Tom Poston, master of sidekicks, dies


Tom Poston, the comedian and actor who was nationally recognized for his long run on "To Tell the Truth" and his comic turns on "The Bob Newhart Show," died at his home Monday in Los Angeles after a brief illness. He was 85.

During the 1950s and '60s, Poston was ubiquitous on quiz and panel shows. Beginning with guest appearances on "The Tonight Show" when Steve Allen hosted it, he was a popular talk-show guest. He won an Emmy for performing on "The Steve Allen Show," a stint he continued for four years.

Poston also was a recognizable comic actor. He played the grouchy neighbor on "Mork & Mindy" but he particularly jelled with Newhart. His guest spots on "The Bob Newhart Show," when he played Bob's low-brow college chum, Peeper Murdock, who inspired the normally straight-laced Bob to "Animal House" antics, were popular episodes. When Newhart launched a new comedy series in 1982, Poston was cast as George Utley, his dull-witted sidekick whose loony observations packed wisdom. His slack-eyed look and slow-talking style were a hilarious combination, particularly when he punctuated them with inspired observations.

Poston was reportedly originally offered the role of Maxwell Smart in "Get Smart," but turned it down.

Similarly, Poston shone as a comic sidekick for Tim Conway's Derk Dorf character, and made memorable appearances as Mr. Looney, the school custodian, on "Family Matters." In 1995, he joined "Grace Under Fire" as Floyd, Russell's (Dave Thomas) odd father. He teamed with Howie Mandel in the short-lived 1990 Fox series "Good Grief" a comedy set behind the scenes at a mortuary. Poston occasionally appeared in TV longforms, like the daffy 1986 CBS miniseries "Fresno."

While best known for his comedic TV appearances, he also did dramatic turns in such shows as "The Defenders," which starred E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as a father/son lawyer team.

Poston was active in theater throughout his career, highlighted by his Broadway turn in the advertising satire "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" He also played Trinculo in the 1960 "Hallmark Hall of Fame" rendition of Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

Poston's feature film appearances were sporadic. He began on film as a detective in 1953's "The City That Never Sleeps" and played the town two-timer in the Norman Lear comedy "Cold Turkey" (1971). He also performed in "Soldier in the Rain," which starred Steve McQueen and Jackie Gleason, and "Rabbit Test," with Billy Crystal. More recently he appeared in "Krippendorf's Tribe" with Richard Dreyfuss, and "The Story of Us," which starred Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Poston was born Oct. 17, 1921, in Columbus, Ohio. He was a student at Bethany College, but entered the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II and served in England from 1941-45. Poston was accorded an Air Medal for his efforts on D-Day, and won two other Oak Leaf Medals, gaining an Oak Leaf Cluster in military terms.

After his discharge, he moved to New York and began to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. He worked under such teachers as Sanford Meisner and Charles Jehlinger. Soon, he won a part in the Broadway production of "Cyrano de Bergerac," which starred Jose Ferrer.

Poston varied his performances between Broadway and live TV. He soon won a gig as the host of a live daily TV show, "Entertainment." His early TV performances were on a wide array of shows, including "Lights Out," "Studio One," "Goodyear Television Playhouse," "Robert Montgomery Presents" and "The Phil Silvers Show." During this time, he made periodic forays onto the game shows, frequently appearing as a celebrity or mystery guest on such programs as "What's My Line?" and "I've Got a Secret."

However, it was his turns on "The Steve Allen Show" which won him nationwide recognition and led to more starring roles on Broadway. His stage appearances became increasingly frequent, starring and touring in such productions as "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Come Blow Your Horn," "Bye, Bye Birdie" and "Fiddler on the Roof," among others.

Poston was married three times: To Jean Sullivan, Kay Hudson and, in 2001, to Suzanne Pleshette, who starred as Newhart's wife on "The Bob Newhart Show." He is survived by Pleshette and three children: Francesca Poston, his daughter from his marriage to Sullivan, and two sons, Hudson Poston and Jason Poston, from his marriage to Hudson.

There will be a private service for immediate family. Details of a public memorial service will be announced in the next few days.

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund.