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Is this the end of Dick Loudon?

Yes and - maybe - no.After eight years of playing Dick Loudon on the CBS sitcom "Newhart," Bob Newhart is calling it quits. The last episode airs May 21, with Dick the victim of an errant golf ball - or so the tabloids say.

Don't send flowers yet, says Newhart.

"They got it a little wrong. We put a red herring in there, in case the script got out. It's about 75 percent the way it was described, but there's a surprise in there."

Actually, it's a little surprising the show is ending at all. Newhart says CBS asked him to return for a ninth season, and he was willing. Then MTM - producer of "Newhart" and "The Bob Newhart Show" - stepped in.

"My understanding from (CBS Entertainment President) Jeff Sagansky was MTM was trying to guarantee six episodes of a spin-off show. CBS said we really can't, and I said why don't we forget it and we'll talk about another series down the road."

But that road won't lead to MTM. "I won't be doing another show there . . . ."

It was tough to walk away from "Newhart," particularly since he had taped the first series on the same sound stage. But now that the decision's been made, Newhart says, "I'm comfortable with it. . . . I'd rather go off a year or two early than a year or two late."

CBS would like Newhart to return with a new show by 1991 (a request that seems to support his contention that his renewal demands were not "outrageous," as MTM had said). He thinks 1992 is more likely.

While there's hardly an outline yet for the new show, don't expect a new Newhart.

"I'm not going to drastically change. The persona has pretty much been defined in the two shows, so I will look for something that will take advantage of that and I'm going to look for a very strong cast, as I always have, and look for an ensemble relationship.

"Those are the elements. Beyond that, who I would be or what occupation, I haven't given any thought."

Sometimes Newhart seemed to get lost in that ensemble feeling, the star as bit character in his own show. But he says he doesn't mind. "It doesn't bother me when I'm light in a show, because when people are so talented, you have to give them good stories. And secondly, there has to be a glue or a center post to a show. If everybody is all cartoons, it doesn't work."

The odds against Newhart pulling off a third successful sitcom are daunting indeed. Still, here's hoping lightning strikes thrice.

TV without Dick Loudon is one thing, but TV without Bob Newhart would be too depressing to contemplate.