who eventually would become her third husband. That same year, she was one of two finalists for the role of Louise/Gypsy in the original production of Gypsy. In his autobiography, the play’s author Arthur Laurents states, “It came down to between Suzanne Pleshette and Sandra Church. Suzanne was the better actress, but Sandra was the better singer. We went with Sandra.” In February 1961, she replaced Anne Bancroft opposite 14-year-old Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker which debuted to rave reviews.
Pleshette’s first screen role was in the episode “Night Rescue” (December 5, 1957) of the CBS adventure/drama television series, Harbourmaster, starring Barry Sullivan and Paul Burke. Her other early screen credits include The Geisha Boy, Rome Adventure, Fate Is the Hunter, and Youngblood Hawke, but she was most recognized at that time for her role of schoolteacher Annie Hayworth opposite Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic suspense film The Birds.
She later worked with Steve McQueen in the 1966 western drama film Nevada Smith, was nominated for a Laurel Award for her starring performance in the comedy If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, and co-starred with James Garner in a pair of films, the drama Mister Buddwing and the western comedy Support Your Local Gunfighter.
Pleshette provided the voices of Yubaba and Zeniba in the English dub of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s Academy Award-winning film Spirited Away and the voice of Zira in Disney’s The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride.
Her early television appearances included Playhouse 90, Have Gun – Will Travel, One Step Beyond, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Channing, Ben Casey, Naked City, Wagon Train, and Dr. Kildare, for which she was nominated for her first Emmy Award. She guest-starred more than once as different characters in each of these 1960s TV series: Route 66, The Fugitive, The Invaders, The F.B.I., and The Name of the Game.
Pleshette was one of the stars of the popular CBS sitcom The Bob Newhart Show (1972–1978) for all six seasons, and was nominated twice for the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. She reprised her role of Emily Hartley in the memorable final episode of a subsequent comedy series, Newhart, in which viewers discovered that the entire series had been her husband Bob’s dream when he awakens next to Pleshette in the bedroom set from the earlier series.
Her 1984 situation comedy, Suzanne Pleshette is Maggie Briggs, was cancelled after seven episodes. In 1989, she played the role of Christine Broderick in the NBC drama, Nightingales, which only lasted one season. In 1990, Pleshette portrayed Manhattan hotelier Leona Helmsley in the television movie Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean, which garnered her Emmy and Golden Globe Award nominations. In addition, she starred opposite Hal Linden in the 1994 sitcom The Boys Are Back.
She had a recurring role in Good Morning, Miami, as Mark Feuerstein’s grandmother Claire Arnold and played the mother of Katey Sagal’s character in the ABC sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter following John Ritter’s death, and appeared as the estranged mother of Megan Mullally’s character Karen Walker in three episodes of Will & Grace. The role would prove to be her last.
Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
A native New Yorker, Suzanne Pleshette had already experienced a full career on stage and screen by 1971 when TV producers saw her on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and they noticed a certain chemistry between Suzanne and another guest, Bob Newhart. She was soon cast as wife to Newhart’s character, and the series ran for six seasons from 1972 to 1978 as part of CBS television’s Saturday night lineup. Pleshette’s down-to-earth but elegant manner was caught during an anecdote that Carson was relating to her about working with a farm tractor in Nebraska. When he asked her, “Have you ever ridden on a tractor?” she replied smoothly, “Johnny, I’ve never even been in a Chevrolet.”
Pleshette’s 1964 marriage to her Rome Adventure and A Distant Trumpet co-star Troy Donahue ended acrimoniously after just eight months. Her second husband was Texas oilman Tom Gallagher, to whom she was wed from 1968 until his death from lung cancer on January 21, 2000. She suffered a miscarriage during her marriage to Gallagher, and the couple were childless. Asked about children in an October 2000 interview, Pleshette stated: “I certainly would have liked to have had Tommy’s children. But my nurturing instincts are fulfilled in other ways. I have a large extended family; I’m the mother on every set. So if this is my particular karma, that’s fine.” In 2001, she married Bob Newhart’s former Newhart co-star Tom Poston. They were married until his death from respiratory failure in Los Angeles on April 30, 2007.
She was the cousin of the actor John Pleshette.
Illness and death
On August 11, 2006, her agent Joel Dean announced that Pleshette was being treated for lung cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. On August 14, 2006, New York Newsday reported that Dean claimed the cancer was the size of “a grain of sand” when it was found during a routine X-ray, that the cancer was “caught very much in time,” that she was receiving chemotherapy as an outpatient, and that Pleshette was “in good spirits.” She was later hospitalized for a pulmonary infection and developed pneumonia, causing her to be hospitalized for an extended period. She arrived at a Bob Newhart Show cast reunion in September 2007 in a wheelchair, causing concern about her health, although she insisted that she was “cancer free” (she was seated in a regular chair during the actual telecast). During an interview in USA Today given at the time of the reunion, Pleshette stated that she had been released four days earlier from the hospital where, as part of her cancer treatment, a part of one of her lungs had been removed.
Pleshette died in the early evening of January 19, 2008, of respiratory failure at her Los Angeles home. She was 70 years old, twelve days short of her 71st birthday. She received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Television on January 31, 2008. On the January 22 edition of Entertainment Tonight, her former co-star and longtime friend Marcia Wallace announced she would be attending the ceremony on Pleshette’s behalf. Pleshette received the walk’s 2,355th star. Bob Newhart, Arte Johnson, and Marcia Wallace spoke at the star’s unveiling, which had been planned before Pleshette’s death. Tina Sinatra accepted the star on Pleshette’s behalf. Others in attendance included Rod Taylor, Peter Falk, Dick Van Dyke and Tippi Hedren, her co-star from The Birds.
Her remains were interred at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.