Friday, January 4, 2019

Top TV Moments: Suzanne Pleshette

To classic TV fans, the dark-eyed, husky-voiced Suzanne Pleshette will always be associated with the series that made her a household name. But remove The Bob Newhart Show from her IMDB entry and you are left with dozens of rich and varied performances also worth discovering. 

She has a handful of high-profile credits outside of television, most notably as Anne Brancroft’s replacement in the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker, and in the Alfred Hitchcock classic The Birds. But TV is what kept her busy, beginning in 1957 with her first professional credit, in an episode of the Barry Sullivan series Harbormaster. I couldn’t find a copy, so we’ll have to start our salute four years later.

Dr. Kildare (1961)
Young, vibrant Julie dabbles in art and theater, still trying to figure out which path she wants to pursue when she is diagnosed with leukemia. “A Shining Image” is the first of Suzanne Pleshette’s three appearances on this landmark medical series, all of which are worth seeking out. I chose this one for the wonderful scene with Pleshette and a priest played by John Fiedler, later one of Dr. Hartley’s group patients on The Bob Newhart Show

Route 66 (1960)
I haven’t written much about Route 66 in this blog, but that’s not for lack of interest or appreciation. I’ll try to remedy that in the coming year. For now, I can say that “The Strengthening Angels” is a typically memorable first-season episode with impeccable credentials – script by Stirling Silliphant, direction by Arthur Hiller, and a guest performance by Suzanne Pleshette that may be my favorite of her non-Newhart moments.

Lottie Montana is a bit of a mystery for much of the story – she flees a tent revival meeting in pouring rain, hops into Tod and Buz’s Corvette and pleads to be taken away, leaving her young daughter behind. When the sheriff catches up to them, he charges Lottie with murder. Is there more to the story? You bet. When you first see Pleshette, you may be taken aback at how much she resembles Elizabeth Taylor. 

The Fugitive (1964)
Eleanor Burnett, an old friend of Dr. Kimble’s who believes in his innocence, may have found the one-armed man. Will “World’s End” mark the end of Kimble’s flight? This was a season two highlight because of the palpable chemistry between David Janssen and Suzanne Pleshette. According to Ed Robertson’s book The Fugitive Recaptured, before Janssen’s untimely passing there was talk of the couple costarring in a series. We can only wonder what might have been. 

The Wild Wild West (1965)
Suzanne Pleshette appears in the pilot episode “Night of the Inferno,” as a former paramour of James West who may or may not be helping a Mexican revolutionary start a war with the United States. It’s a solid first outing for a successful series, with Pleshette well cast as a formidable frenemy. She sets the bar high for all of West’s future conquests over the next four seasons. 

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1970)
Of all the one-episode romances for Tom Corbett in this series’ three seasons, Valerie Bessinger may be the one that cut the deepest when it ended. “Hello, Miss Bessinger, Goodbye” features Suzanne Pleshette as a bohemian of means who charms young Eddie and enchants Eddie’s dad.

Along Came a Spider (1970)
This is pretty florid melodrama, and viewers may disagree about whether there’s one too many story twists at the end. But while it’s on you’ll definitely be along for the ride. Pleshette plays a college student who has a meet-cute with a dashing professor, and then frames him for murder. There’s a lot more to it but the less you know the better. As with many made-for-TV movies from this era, half the fun is spotting all the familiar faces in the cast, including Richard Anderson, Virginia Gregg and Comfort TV favorite Brooke Bundy

The Bob Newhart Show (1972)
It’s hard to believe anyone went out on Saturday nights in the 1970s, when television offered moments with Mary Richards, Hawkeye Pierce, Archie Bunker, Carol Burnett, and Bob and Emily Hartley. This classic sitcom provided a perfect showcase for Newhart’s subdued comic gifts, and the sassy, sexy Pleshette made the scenes in the Hartley apartment as memorable as Bob’s group psychology sessions. Having recently watched a slew of situation comedy episodes from the early 1970s, I can tell you that this series is aging more gracefully than just about any of its contemporaries. 

Suzanne Pleshette is Maggie Briggs (1984)
I don’t know if that billing was her idea or the network’s, but it didn’t generate enough interest to keep the show around very long. Pleshette received co-creator credit for this sitcom, in which she played a tough veteran news reporter forced to write fluff pieces for a newspaper’s lifestyle section. It failed for the usual reasons – uninspired writing, a nondescript supporting cast – but for anyone like me who always thought Suzanne Pleshette would have made a perfect Lois Lane, it’s a hint of what might have been. And I’d still rather watch it than the Murphy Brown revival. 

Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean (1990)
There was a time when hotel magnate Leona Helmsley was as infamous in the tabloids as any Kardashian. This made for TV biopic follows her rise from ambitious real estate broker to the most hated woman in Manhattan. The casting of Pleshette was more flattering than Helmsley deserved, even with the caked-on clown makeup she wears throughout the film. It was not a role that called for subtlety, but Pleshette is up to the task. The “wet lettuce” scene ranks with the wire hangers scene in Mommie Dearest for over-the-top histrionics. 

Newhart (1990)
I presume we no longer need spoiler alerts for Pleshette’s brief but unforgettable appearance in this series’ final episode. There is still some debate over whose idea it was for Dick Loudon to wake up as Bob Hartley, and whether that finale does a disservice to a series that ran for eight seasons; I always wonder what Mary Frann was thinking when the studio audience erupted at the first glimpse of Suzanne Pleshette. But for many classic TV fans it remains the best final scene in sitcom history.


  1. Mr. Hofstede, have you seen the 1985 telefilm "Kojak: The Belarus File"? Suzanne Pleshette was in that one.

  2. I love Suzanne Pleshette! I always think first of her 1960s films, including personal favorites THE BIRDS and THE POWER. But she was great in THE FUGITIVE episode you mentioned and in an episode of THE INVADERS (called something like "The Mutant").

  3. She was also quite good in a season 1 Columbo episode called "Dead Weight" with Eddie Albert.