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EXCLUSIVE: Susie Elelman: ‘The Bert only I knew’

Mr Television’s right-hand woman tells all on her friend.
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The first thing Susie Elelman noticed, sitting beside TV icon Bert Newton for the first time, was the sheer size and scope of that famous ‘Moonface’.

WATCH BELOW: Julia Morris Bert Newton Tribute

It didn’t take too long, however, for her to realise there was good reason for Bert’s head being built to an epic scale.

“Physically, it was absolutely enormous,” Susie laughingly recalls of their initial on-air meeting on Melbourne Cup Day in 1989.

“We all know Bert was called Moonface forever – but even so, in person, his head came as a surprise! Now I know it had to be that huge to hold his incredible brain,” Susie explains to New Idea, revealing Bert’s mind was extraordinary.

“He was also one of the most generous performers you could ever hope to work with. He was so quick-witted – he would have the crew in stitches, just doing things on the spur of the moment. But even if he set you up for a joke, he would never make you look stupid. I just marvelled every day at his incredible genius.”

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Susie says she feels for Bert’s family in the wake of his death. (Credit: Supplied)

For eight and a half years, as roving reporter and sidekick on Bert’s show, Good Morning Australia, Susie was able to get close to the legendary entertainer, his devoted wife Patti and their children.

They spent so much on-air time together that on one memorable occasion, Bert actually called out Susie’s name in his sleep.

“The following morning, Patti asked him what on earth was going on,” chuckles the former model, who says much like herself, Bert was bold – but never cold.

“Bert was a larger-than-life character, but he was never unapproachable. You come across a lot of huge stars with the ego to go with it. But he was always genuinely interested in you,” she tells.

Some of Susie’s fondest memories involve Bert’s unaffected kindness. A surprise bottle of Moët to celebrate a cameraman’s special milestone with the network.

Chocolates and a birthday card were left at the stage door for an elderly friend of the Elelman family who went to see him in The Sound of Music

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Susie with Bert and his son, Matthew. (Credit: Supplied)

And then there was his sweetness towards Susie’s mother Annemarie, a lifelong Newton fan.

“For me to be working alongside Bert, my mother thought I’d reached the pinnacle. He was her favourite presenter ever,” Susie explains.

“About five weeks before she passed away, my brother Eddie brought her to the Ten studios. She made him leave her wheelchair and oxygen at the front desk and walked in under her own steam so she could get a photo with Bert.

“And he was so gracious to her. He stopped the whole pre-record for that photo because to him, that was more important. It simply blew me away, and Mum was beaming. I still treasure that picture. It was taken on June 30, 1995, and she passed away on August 8. But she loved Bert so much, she just found this inner strength and energy to go in and meet him.”

Speaking of energy, Susie is reminded of Bert’s phenomenal work ethic. He frequently recorded GMA every second day while performing nightly in the theatre – plus matinees!

“This went on not for weeks and months, but for years,” she marvels. “I didn’t work with him every day, and I’m sure he must have had a cranky side sometimes, but I never saw it. The more he worked, the more he seemed to thrive.”

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GMA co-stars Susie (left) and Bert (right) struck up a close friendship over the years. (Credit: Supplied)

Bert loved his audience, and they loved him right back. So too did overseas celebrities, who relished his freewheeling interview style. Bert never really used an autocue, instead relying instead on rigorous research.

“He was incredibly well-read”, with extraordinary ad-libbing skills and an almost photographic memory. “You couldn’t help but learn from him,” explains Susie, a regular on GMA from 1992 to the end of 1999.

“Sometimes it was subtle, but he was always thinking of you. I think he did a lot of lobbying for other people behind the scenes. He was always giving good advice, all the time, but he was never one to big-note himself.”

Rather than bragging, Bert preferred to tell jokes at his own expense. Typically, that was how he dealt with news of his near-bankruptcy in 1993, when gambling left him $1 million in debt.

Facing the loss of everything he had earned, he confronted the problem head-on in the public arena.

“He told a funny story about it on the show,” recollects Susie. “He’d been to KFC that weekend and thrown away his car keys as well as his rubbish. He just wanted to assure the woman who had kindly offered to buy him a meal that he wasn’t so broke he was rummaging in the bin for food!”

WATCH BELOW: Danni Minogue Bert Newton Good Morning Australia, 1992 tribute

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Vintage Bert in action. Not trivialising his dire financial situation, but making light of it nonetheless. “An amazing man,” smiles his small-screen accomplice.

“He had the courage to front up about his debts, express his regret, yet still be funny. He knew he had to talk about it, but it was on his terms, you know.

“He was a one-off and unfortunately there will never be another Bert,” says Susie.

“You don’t see variety shows anymore, so the versatility isn’t there for other people to be able to become a Bert Newton,” she explains, insisting it’s devastating that so many young Aussies will never see the great man in action.

“The core of Bert is that everything he did came from the heart. He won so many accolades, but the thing that gave him the most pride was his family.

That meant everything to him. Bert always spoke of Patti, Lauren, Matthew and the grandkids with such immense and genuine warmth.

“I can’t imagine what it must be like for them not to have him in their lives anymore. Not only is this a huge loss for Australia, and for the entertainment industry, but the void he has left in the Newton household will take a long, long time – if ever – to heal.”

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