I ran into Suzanne Pleshette at Hollywood clubs and parties now and then throughout my almost twenty years out there in the 1980s and ‘90s. She came across in person like the wise cracking, cigarettes-and-whiskey-voiced, tough babe she sometimes played.
But I first met her around 1984, when I was called in to a TV audition with her for the big boys, not just the producers, writers and director, but the network honchos.
It must have been during my “hot” phase, because there was no preliminary audition with just the casting director, or even with the casting director and the show’s creators, pre-network.
It was a time when some people were actually looking for a TV vehicle for me to star in. But this was for a show Pleshette was to star in, and they had me audition for one of her love interests, as I remember it.
She was only five years older than me, according to her official bio, but in my memory she seemed to have been around a lot longer. Partly because I started acting professionally so late in life (around 40), and partly because I never did much theater work as an actor, since for me acting was my “day job” to support my writing, and I associated her with the kind of over-the-top Broadway personalities that were the opposite of my acting models—Brando, et. al.
Unfortunately for me, professionally, I didn’t watch much TV then, at least not TV shows. That hurt me in several ways, including my attitude of superiority around those who made their money in TV. After all, I thought, I’m a poet, which is as far from writing for money as you can get in our society, though there were periods in my life when I lived off the money I received for my poetry—grants, awards, etc.
But a TV writer/producer friend’s anger over my easy dismissal of TV shows, and “Hollywood” in general, made me look at that superior attitude and admit that TV and movies had been very good to me, paying my rent and putting food on the table for me and my kids many times.
Also, because I didn’t watch them, I was unaware of the great artistry and creative accomplishments of those doing the best work on TV in the 1970s and ‘80s. Now I know that included Suzanne Pleshette and her work with Bob Newhart.
Back then I only knew Newhart from his early record albums in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when he was, I believe, the first comic whose records outsold the popular music stars of the time. I recognized from those recordings that he was a very funny guy.
But I never watched the shows he had on the tube, like the Bob Newhart Show of the 1970s, so I didn’t know how subtle and refined Pleshette’s comic work could be when I entered a room full of suits and there she was.
The bit they were using for my audition was a comic scene. My best comic work, I knew from the little comedy I had done, was when I played the straight man, the guy who didn’t get the joke, or that the joke was on him.
I don’t remember anymore what the scene consisted of, I only remember that when I stepped into the center of the room with Pleshette, she was already working the suits, cracking wise, with that tobacco and booze tinged voice that reminded me of one of my aunts who always made me feel like I wasn’t in on the joke.
And that’s the way I felt at this audition. Pleshette was cracking the suits up, or at least getting them to smile, and I felt out of place, not only not in on the joke, but possibly the butt of it, only this wasn’t part of the scene, this was the preparation for it, and in my own over-the-top attempt to be part of the humor, I did the usual and made some inappropriate remark, maybe even at Pleshette’s expense, no matter how unintentional.
Despite the uncomfortable atmosphere all that created, everyone acted as if we were all just entertained to death as Suzanne and I settled into the beginning of the scene. But when I looked into her face I suddenly felt so wrong, so out of place, so not up to whatever was going on in that room that I couldn’t play the scene any way other than self-consciously, which, unless that’s what the character is supposed to be feeling, is the kiss of death at an audition,
They gave me a few more tries, because someone obviously wanted me for the role, but I just got worse and worse, thinking, I’m all wrong for this, I can’t do this, and also—egocentrically—this will never work because I look so much younger than this woman.
But I was aware enough to see that she was doing everything in her power to make it work, to put me at ease, unlike the earlier joking, and to help me not embarrass myself. I did anyway.
As far as I know that show never ran, or if it did I never heard of it. I went on to some minor triumphs and then lost that shot and turned to other ways of making a living out there, screenwriting, TV guest appearances, etc.
A few years after that audition, when my two older children, high school teenagers at the time, and I were shopping for Christmas trees, I had another experience that the news of Suzanne Pleshette’s death brought back to me.
My kids were at an age where no matter what kind of tree I got or how we trimmed it, each of them thought it was lame or didn’t work. So I suggested we each pick our own smallish tree and decorate them by ourselves. So we did. My daughter’s was just about perfect, matching colors, perfect balance, etc., while my son’s was totally punked out, and mine was randomly creative and/or totally solipsistic, depending on your point of view, or mine.
But before we brought them home and decorated them, as we were deciding which trees to get, an older man joined us in his own search for a tree and I recognized him as Tom Poston, one of my favorite comic actors from his early days with the Steve Allen Tonight show of the 1950s and early ‘60s that seemed so amazingly hip and funny I watched it religiously (after all, he had Kerouac on and all kinds of great jazz musicians, and himself had written a song that most of my jazz idols played).
I always let people whose work I dig know it. Not because I think it matters to them if some stranger likes their work, especially if they are as well known as a TV or movie star, but because I know how much it always meant to me, especially if it was in a time when things were slow, or I was being turned down for book deals or awards, or roles in movies or TV shows.
So I approached him and told him how much I loved his work. He seemed very shy, but also very pleased, and said, “I’m a big fan of your work as well.” I just assumed he was being polite, that somehow he had guessed I too acted on TV, so I tried to brush his compliment aside, but he mentioned the show he had seen me on.
That response kept me smiling for weeks, as at the time I was rapidly descending into debt because my acting career had dried up and the screenwriting one was going slowly.
I can see to this day, Poston’s sweet smile and shy demeanor as he thanked me for my compliment and returned it with his. But it wasn’t until yesterday, when I heard the news of Suzanne Pleshette’s death, that I learned they had married a several years ago, and that he too had passed a few years later.
That made me sad, but also happy for both of them, especially when the radio and TV news ran comic bits from the Newhart show of Pleshette doing her thing. I was stunned by how great she was, how subtle and honest, how complimentary her style was to Newhart’s, not anything like the Broadway babe she came across as in person and in her public image, or at least the one I had of her.
How great that these two wonderful creators of so many pleasant moments and memories for so many people found each other, no matter how late in life. Sorry they’re both gone now, but glad they were here.