5:30pm PT by Lesley Goldberg
'Big Bang Theory' Postmortem: EP Steve Molaro on the Future of Bob Newhart's Professor Proton
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Thursday's "The Proton Transmogrification" episode of The Big Bang Theory.]
The Force was with CBS' The Big Bang Theory on Thursday when the hit comedy teamed with Lucasfilm for what turned out to be an incredibly emotional Star Wars episode.
The episode, a tie-in with May the Fourth (aka Star Wars Day), centered on Sheldon (Jim Parsons) learning of the passing of Arthur Jeffries, aka Professor Proton (played by Emmy winner Bob Newhart), his childhood hero.
While the gang planned to gather to celebrate Star Wars Day -- a Death Star cake! Movie marathons! -- Sheldon, who has already lost both his father and grandfather, struggles with the good professor's passing. Sheldon opts to skip Proton's funeral (Germs! Star Wars Day!). That night, however, he has a dream in which Professor Proton visits him from the hereafter -- as Obi-Wan Kenobi, with Newhart donning the robes from the Star Wars character made famous by Alec Guinness.
The Star Wars-ian visit helps Sheldon to open himself up and see the people in his life (ahem, Leonard) as a family. "Just make sure you appreciate those who are still there for you," the good professor tells Sheldon.
"It seemed like we've never really seen Sheldon deal with grief like that, and when combined with Star Wars, where Bob could come back as Sheldon's personal Oh-bi-Wan, it allowed us to tie two really cool events together: Star Wars Day and the passing of Professor Proton," showrunner Steve Molaro tells The Hollywood Reporter of the decision to kill off the character.
While the writing may have been on the wall for Professor Proton -- Arthur's pacemaker suffered a malfunction during his first appearance on the show -- the door isn't closed for Newhart to return to Big Bang.
"Even though he's passing away, using this device, he never really leaves the show, because he can live on in Sheldon's conscience forever," Molaro explains, noting that because of the way in which he appears to Sheldon, Arthur will always be clad as the Jedi Master. While there are no current plans for Newhart to return -- his arc was always envisioned as three episodes -- Molaro says should producers find a compelling story, Newhart could certainly return.
"I don't think the character that Bob plays will be happy about that because the robes weird him out, but that's how it would work," Molaro says with a laugh about Arthur's less than thrilled realization that he appeared to Sheldon as his own personal Jedi. "But the good news is Professor Proton doesn't disappear; he can be on the show in a different form, like Obi-Wan is in the movies."
Molaro says Newhart was on board with Arthur's fate from the start, with producers giving the legendary actor a "quick primer" on Star Wars that included explaining who Obi-Wan was and how he came back to Luke as part of the Force -- and why the story line would all make sense for Star Wars Day. "He picked it up pretty quickly and was very excited about it -- even with what happens to Professor Proton," he notes.
"We knew that Bob was coming back, and I had it in the back of my mind that maybe Professor Proton might move on to another place," Molaro says. "Lucasfilm called us and said, 'Star Wars Day is coming up, which is May the Fourth -- the joke being May the Fourth be with you. That's a big day for fans to celebrate Star Wars and watch all the movies. We realized that that this might be an opportunity to mix both stories and come up with something special."
For his part, Newhart is more than happy to return to the comedy.
"I see him coming back from time to time when Sheldon has a problem and he goes to Professor Proton to ask what he should do," he tells THR. "I talked to [EPs] Chuck [Lorre], Steve and Bill [Prady], and they had this idea, and I said it sounded like it would go beyond three episodes."
The actor, who was shown photos of Obi-Wan before the episode, was happy to step into the trademark robes.
"Once you get into the actual robes, it has a strange sensation to it," he said with a laugh of the experience. "I'm about as far away as Alec Guinness as you can get! I don't know how wise any of Arthur's suggestions, are but it's great to play off Jim."
As for how Sheldon will handle the loss going forward, Molaro says the character will continue to approach growth and change with his typical baby steps. (With Professor Proton/Obi-Wan also noting that he'll be here when ever Sheldon needs him.)
"In this moment, he has a greater appreciation for those around him, particularly Leonard. It's not a massive change in Sheldon. It's all small increments," he says, noting it won't have a "direct impact" on Sheldon's relationship with Amy. "What's great about Sheldon is he's a character that's capable of showing true caring and love for someone, and undoing all of that within the same sentence."
In terms of the show's re-creation of Dagobah -- the remote world of swamps and forest that served as a refuge for Yoda during his exile -- Lucasfilm VFX guru Eddie Pasquarello tells THR that they're optimistic they can reteam with Big Bang for more Star Wars fun.
"We know Episode 7 is coming so maybe their reaction to that hopefully will be really great!" he says.
What did you think of The Big Bang Theory's surprising Star Wars episode? Hit the comments below with your thoughts. The Big Bang Theory airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.