Remembering the wonderfully bawdy Suzanne Pleshette

Hal Boedeker
The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)

Suzanne Pleshette was a lot saltier than Emily Hartley. She'd be the person you'd want to sit next to a party because you were sure to hear some choice comments, delivered with sass.

Pleshette died Saturday at age 70 of respiratory failure. She had been treated for lung cancer two years ago.

She made movies ("The Birds," "Support Your Local Gunfighter"), TV movies ("Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean") and numerous guest-star shots ("Gunsmoke," "Columbo"). She played the mother of Karen (Megan Mullally) on "Will & Grace."

But Pleshette will always be most prized for Emily Hartley, the ingratiating wife on "The Bob Newhart Show." She reprised that role in the series finale of "Newhart." That show's conclusion, which aired in 1990, is still the most imaginative in TV history.

Pleshette met the press six years ago to promote another sitcom, "Good Morning, Miami." That NBC show was forgettable. Pleshette wasn't.

Time had given her this way-out-there vitality. With her deep voice, hearty laugh and intense stare, she could have taught the Golden Girls - or female impersonators - a thing or two. You might remember that ribald quality if you ever saw her chatting with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show."

She wasn't the glamorous young actress anymore; she was an earthy dame, an Auntie Mame who wasn't afraid to tell a dirty story.

In talking about the new show, Pleshette said, "I'm just here for the ride, whatever it is. I don't want to work too hard because I want to go home to daddy."

That was Tom Poston, who died in April. He was a familiar TV presence for "Newhart," "Mork & Mindy," "To Tell the Truth" and "The Steve Allen Show."

Poston and Pleshette had been involved romantically more than 40 years before when they acted in a Broadway play. They married others but remained friends. They acted together on "The Bob Newhart Show" - he was Bob's college roommate, and Emily despised him.

After they were both widowed, Poston and Pleshette reunited. They were married in 2001. That's what I'll remember about Pleshette: how happy she was to be with Poston at a party in 2002. They were a delightfully zany couple.

"My uncle delivered his oldest child," Pleshette said of Poston. "My cousin is his jeweler. We've been friends all these years."

The deaths of their spouses brought them together. She lost her husband, Tom Gallagher, in 2000.

"He was sick for six years," Pleshette said. "He had cancer, which he survived. He died of the E. coli bacteria from a hamburger. He was so brave. And Kay, Tom's wife, had Lou Gehrig's disease. Both catastrophic illnesses. Two vital, wonderful people. So we're so grateful for every moment."

Poston said he called when her husband died to commiserate. "We started seeing each other and ended up married and happy as I've ever been in my life," he said.

Pleshette said he hoped to work with Poston on "Good Morning, Miami."

"I'm hoping I wake up in bed with him instead of Bob Newhart," Pleshette said, referring to the famous ending of "Newhart." "We have to rehearse a lot first."

Pleshette feigned concern over playing a grandmother, then explained her practical approach to taking roles.

"I work for wardrobe," she said. "Whenever I need clothes, I take a job. If I get maybe like six changes, then I'll be a grandmother, I don't care."

In marrying Poston, she became the stepmother of three children. Poston said, "She has a son who's a lawyer and a daughter who's a doctor."

"And a daughter who's a waitress-singer," Pleshette said, finishing his thought. "He's got the best kids."

"The children knew her all these years, love her and are so happy she's their stepmom," Poston said.

Pleshette blithely told a story about taking that 33-year-old stepson to the tailor, a bawdy story that couldn't be repeated in a family newspaper. But then she was an unconventional speaker.

Consider what she did when she spoke at a tribute to the late Lew Wasserman, the Hollywood titan and her longtime friend. She was the lone woman giving a speech in a group that included former President Clinton, director Steven Spielberg and mogul Barry Diller.

"Darling, you know how shy I am," she said. "It's so hard for me to speak. I did mention bikini waxes. Maybe that wasn't the appropriate place for it, but it got a laugh. Not for Lew - I mean, he didn't get a bikini wax."

What do fans remember her for? "Leona Helmsley, `The Birds' and probably Newhart," Pleshette said. "And then those porno films that Tom and I have been doing. You asked if he was working, didn't you?"

Poston: "I had to give that up. I got makeup poisoning."

Pleshette: "It doesn't show, though, darling. OK, we're going home. We have to feed the dog."

And so they left a Hollywood party. She was the life of the party - and so different from Emily Hartley.

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