Farewell to a well-loved handyman (National Post May 07,2007)

Tom Poston died this week at the fairly ripe age of 85. Yet it seems not so long ago that I was laughing at his youthful shtick on the Steve Allen show as the dimwitted "Man on the Street" who could never remember his name.

The role of genial, gentle lamebrain emerged as Poston's signature character, finding eccentric expression in Franklin Delano Bickley, the boozy neighbour on Mork and Mindy, and most famously as George Utley, the unhandy but sweetly earnest handyman on the long-running hit (1982-90),Newhart.

Set in a charming old Vermont country inn, that show followed the adventures of owners Dick and Joanna Loudon, a childless New York couple who decide to abandon the sturm und drang of urban life to take up what they suppose will be an idyllic life in their chosen New England backwater. The humour springs from the cultural miscues and tensions between the Loudons (more Dick than Joanna) and the locals who work for them. The theme in a nutshell: You can take folks out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the folks.

Some of the neighbourhood oddballs -- such as "Larry, my brother Daryl and my other brother Daryl" -- were parodic in their near-pathological kookiness. But Poston's role, because he inhabited it so comfortably and accessibly, was pivotal to exposing the sociological disparity in a credible way. The relationship between Dick (Bob Newhart) and George is one of the highlights of sitcom history.

Although bug-eyed, horsefaced George Utley was essentially a stock character, a country doofus, he was such a sympathetic man--kind, sincere and tolerant -- that he rose above his stereotype, ultimately achieving ensemble status as a kind of wisdom figure. For in spite of his modest intellectual gifts, George's serenity in the face of all crises -- even though a product of his own lack of imagination rather than a reasoned philosophy -- seemed better repaid in the resolution of the problems than Bob's more rational, intelligent and appropriately anxious approach.

Invariably, when Bob asked him to take care of a maintenance problem, and George failed, there would be that little "conversation" -- in which many words were uttered, but little mutual comprehension achieved.

While George, the "native", was transparently relaxed on his own turf, Bob conveyed the tension felt by an outsider with his social antennae a quiver: Conscious of his new environment's slower rhythms, and committed to adaptation, he understood why he was impatient; nevertheless he could barely conceal his incredulity at the low expectations of the people he found himself living amongst. In a lesser comedian than Newhart, bafflement at George's bumbling incompetence could easily have spiralled into contempt. He never crossed the line, but you always worried he might, a tribute to his adroit professionalism.

For his part, George never crossed the line between wonder and derision

© National Post 2007