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Bob Newhart Plays Papa to an Oversized Elf


Elf Bob Newhart

Bob Newhart stars as Papa Elf in the holiday comedy, "Elf."

New Line Cinema
When "Elf's" producers and director were looking for an actor to play ‘Papa Elf,’ they kept saying they’d like someone with a Bob Newhart quality. Fortunately for director Jon Favreau, Newhart’s kids are big fans of Favreau’s films and urged the veteran actor/comedian to sign on to the holiday comedy.

“I think Ed Asner to play Santa Claus and Bob Newhart to play Papa Elf were literally the first people we ever talked about,” says Will Ferrell. “They’re great comedic legends and were everything we hoped for -- being able to mention their names to other people and see their eyes light up.”


Do you see “Elf” becoming a Christmas classic that will be played year after year?
Yes. I had the feeling when I read the script that it was going to be a perennial. I think with the DVD, it’s going to be out of sight. I know how my grandchildren just play the same ones over and over again. They know the words. They can say the words along with them. If you ask them what they want to see, it’s “Lilo & Stitch” or whatever. This had that feeling from the beginning. It was different and good. I thought the writing was wonderful.

What’s your favorite Christmas movie?
I got to see a lot of them because of my kids. I got to see a lot of the animated [movies such as] “Charlie Brown's Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman.” I can’t remember the last live-action, non-animated Christmas movie. This may be the first one since “34th Street.”

Were the special effects CGI?
As far as I know, there were no special effects. I know [Jon Favreau] wouldn’t do the elves digitally. He wouldn’t computer generate a picture of us and then shrink it. He used forced perspective as they did in “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” which made for an interesting day because if I was here, then Will [Ferrell] would be nine feet away from me. When I was talking to Will, I was actually talking to an ‘X’ on the wall and he was talking to an ‘X’ on the wall to make it look like we were talking to each other. That took some getting used to because, as an actor, you generally want to see the other actor’s face. Sometimes it feeds something, you get something and it feeds something at you and you say, “Can we try that again because I’d like to try this?” That took some getting used to. Once we saw it in the dailies, then we knew what Jon was striving to do.

Does it make you adjust your comedic timing?
Yes, at first, but then it became easier as each day went along. They had to have the boards on the floor aligned in such a way that it looked like I was standing right next to him, when I was standing actually 10’ away. It was very clever and it was very technical. I think Jon’s a purist and that’s the way he wanted to do it.

You get to wear an elf costume in this movie. What does that do to you as an actor?
I’ve been a very lucky actor because generally I just internalize what I feel and somehow it shows up facially or in my mannerisms. I didn’t need the elf outfit to play an elf; I could just play an elf. Papa Elf to me was a father and he has some trepidation that his son is going off on this potentially dangerous trip to Manhattan. He has the line, “I will always be there for you.” That’s the line I would tell my kids, too.

What makes “Elf” so appealing?
I think it’s a feel-good movie. I think it says something. I think it says you should have a value system and stick with your value system. You can win if you stick with your value system. There’s a lot of cynicism - the point about the Christmas spirit and the fact I had to build a jet engine to assist with the sleigh because there was less and less Christmas spirit. Prior to that, there was enough Christmas spirit to keep the sleigh going. So I think that’s a statement, also. Let’s really enjoy Christmas. [“Elf’s”] coming out at the right time, with all that’s going on in the world.

Why do you think it’s important that children believe in Santa?
Because I think you should be a child for as long as you can. I have been successful for 74 years being able to do that. Don’t rush into adulthood, it isn’t all that much fun. Keep believing in all those things, they are good things to believe in. There is a “Naughty” and there is a “Nice” list.

Were you familiar with Jon Favreau’s work in "Swingers" and "Made?"
That’s interesting. My son Tim, he married a doctor and Jon Favreau’s wife is a doctor, and they both were in residency together. They knew each other before I ever did the film. Since then, we’ve all gotten to know each other.

What did you think of Favreau’s type of comedy, such as “Swingers?”
My son came up to me and he said, “Dad, that was my life.” I went, “Please no, you’re kidding.”

PAGE 2: Keeping Busy and How Comedy Has Changed

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