CHICAGO — Here, ladies and gentlemen, is Bob Newhart:
“Somebody called me up and they said, ‘Look, Don Rickles is looking for a best friend … and none of us wanna do it. Would you?’
“And I said, ‘How long?’
“They said, ‘A year at the most.’”
Bob Newhart and Don Rickles were friends for nearly 60 years and that unlikely pairing has been captured, the above joke included, in the latest film from Judd Apatow, the acclaimed director/producer of such hit movies as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “The King of Staten Island,” and TV’s “Freaks and Geeks.”
This movie, co-directed by Michael Bonfiglio, is titled “Bob and Don: A Love Story.” It is only 20 minutes long and playing not in theaters or on any streaming service. But it is on The New Yorker magazine’s website, accompanied by a fine story by Bruce Handy, in which Apatow tells him, “I don’t think there are two comedians that most comedians like more than Don Rickles and Bob Newhart. They’re just completely beloved characters. You might not notice it on the surface, but their influence is very deep in how people try to be funny.”
“Bob and Don: A Love Story” is, flat out, one of the best movies of this or any year, an affectionate and admiring film that entertainingly uses archival footage, home movies, selected performance bits and interviews to tell its story. Filmed after the deaths of Don Rickles (in 2017) and his wife Barbara (2021), it features recent interviews with both Newharts, Bob and Ginnie. Children Mindy Rickles and Tim Newhart offer charming anecdotes and enlightening observations.
There are ample examples of the wildly different styles of the two men. Even those too young to have seen and watched and laughed along with Newhart and Rickles in their prime will delight in these clips and will likely dive deep into the hundreds of internet repositories of their lengthy careers.
Here, ladies and gentlemen, is Don Rickles, on the difference between his and Newhart’s comedic styles:
“Well, yeah. Bob’s a brainy kind of comedian and I’m a kind of guy that gets laughs.”
Newhart, Chicago born and bred, was a major star from the start. His debut comedy album, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” basically a series of monologues with him playing straight man talking to an unheard person on the phone, was No. 1 on the Billboard album charts. That led quickly to nightclub shows, which started at Mister Kelly’s, the legendary Rush Street spot, Las Vegas shows and two of the most popular sitcoms in television history.
Rickles, a native of Queens, N.Y., had a harder road, climbing from rough and tumble clubs with what was called “insult comedy,” as he prowled stages addressing audience members derogatorily, making fun of their clothes, looks or ethnicities. He would become a favorite guest on the late-night talk show circuit in a career that was dotted with some memorable movie roles (“Casino” and as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the “Toy Story” films) and a number of failed TV ventures.
Ladies and gentlemen, here’s an old Bob Newhart joke from this movie:
“Don has not done that well in television. He’s had four series now.
“The last one, a couple of Don’s, received a minus-four Nielsen rating. This means not only was no one watching, but several people without TV sets had heard about the show and said if they got one they wouldn’t watch it.”
Newhart and his wife, Virginia “Ginnie,” first met Don and Barbara Rickles in the early 1960s when both men were performing in Las Vegas, Newhart the main showrooms and Rickles in smaller lounges. But they clicked and over the next decades they spent a great deal of time together, frequently traveling the world on vacations.
Though not included in this film, Rickles once told Variety, “We’re apples and oranges. I’m a Jew, he’s a Catholic. He’s low-key, I’m a yeller. But we share the same values, marriage, children and grandchildren. We’ve traveled all over the world together with our wives, and in all that time we’ve never had a serious argument. So many things happen, there’s so much sadness. But we can laugh together.”
In the wake of Rickles’ death, Newhart told an interviewer, “He made me laugh and I made him laugh. We never explored too much why the friendship worked — it just did … He was called the Merchant of Venom, but the truth was he was just the kindest man. Don didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
As lively and laugh-filled as is this film, it cannot escape the shadow of the inevitable. Ginnie comes close to tears talking about the death of her friend Barbara in 2021. Ginnie died in April of this year. Bob Newhart, though moving gingerly, appears very sound of mind and humor and heart in his 94th year.
Here, ladies and gentleman, is Bob Newhart:
“I wish everybody had the friendship that Ginnie and I and Barbara and Don had.”