Sunday, July 24, 2016

Suzanne Pleshette: The "Next Liz Taylor" Who Became TV's Coolest Comedienne

Suzanne Pleshette as a sex-crazed society girl,
in John O' Hara's "A Rage to Live."
Elizabeth Taylor won her first Oscar as a sex-crazed
call girl in John O'Hara's "Butterfield 8."
There have been a million “new” Marilyns—studios thought that Monroe was so manufactured they could just construct their own MM. By contrast, Hollywood offered only a few “new” Liz Taylors. Though Taylor’s perfect beauty and swift rise to stardom set her apart from mere starlets, Hollywood couldn’t help itself in trying to create another Hollywood Cleopatra. First up was Joan Collins, aptly dubbed “the poor man’s Elizabeth Taylor.” Millie Perkins big moment, starring in The Diary of Anne Frank, had her looking more like National Velvet. Next up vying for Liz’ limelight was Suzanne Pleshette. 

Suzanne's witty appearances on Johnny Carson's show won her
 the role of Emily on "The Bob Newhart Show."
Audiences remember Suzanne Pleshette for her comedic finesse on The Bob Newhart Show. The classic ‘70s sitcom finally allowed Suzanne to shine in all her smart, sexy, warm, funny glory. Pleshette was a popular actress from the age of 20 for nearly 50 years.

Suzanne Pleshette, with her dark good looks, husky voice, and self-assured demeanor, found work on stage, television, and film from the get-go. Pleshette came close to big-time stardom twice. Suzanne was nearly picked to play Broadway’s Gypsy, opposite Ethel Merman. While the producers thought Pleshette was the better actress, they decided on Sandra Church, who was a trained singer. Later, Dick Van Dyke asked her to play his TV wife, Laura Petrie, but Suzanne was already committed to a possible series for Norman Lear. Van Dyke then proposed TV matrimony to Mary Tyler Moore and Pleshette’s Lear pilot went nowhere.

"When I was 4," Pleshette said in 1994, "I was answering the phone, and (the callers) thought I was my father. So I often got quirky roles because I was never the conventional ingenue.”

Watch the birdies, Annie! Pleshette in "The Birds."
During the ‘60s, Pleshette seemed to guest-star on every hit TV show. But Suzanne hoped for movie stardom, and starred in a number of plush big-screen soaps, like Rome Adventure and A Rage to Live. Her biggest break was when Hitchcock cast Suzanne as the schoolteacher and Tippi Hedren’s love rival in The Birds. Even though Pleshette intrigued audiences as torch-carrying Annie—her feathered co-stars and Hitchcock discovery Hedren got all the press and screen time. Pleshette’s husky voice is a joy to listen to compared to Tippi’s flat delivery. In Hitchcock’s world, a smoldering brunette, even with Liz Taylor-esque hair and makeup, is no match for an iceberg blonde! Pleshette, a method actress who studied with famed acting teacher Sanford Meisner, said much later, “Hitch didn’t know what to do with me.” 

Suzanne went on a "Rome Adventure" and all she won was Troy Donahue!
Liz on her own Rome adventure!
Rome Adventure gives Suzanne the star treatment, only to upstage her with Angie Dickinson as the slinky divorcee who steals heartthrob Troy Donahue away. In real life, Pleshette won Donahue, who turned out to be the booby prize. Donahue, a teen idol with a big drinking and drug problem, and very little talent, was Suzanne Pleshette’s version of marrying Eddie Fisher. During this time, Elizabeth Taylor was ditching Fisher and having her own Rome adventure with Richard Burton!

The closest Suzanne Pleshette came to playing an Elizabeth Taylor-type role was her turn in A Rage to Live. The book was based on John O’Hara’s novel, who had also penned Butterfield 8, which was made into a super-soaper starring Liz. Both have O’Hara high-class nymphomaniacs as protagonists. Male characters were made crazy by these wanton women. Tears and tragedy ensue as the price to pay for the earlier soft-core antics. Suzanne rarely looked lovelier on the big-screen, playing the high society tramp in no-nonsense, low-key Pleshette style. Maybe that’s why Suzanne was made more for the small screen. Elizabeth Taylor knew when to turn on the pyrotechnics, especially if it was for igniting wooden vehicles like Butterfield 8 and Raintree County.

Pleshette wore plush falls in her starlet days.
Liz ALWAYS loved big hair!
Pleshette tried to establish herself on the big screen, but guest-starring roles on such popular series like The Wild, Wild West, The Fugitive, and The Invaders were becoming more frequent than movie roles. The best of which, If It’s Tuesday, It’s Must Be Belgium, showed Pleshette’s flair for comedy and what was around the corner in the ‘70s.

Liz with big hat instead of big hair!
Suzanne in a straw hat, so popular in the '60s.
Suzanne Pleshette came from a New York City showbiz family—her father was a theatre owner and her mother, a dancer. Pleshette had plenty of anecdotes and made a great talk show guest. I remember my parents—particularly my mother—enjoyed watching Suzanne trade quips about her showbiz life with Johnny Carson. My Mom wasn’t the only one. The producers of the upcoming The Bob Newhart Show caught a Tonight Show episode with Newhart sharing Carson’s sofa with Pleshette. They were so struck by their chemistry, that they cast Suzanne as Emily Hartley, Bob’s witty, level-headed wife. A star was belatedly born. The Bob Newhart Show ran for six seasons and Pleshette received two Emmy nominations.

