By Jim Cryns   Published May 13, 2003 at 5:44 AM

Actor and director Peter Bonerz, who went to college in Milwaukee and is likely best remembered for his role as Jerry the dentist on "The Bob Newhart Show," is one of the city's expatriates to make it to the big time.

"When I turned 21, a week after graduating from Marquette, I left Milwaukee," Bonerz recalls during breakfast on Milwaukee's East Side. "I never really sought a career here, nor was I ever actively engaged in making a living here in Milwaukee, so I don't know whether I would have been supported here as an actor, artist, director at all."

After leaving Milwaukee, Bonerz wasted little time in beginning a career that would continue for the next 43 years, and is still going strong today.

"The first time I ever got paid to do stuff was at a place at a little night club in New York called Upstairs at the Duplex," Bonerz recalls. "I was doing stand up comedy. I didn't have a really long act, probably about 20 minutes, so if I had to do a second act, I had to improvise the second show. That's how I became an improvisational actor."

Bonerz then worked in San Francisco at an improv theater he later directed. After that, it was on to Los Angeles where he started his career as an actor. Bonerz quickly landed smaller roles on television shows such as "The Addams Family" and "That Girl."

Bonerz, however, is perhaps best known for his work as dentist Jerry Robinson on "The Bob Newhart Show" from 1972-'78.

"People rarely call me by my character name," Bonerz reflects. "They say hi, maybe forgetting my real name. People are very courteous and gracious, not only talking about the acting work; they know my name as a director."

Bonerz's more recent credits include directing the television shows "Friends," "Just Shoot Me," "Wings," "Murphy Brown" and "Home Improvement."

"I'm always surprised that people actually do read the credits at the end of the show," says Bonerz, who is currently directing a new version of "The Odd Couple" in Los Angeles. Recently, he finished shooting and directing a television commercial in Spain.

It's a quandary as to why people so fondly remember the rather awkward and buffoonish Jerry from the Newhart show. Perhaps they can identify with the human nature of the actor portraying the character.

"Somebody asked me on the airplane the other day why the Newhart show was so much better than what is on now. I don't know if anybody knows the answer to that," says Bonerz.

"Bob Newhart and I have talked about that over the years. If I had to pick one thing, I would have to credit the writing," Bonerz says with a generous dose of respect. "We did that show with some of the best in television when they were ready to break new ground, including James Brooks."

If the Newhart show were currently airing on television, Bonerz isn't sure it would fly. "A show about a psychologist with no children, would that work today? Probably not."

Bonerz says the trick to acting is to open a dialogue with the written character. The actor lets the character on the page live in his mind and exist on his own.

"Jerry Robinson was written by 25 guys. It was my job to make those 25 different versions of Jerry the dentist credible."

When someone tells him that they love him, Bonerz is quick to point out they are referring to someone that doesn't exist. They love a myth. It's like Uncle Sam, or the Pillsbury Doughboy, or the Michelin man.

Although Bonerz has lived elsewhere for two-thirds of his life, Milwaukee has never been far from his heart.

"Milwaukee has always had things that other cities don't have. A sense of self-entertainment. Milwaukee doesn't sit home on the weekends and watch television," Bonerz observes.

He particularly appreciates what the Great Circus Parade represents in Milwaukee.


"It may be the greatest yearly parade in the world. I went down and visited the circus wagons with two little kids. It's amazing the history that can be gleaned from just viewing the wagons."

Author Thomas Wolfe once wrote that you can't go home again, but Bonerz illustrates you can take the boy out of the state, but you can't take the state out of the boy.

"Milwaukee has the greatest park system. In terms of political history, I've always been anxious to talk about the city," Bonerz proudly states. "This town was built by socialists. People who really wanted the workers to be happy. Because then they'd stay here and do good work for A.O. Smith, Harnischfeger, and Allen Bradley. Isn't that a concept? A corporation that spends money to make its workers happy. How out of fashion is that? But that's the concept that built this city. Its wide streets; its beautiful public parks. What other city would have a lakefront like this that wasn't all given over to mansions?"

Bonerz says the love of Milwaukee and appreciation of Wisconsin by Hollywood performers and artists isn't restricted to him and goes on to say just about everybody he knows likes it.

"When I talk to people that have been here, performers in the theater, dancers, they tell me they adore this city," Bonerz reports with pride. "They say the people are great, the audiences are wonderful. Many have gone to school in Milwaukee and Madison. Some people grew up in Chicago and remember vacationing in Wisconsin. So this is an absolutely respected area. I've never heard any bad stuff about this city."