Steven Kampmann (second from right) was one of the central cast members on the TV show “Newhart” during its first two seasons, as café owner Kirk Devane, along with (from left) Mary Frann and Bob Newhart as inn owners Joanna and Dick Loudon and Tom Poston as handyman George Utley. STEVEN KAMPMANN PHOTO

Former “Newhart” star lets dreams guide his life

BIRCH HARBOR — Steven Kampmann was unsure of what he was going to do with his life.

After earning a history degree at the University of Pennsylvania and teaching for a time, he found himself in Vermont working as a counselor at the state mental hospital in the early 1970s.

One day while driving he passed a mountain called the Camel’s Hump and found himself inspired to do something bold, to test himself and see how he fared.

“I looked at this mountain and I said to myself, ‘If I could climb that mountain in the middle of winter by myself, everything would be OK, everything would work out,’” he recalled during a recent interview at his home in Birch Harbor.

After a career in Hollywood, Steven Kampmann now has a home in Birch Harbor. He said taking risks, along with following his intuition and paying attention to his dreams, paid off for him during his career.

Later, on a cold winter day, he made the climb and after several hours found himself at the top of the 4,100-foot peak with swirling snow and 50-mph winds.

“I got to the top and I raised my arms in victory,” he said. “It really felt like victory.”

It is one of many examples Kampmann can cite from his own life where taking risks, along with following his intuition and paying attention to his dreams, has paid off. Because even though there have been some bumps along the way, life in general has both been OK and worked out for him.

It was uncertainty about what he wanted to do with his life that initially led Kampmann to move to Vermont.

“If you don’t really know what you want to do, at least go where you want to be,” he said. “And Vermont was that, for me.”

At the Vermont State Hospital, its main building an imposing stone structure that Kampmann described as “19th-century grim,” he saw psychodrama work being done with groups of families. He found the use of drama and acting in therapy an interesting concept, he said.

He earned a master’s degree in counseling and wrote his thesis on a method of recording dreams, but his career path soon took a different turn

He and a fellow therapist did a play, which led to other acting gigs and then a comedy act. The duo realized working in Vermont would only take them so far, and so as part of a series of taking professional risks they drove to Chicago to try out for The Second City, the famed improv-comedy troupe.

“We marched up the stairs and said we wanted to audition,” Kampmann recalled. Three weeks later they heard back that they were accepted into Second City’s touring company, which led to 1,500 shows over four years in Chicago and Toronto.

“That’s where you really hone your skills,” said Kampmann, referring to the eight-shows-a-week schedule. “You kind of find your bearings. Your skill set gets developed.”

He said getting accepted into Second City was an example for him of what Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung called “synchronicity,” a theory that some seemingly coincidental occurrences may in fact have a deeper connection or meaning.

Steven Kampmann (right) got his big break into the acting and writing business when he auditioned for and was accepted into The Second City improv-comedy troupe’s touring group. He is seen here doing a routine with fellow cast member Will Aldis.

“Synchronicity has been at the core of my existence,” Kampmann said.

At the end of the ‘70s he and a group of Second City alums moved to California. He worked on writing one movie then got an interview with a producer for the TV show “WKRP in Cincinnati,” which led to him writing for that show for two years.

During the offseason between writing “WKRP” episodes, Kampmann was asked to play a husband in a TV pilot. He accepted and found himself coming face to face with Judith Kahan.

She had worked with The Proposition improv-comedy troupe in Boston, was in the original Broadway cast of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and also worked on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

“So the first time we actually met I’m meeting her to play her husband,” Kampmann said of his initial encounter with Kahan. “And I got soundly rejected. It was over in five minutes.”

Synchronicity struck again several weeks later, though, when Kahan took Kampmann out to lunch and asked him to write a script.

“I needed the money so I said yes,” Kampmann recalled. That meeting eventually led to marriage, “and 36 years later, here we are.”

Kampmann’s next venture took him from writing for the screen to starring on it, when he was cast in the TV show “The Bob Newhart Show.” Though it is one of the things he is perhaps best known for today, becoming part of the show was a stressful experience.

“I had to audition in front of the network three times,” he said. “There wasn’t enough medication in California to get me through that.”

Kampmann’s role on the show, as café owner Kirk Devane, lasted two seasons. After that he returned to writing, the part of his career he is most proud of (he worked for 11 straight years as a writer).

“That’s why I was able to have a family and somewhat of a life,” he said.

With his Second City friend Will Aldis, he co-wrote and co-directed the movie “Stealing Home” starring Mark Harmon. Kampmann said the movie is “significant because it’s loosely based on my father and a friend of mine.”

“We made a rule: let’s not write anything we think we should write for others,” Kampmann said of his work with Aldis. “Let’s write something true.”

Kampmann acted in the 1986 film “Club Paradise” with Robin Williams and others. Though the movie bombed, Kampmann said filming in Jamaica with an ensemble cast of comedy all-stars was “the most fun I’ve ever had on the planet.”

He was one of several writers, including Harold Ramis, who penned the hit comedy “Back to School” starring Rodney Dangerfield that also came out in 1986.

When it came time for their children to enter high school, Kampmann and Kahan wanted them to go to a good school. They summered in Winter Harbor, and it was there that Kampmann approached Chan Hardwick about working at Blair Academy in New Jersey where Hardwick was headmaster.

The job came through and the couple made the move to New Jersey where Kampmann became writer-in-residence at Blair, teaching creative writing, screen writing and analytical writing (studying dreams).

After five years of also running a student dormitory, Kahan and Kampmann visited Hardwick to ask about continuing to teach but living off campus. Running the dorm, Kampmann said, left them feeling burned out.

Hardwick said it might not be his decision because he was possibly leaving for another job. That line sounded familiar to Kampmann, who consulted his dream diary and found he had dreamed that very thing three weeks earlier.

“Which is why I believe in dreams,” he said. “Because they have no respect for time boundaries. That’s why they’re wild.”

Kampmann and Kahan retired from Blair in 2010, and he has led dream workshops around the country since then. They also bought what was previously the Goodenough residence in Birch Harbor.

Dreams remain his biggest passion, and he works on a one-on-one basis with people as well as with writers to explore the idea of “dreams as a creative force.”

“Dreams are much more practical than people think,” he said, describing them as “a guide from your inner self directing you to what you should be doing.”

If he dreams about someone he has not seen or talked with in awhile, for example, Kampmann said he will often reach out to that person to ask them how they are doing.

“Once you understand what dreams are trying to say to you, I say act on it,” he said.

To find out more about Kampmann’s dream work, email him at [email protected].

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller worked at The Ellsworth American from 2012 to early 2018. He covered the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland.
Steve Fuller

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