Interview: Bob Newhart on Playing Papa to an Oversized 'Elf'

"I think it's a feel-good movie. I think it says something"

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

When the producers and director of the Christmas classic Elf were looking for an actor to play "Papa Elf," they kept saying that they’d like someone with a Bob Newhart quality. Fortunately for Elf director Jon Favreau, Newhart’s kids are big fans of Favreau’s films and urged the veteran actor/comedian to sign on to star in the holiday comedy alongside star Will Ferrell and Ed Asner, who plays Santa Claus.

In the film's press notes, Ferrell said of his co-stars, "I think Ed Asner to play Santa Claus and Bob Newhart to play Papa Elf were literally the first people we ever talked about. 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."

Here's our interview with Bob Newhart about starring in this Christmas favorite.

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 Miracle on 34th Street.

Were the special effects CGI?
As far as I know, there were no special effects. I know [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] is 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."

What’'s your favorite memory from time spent on the set?
I think it was the day after watching dailies when we had first shot Will sitting on my lap, which was really accomplished by me sitting in a chair and Will sitting sideways in another chair of the same size. There was a small child underneath Will with his little feet sticking out. We had to coordinate my writhing in pain with his feet. Then we saw the dailies of it and we all got hysterical.

We thought it was the funniest thing we'’d ever seen. Of course, we knew how it was done.

You seem to be busy doing a lot more films nowadays.
It runs in cycles. I did “In & Out” and then there were a couple of years when no scripts were sent to me. Well, some scripts were sent but I wasn't crazy about them.

I also did a three-part “ER,” which just came out of the blue. I didn’'t expect that. That’s a straight dramatic role. It'’s been a busy year, but it’'s been a good year. I'’ve been able to do my stand-up, and I’'ve been able to do movies and television.

It would have been great to see more of you in “Legally Blonde 2
There was a bigger scene, and it was a funny scene. It was one of the reasons I took the movie. I’m sort of being berated by one of the residents of the hotel. By this time, Reese [Witherspoon] and myself have developed a kind of relationship and we like each other. I thought it was kind of integral to the picture.

I have an earphone in my ear and she'’s about half a lobby away. She'’s reading this statute, and I'’m repeating it to the guy.

It kind of increased the bond. Because doormen, I generally recognize with just a, "“Hello. Have a nice day.”" So this was someone who took an interest. I think it added to why he wanted to help her so much.

I was disappointed that it wasn’'t in the movie.

What sort of films are you looking for now?
I just look for good writing. That’'s where it is. The greatest actor in the world, – Brando or George Scott, – can’'t make bad writing good. It starts with the writing. Then from there, I think the actor can bring a lot to it. But it has to be on the paper before you can do it. That’'s all I look for is really good writing. It could be dramatic, it could be comedy. I feel more comfortable in comedy.

How do you feel comedy has changed over the years?
Well, it'’s done what comedy always does. I think the taboo subjects have become fewer and fewer. It’'s true with television. There were areas we could never touch, like “Friends.” In the ‘70s, you had to be married. It keeps getting pushed.

How about family entertainment? Where are the lines for that?
They'’ve remained pretty much where they were. I think there are still words you can'’t use in family entertainment that you can use in a sitcom today.

Interviews with Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, and Director Jon Favreau