Bob Newhart says his ‘Elf’ role ‘outranks, by far’ any character he’s ever played

Television legend Bob Newhart has nothing but enthusiasm for and fond memories of playing Papa Elf to Will Ferrell’s starry-eyed Buddy in “Elf.”

The modern holiday classic, released in 2003, turned 20 years old on Tuesday.

“Without question, the part of Papa Elf outranks, by far, any role I may have ever played,” Newhart, 94, shared in an email interview with CNN for the occasion.

That proclamation is no small thing coming from the actor, who enjoyed the lead part in two now-iconic, long-running television sitcoms in the ’60s and ’80s, namely “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart,” respectively.

Newhart knew that “Elf” was going to enter the pantheon of timeless and beloved holiday classics virtually from the first read of the script.

(from left) Ed Asner, Peter Billingsley and Bob Newhart in "Elf." - Moviestore/Shutterstock
(from left) Ed Asner, Peter Billingsley and Bob Newhart in "Elf." - Moviestore/Shutterstock

“My agent sent me the script and I fell in love with it,” he said, later adding that he told his wife that the movie was “going to be another ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ where people watch it every year.”

The comparison is apt. “Elf” is among the select few beloved Christmas movies set (mostly) in New York City (others include “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” and “Scrooged” ), as Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf travels from the North Pole where he was raised by Newhart’s Papa Elf to the Big Apple to meet his real father, a curmudgeonly business executive played by the late James Caan.

Newhart also explained how although he and Ferrell had great fun while shooting and “would always break each other up,” the pair actually “very seldom made eye contact” on set due to the filming techniques the filmmakers used to make the pair look different in size.

The method, known as the Darby O’Gill technique or forced perspective –- which has also been used in movies like “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy -– involves placing actors far apart to make one look smaller or bigger, but angled in front of the camera to make them look closer together.

Bob Newhart and Will Ferrell in "Elf." - Cinematic/Alamy Stock Photo
Bob Newhart and Will Ferrell in "Elf." - Cinematic/Alamy Stock Photo

“For example, in the scene where Will and I were riding the tricycle, Will sat in the front, while I sat 10 feet behind him,” Newhart recounted. “They had an actor directly behind Will who was hidden, but his hands on Will’s shoulders. This made it look like I was Elf sized.”

For Newhart, as for many of us, “Elf” stands in a class by itself.

“In my opinion, there has not been anything like it in the interim,” he said.

“People wanted to believe in it. … People need that charming, wonderful thing about the Christmas spirit and its way of powering the sleigh,” he added.

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