Bert Newton, once the youngest radio critic in Melbourne, developed into the most enduring media personality in the country. His productive, multifaceted career across radio, television, stage and screen spanned more than six decades, crossing generation gaps. Bob Hope once described him as “The Bob Hope of Australia”.
Newton, who has died at the age of 83 after several years of ill health, led Australia through the early days of television on a diet of frothy, vaudevillian entertainment. Few over the age of 40 would fail to recognize his distinctive round face, wide grin of teeth and immaculately groomed hair, usually on top of a tuxedo – he underwent 40 dinner suits in 18 years – as host of the Logie Awards or razzing floor manager Belvedere on his long – ongoing lifestyle show Good Morning Australia. For much of his career, Newton hardly shared the talk show spotlight, either as “another banana” for Graham Kennedy or as a “barrel boy” for Don Lane, who gave him the nickname Moonface.
Newton has hosted more Logie Awards evenings – 19 – than anyone else, an achievement made possible by the ease with which he could ad lib and appear in three hours of live television without a script. In his 2014 biography, Bert, Graeme Blundell described Newton as “a fool in a well-cut dinner set”, and his host of the awards as “something remarkable” that came to be admired by the inner circle of television. A later host, Wendy Harmer, likened the experience to “chainsawing an arm off”.
Albert Watson Newton was born on 23 July 1938 in the Melbourne suburb of North Fitzroy, the youngest of six children of Joseph (Joe) and Gladys. Joe, who had returned from World War II with malaria, was often ill and died when Bert was 11. Despite poverty, Bert had a happy childhood with his widowed mother and grew up with news, stories, music and a sense of community. their Bakelite wireless set brought into the home. By the time he was seven, Bert had set his heart on a career in radio and began writing radio plays while attending St Joseph’s Marist Brothers college.
An opportunity through Boy Scouts to become a junior announcer led to Newton’s first job on the radio as a 15-year-old with 3XY, making him the youngest speaker in Melbourne radio history.
But in 1957, Australians could not get enough of television, and 19-year-old Newton could see the writing on the wall. Kennedy already hosted an evening program on Channel Nine. Newton had secured a job at Channel Seven as a stand-up announcer, but it was only when his mother woke him up one morning, with a copy of The Sun, that he found out he wanted to attend The Late Show, from the evening, and in direct competition. with Kennedy.
“She had read it in the newspaper; they had forgotten to tell me,” he told Blundell. . “
Newton was an instant hit, especially among women who called his home up to 40 times a day and asked his mother what color his eyes were and what car he was driving.
After being courted by Nine in 1959, apparently for hosting a daytime program, Newton found out he was playing a double beat with Kennedy on In Melbourne Tonight, giving audiences live television they had never seen before. . The couple riffed at each other, unmanuscript-free and rehearsed, chaos and laughter followed, Newton played it directly to Kennedy’s more vicious comedy. Although not all shows were as successful as the first, the pair became stars and launched a lifelong personal and professional partnership that only ended with Kennedy’s death in 2005.
With stardom came the scrutiny of the media, and as the handsome bachelor, Newton was often under scrutiny for the many women in his life. In 1962, he became engaged to television personality Susan-Gaye Anderson, but it was canceled after two weeks. The insane pace of being half of a superstar team ruined Newton’s life, and in 1964 he was admitted to a psychiatric ward where he was treated with experimental LSD, and later said it was “the most horrific experience in my life”. The collapse caused him to resign from Nine, and when he eventually returned, it was to start from scratch.
“Before my illness, I had had this instinctive feeling that there was only one me ever and that I could never be replaced,” he said. “But I learned that as long as the show continues, new people will be found. The king is dead, long live the king.”
Newton eventually married and moved away from home as a 36-year-old. He had met singer and dancer Patti McGrath when they were both children on the radio, and their 1974 wedding in Melbourne, with Kennedy as best man, was bullied by thousands of fans.
With an audience eager for fresh varieties of entertainment in the turbulent 1960s, Newton found a niche that hosted expansive, glittering TV productions for special occasions for Nine. What began with beauty pageants and beach girl quests turned into a productive connection with the Logie Awards, which led him to shoot the breeze with a host of confused international stars, including Muhammad Ali, Rock Hudson, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett and John Wayne. While Newton won four Gold Logies during his career and was inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Logies also signaled the end of his era. In 2018 and in the midst of the #MeToo movement, Newton was scolded for inappropriate comments in the air about Kennedy and Lane and for referring to himself by using a gay man.
For a time in television history, it seemed that Newton was everywhere. In addition to TV quizzes and variety shows, he launched several talk shows of the same name and spent eight years working with Lane. He also appeared on stage in various productions, including three years with the musical Wicked. He appeared in four films, wrote an autobiography and recorded several singles, as well as The Bert and Patti Family Album in 1977. In 1979 Newton was made a member of the Order of the British Empire and in 2006 a member of the Order of Australia.
He has not ‘just survived’; he has remained creative when many of his juniors do not, ”Andrew Denton said in a 2004 interview.“ Bert does not play it safe. He is defined by the vaudeville tradition. It’s their ‘bushido’ – their warrior codex. They perform no matter what. “
Newton leaves behind his wife, Patti, his children, Matthew and Lauren, and six grandchildren.