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BOB NEWHART IS TAKING HIS ACT ON THE ROAD

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Bob Newhart, who ended his sitcom with a surprise and a first-place finish, is now taking his act on the road.

Newhart will make more than 30 comedy concert appearances this summer and will be host of a Showtime special, "Just For Laughs: The Montreal International Comedy Festival.""I've never stopped doing stand-up work," Newhart says. "It's where I started. I wanted to keep my hand in. It's my first love."

The 90-minute Showtime special will be televised live on Saturday, July 21, 8 p.m. locally, during the final weekend of the Montreal festival.

"This is live-live-live television," says Newhart, who can't remember the last time he did a live show. "This will not be like an Improv show where you just introduce new young comics. The festival has comics from all over the world. I'll probably do an opening monologue, one of my old routines and maybe participate in a sketch."

At least four other comedians will appear on the show, which will also present highlights of the two-week festival.

Newhart took time out from working with contractors on a new house to talk about the special and his career. He virtually performs an act while telling about his woes building a new house. He recalls routines from the six "Button-Down Mind" comedy albums that launched his career. His first series on NBC in 1961-62 failed in the ratings, but won an Emmy and a Peabody Award.

"I wrote all my own material, and early on was torn between writing for a living or performing," he says. "I offered some material to a well-known comedian and he turned me down. A few weeks later, he did my material on the old Steve Allen show. I figured the only way to protect myself was to perform my own material.

"People kept telling me when I did a comedy album I was giving my act away. I said it was the only way I had to attract attention. I had to keep writing new material all the time. I couldn't afford to hire a writer. People still want to hear those old routines, like Sir Walter Raleigh, the driving instructor, King Kong, the school for bus drivers, the submarine commander. What each one does is lays an attitude over a situation."

Newhart is polishing his act while a new television series is being developed. He could return to the air as early as the fall of 1991.

He ended the eighth year of CBS' "Newhart" with a funny and classy farewell that was also one of television's best-kept secrets.

"We had a red herring in the last script," he says. "I get hit with a golf ball, go to heaven and have a scene with God. The crew had a pool going over whether we would get George Burns or George C. Scott to play God. That was so no one would know we had Susie for the last show."

As virtually everyone knows by now, in the final scene Newhart woke up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from "The Bob Newhart Show" that ran from 1972-78. Bob Hartley, his character on the earlier show, had dreamed the eight years of "Newhart." The episode was first in the Nielsen ratings that week.

"We kept Susie hidden in a trailer and we sneaked her into the bed in the dark for the last scene," he says. "People applauded as soon as they recognized the set. Nobody knew the ending. I think D-day was more public. I'm keeping a file of letters from people about it.

"It was my wife Ginny's idea. We were at a party the year before and she suggested it to Susie. Susie said, `If I'm in Bangkok I'll fly back for that."'

CBS had wanted to renew the show for another year, but MTM Enterprises said producing the show was too expensive. Newhart, who made both series with MTM, has parted company and will make his new show in partnership with Arthur Price, his manager and former president of MTM.

In the meantime, Newhart says he is developing several movies for television. He hasn't made a TV or feature movie in the last 10 years. He recalls the making of "Catch 22" in 1970 and does a comedy routine of director Mike Nichols directing actor Orson Welles, who was also trying to direct the movie.