Silver foxy lady: Suzanne Pleshette in mid-career.
Even after the show ended, Suzanne Pleshette’s Emily Hartley was considered television’s “perfect wife,” right up there with Laura Petrie, the role that Pleshette had to turn down a decade before. Pleshette continued working, often the best thing about most of the TV movies, mini-series, or guest spots she appeared in the next three decades.
Elizabeth Taylor found meaning as AIDS activist in later years.

After the Troy Donahue fiasco, Pleshette’s 32 year marriage to Texas millionaire Tommy Gallagher ended only with his death in 2000. She frequently mentioned him with great humor on talk shows, reciting ribbing but loving poems about their life together.

Pleshette & Poston rekindled their romance in 2001.
One more romance came into Pleshette’s life that cinema sister Liz Taylor would have certainly thought romantic. She reunited with costar Tom Poston, with whom she had appeared on Broadway and enjoyed a romance back in 1959. They remained friends through the years, with many personal connections in common. Both had recently lost their spouses and rekindled their romance. Pleshette and Poston married in 2001.

In 2006, when Suzanne was fighting cancer and Poston with health issues of his own, Pleshette’s bawdy humor helped. Pleshette sent this note in Oct. 2006 to veteran Hollywood reporter Army Archerd:
I lost all of my hair
I look like shit
Tom has a catheter in his dickie
We have round-the-clock nurses, a walker and a wheelchair
I'm saving a fortune on bikini waxes
Tom has lost all peripheral vision so he doesn't know
At his age we're just glad he
has a lump in his pants
We're madly in love
And we feel lucky.

Old age ain't for sissies: Taylor, Poston, and Pleshette at a benefit in 2001.
"He was such a wonderful man. He had fun every day of his life," Pleshette said after Tom Poston died in 2007.

Like many stars of her era, Pleshette was a heavy smoker throughout her life and was diagnosed with cancer in 2006. Pleshette claims she was cured, though part of a lung had to be removed. In the fall of 2007, Pleshette reunited with the Newhart cast for a TV Land tribute in a wheelchair. Frail but funny, this was Pleshette’s last public appearance.

Despite serious pulmonary issues that nearly prevented her from participating, Pleshette put on her gregarious game face:  "I'm cancer-free, my (breasts) are great and ... I'm extremely, extremely rich!"

She passed away Jan 19, 2008, of respiratory failure, less than two weeks before her 71st birthday on Jan. 31.

Suzanne loved her rebel, Steve McQueen in "Nevada Smith."
Liz loved her rebel: with James Dean while filming "Giant."
When asked in a Emmy TV Legends interview how she would like to be remembered, Suzanne Pleshette replied, “…as a good daughter, wife, and friend.”

Pleshette, like Liz, loved dogs, often telling wry anecdotes
about them on talk shows.
Suzanne Pleshette was a star, who to this baby boomer kid, seemed to be on every television, talk, or game show, as well as TV movie, when I was growing up. I remember seeing one of her early big-screen efforts on the local TV afternoon movies. It was Nevada Smith with Steve McQueen. I recall saying to Mom that Suzanne looked just like Liz Taylor; Mom thought Pleshette had a better figure—well, yeah! And Pleshette seemed infinitely more practical. Still, there was something about Liz, who at the time was divorcing and remarrying Richard Burton. The two brunette beauties seemed to share a bawdy sense of humor, love of dogs, men, cocktails and cigarettes, and a realistic view of show business. Some stars, like Elizabeth Taylor, seemed remote and unreal, almost a myth. That changed later, with Taylor’s AIDS activism and openness about her addictions. Others were familiar faces, like Suzanne Pleshette, who seemed like a particularly fun friend who stopped by to visit, by way of your television.


  1. Hi Rick!
    I really didn't know much about Pleshette before reading your informative piece here! I remember almost exclusively from "The Birds", but when I was growing up, she DID seem to be on TV a lot. I think I used to get her confused with husky-voiced Elizabeth Ashley.
    The last thing I saw her in was the TV movie about Leona Helmsley...BOY! was she good in that!
    Love those great match-up shots of Taylor and Pleshette through their careers. This was such a lovely tribute to an actress who always seemed like a nice person.

  2. Thanks, Ken! Pleshette and Taylor shared similar styles during those crazy '60s. But like most women, Suzanne toned it down in the '70s...Liz--never!

  3. What a great piece! I love and miss them both - Suzie and Liz. Their films are among my all-time favorites. Thank you for this lovely article with the side-by-side pics that definitely point up the similarities between the two. Uncanny at times! Again, many thanks. I'm so glad fans like you are making sure Suzanne is not forgotten.

    1. Hi, they both had their charms, for sure! And if Suzanne had come along in the studio system, I think she would have been a great movie star for Warners... a next generation Ida Lupino!
      Suzanne and Liz, gutsy gals! Cheers, Rick