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Tom Poston, 85; for four decades on television, he made bumbling lovable

Tom Poston played George Utley on 'Newhart.' Tom Poston played George Utley on "Newhart." (file 1985)

LOS ANGELES -- Tom Poston, the tall, pasty-faced comic who played a clueless everyman on such hit television shows as "Newhart" and "Mork and Mindy," has died. He was 85.

Mr. Poston, who was married to Suzanne Pleshette of "The Bob Newhart Show," died Monday night at home after a brief illness, a family representative said.

"Tom was always the 'go-to guy' on 'Newhart' in addition to being a good and longtime friend," Bob Newhart said in a statement.

Billy Crystal, who starred in the 1978 film "Rabbit Test" in which Mr. Poston appeared, was another admirer. "How rare that a gentle, sweet person could be so incredibly funny," Crystal said in a statement. "I grew up watching Tom on 'The Steve Allen Show' as a kid. What an incredible gift to become friends with him and to learn about comedy from a true professional. He was a combination of Stan Laurel and Jack Benny."

In Allen's famous "Man on the Street" sketches, Mr. Poston was the man who could never remember his name.

When Allen was auditioning for the sketch, "I was, naturally, scared to death," Mr. Poston recalled in a 1982 interview.

"He asked me my name, and darned if my mind didn't go blank. I sat there like a big dope and held my head. Steve thought I was kidding. He said: 'Hey, that's great! We'll use it.' From then on, I was a regular."

Mr. Poston joined an ensemble of eccentrics. Don Knotts was the shaky Mr. Morrison and Louis Nye was the suave, overconfident Gordon Hathaway. Mr. Poston won an Emmy playing "The Man Who Can't Remember His Name."

When Allen moved the show from New York to Los Angeles in 1959, Mr. Poston stayed behind.

"Hollywood's not for me right now; I'm a Broadway cat," he told a reporter at the time.

When he did finally move West, he quickly began appearing in variety shows, sitcoms, and films.

His movie credits also included "Cold Turkey," "The Happy Hooker," and, more recently, "Christmas With the Kranks."

On "Mork and Mindy," which starred Robin Williams as a space alien, Mr. Poston was Franklin Delano Bickley, a mindless boozer with an annoying dog. On "Newhart," he was George Utley, the handyman who couldn't fix anything at the New England inn run by Newhart's character.

"These guys are about a half-step behind life's parade," Mr. Poston commented in a 1983 interview. "The ink on their instruction sheets is beginning to fade. But they can function and cope and don't realize they are driving people up the walls.

"In ways I don't like to admit, I'm a goof-up myself," Mr. Poston continued. "It's an essential part of my character."

Goof-up or not, Mr. Poston was a versatile actor who made his Broadway debut in 1947 playing five roles in Jose Ferrer's "Cyrano de Bergerac."

One role called for him to engage in a duel, fall 10 feet, roll across the stage, and vanish into the orchestra pit. Other actors had auditioned and failed, but Mr. Poston, who in his youth had been an acrobat with the Flying Zepleys, did the stunt perfectly.

He played secondary roles in Broadway comedies and starred at regional theaters. For 10 years he was also a panelist on the popular TV quiz show "To Tell the Truth."

He made guest appearances on scores of television shows, from "The Phil Silvers Show" to "St. Elsewhere" to "The Simpsons."

Mr. Poston and his first wife, Jean Sullivan, had a daughter, Francesca, before their marriage ended in divorce. He married Kay Hudson, after they met while appearing in the St. Louis Light Opera, and they had a son, Jason, and daughter, Hudson.

Mr. Poston and Pleshette had appeared together in the 1959 Broadway play "The Golden Fleecing" before marrying other people. Both widowed, they reunited in 2000 and married the next year.

Details of a public memorial service were to be announced.

Material from the Los Angeles Times was used in this obituary.

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