Bob Newhart’s ‘By Far’ Best Role Was Opposite Will Ferrell
Bob Newhart will go down in comedy history as the guy who starred in three hit sitcoms named after himself — The Bob Newhart Show, then Newhart, followed up by the titular Bob. But according to the 94-year-old comic himself, none of those parts — Bob Hartley, Dick Louden or Bob McKay — can measure up to his defining role: Papa Elf in the holiday classic Elf.
“Without question, the part of Papa Elf outranks, by far, any role I may have ever played,” Newhart said in an email interview with CNN. Papa Elf, of course, is the kindly creature who raises Will Ferrell’s human Buddy Elf in his North Pole home before Buddy travels back to New York to meet his real father. “My agent sent me the script and I fell in love with it.”
Newhart told his wife Ginnie, who passed away earlier this year, that Elf was “going to be another Miracle on 34th Street, where people watch it every year.” Flip around your cable dial over the next few weeks and you’ll realize Newhart was Nostradamus on that one.
But filming the role wasn’t easy. Although Newhart and Ferrell “would always break each other up,” the camera techniques necessary to portray the massive size difference between Papa and Buddy meant the two actors couldn’t look each other in the eye. The forced perspective trick involves placing the actors far apart to make one look bigger or smaller by angling the camera so it appears they’re close together.
“For example, in the scene where Will and I were riding the tricycle, Will sat in the front, while I sat 10 feet behind him,” Newhart recounted. “They had an actor directly behind Will who was hidden, but his hands on Will’s shoulders. This made it look like I was elf-sized.”
Newhart has shared the film with generations of his own family. “I took several of my grandkids along with my wife and my daughter and went to a screening of it,” Newhart told WTOP last year. “We were laughing and having a great time. Jimmy Caan was there with his wife. I’m pretty much all in the front part of the movie, so at my final scene, I got up and started to leave and said, ‘Well, that’s all I’m in.’ He laughed!”
Is Elf the last great holiday film? Newhart thinks so. “In my opinion, there has not been anything like it in the interim,” he told CNN. “People wanted to believe in it. People need that charming, wonderful thing about the Christmas spirit and its way of powering the sleigh.”