Bob Hope, America’s good humor man

1903-2003: Comedian, actor, philanthropist

Bob Hope — one of the most recognizable entertainers on the planet, thanks to a career that encompassed vaudeville, Broadway, radio, film, TV and personal appearances — died of pneumonia Sunday night at his home in Toluca Lake.

He celebrated his 100th birthday May 29.

Hope has the distinction of having entertained audiences in every decade of the 20th century.

His name conjures up a flurry of showbiz images: radio broadcasts (during which he earned the nickname “Rapid Robert” for his fast patter); the “Road” movies with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour; his Oscar duties (27 appearances, including a record 16 times as host or co-host); TV specials (each featuring a hodgepodge of guests, such as crooners, sports figures and sexy young actresses); and his activities entertaining U.S. troops during war and in peacetime.

“The nation lost a great citizen,” President Bush said Monday.

Bob Hope served our nation when he went to battlefields to entertain thousands of troops from different generations. We extend our prayers to his family. God bless his soul.”‘

He was “the best loved, most admired and most successful entertainer in all of history. He is quite simply, irreplaceable,” longtime “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson said.

The performer, who started in showbiz by doing Charlie Chaplin impersonations in 1909 at the age of 6, enjoyed three decades of enormous success starting in the late 1930s, as a top box office draw and a hefty ratings-grabber on TV.

In the 1960s, his films became sillier (“I’ll Take Sweden,” “Eight on the Lam”), his TV specials became more formulaic, and his support of the Vietnam war made him, like John Wayne, a symbol of conservative, hawkish values.

By 1980, his career as a performer had pretty much ended, but he continued to be a Hollywood eminence gris, appearing at benefits and public gatherings — affectionately remembered by many, lightly scorned by others, and his work virtually unknown to the new generation.

That’s a startling concept to the two previous generations, to whom he was a fixture, thanks to his 50-plus years on radio and TV (all at NBC). His ski-nosed profile, high forehead and pointed chin were unmistakable, as was his delivery: Hope talked out of the side of his mouth, with a quick, deadpan delivery of one-liners that were topical, barbed and self-deprecatory.

Like all great comics, Hope’s appeal lay in his ability to have fun at his own expense. He spoofed lechery and cowardice, vanity and greed.

“I don’t think he was an innovator, but I think he was vastly underrated,” said Bob Thomas, who co-wrote with Hope “The Road to Hollywood.”

Hope was also one of the wealthiest men in the entertainment business. He invested wisely in such ventures as real estate in the San Fernando Valley and Palm Springs, and by the early ’70s was reputedly worth as much as $750 million, although he claimed that estimates of his fortunes were always exaggerated.

The Guinness Book of Records lists him as the most decorated man in entertainment, with 1,500 kudos. Aside from five special Academy Awards — though never the acting Oscar he jokingly always craved — he was handed a plethora of showbiz trophies and honorary college degrees.

In addition, he was saluted for the philanthropic endeavors that he and his wife of 69 years, Dolores, and he was always rubbing elbows with presidents, monarchs and other heads of states.

In 1997, U.S. Congressional Resolution 75 made him an “honorary veteran,” the first in American history. That same year, Queen Elizabeth II gave him a KBE (Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). This year , tributes poured in on his 100th birthday.

It was once said of Hope that if he could live his life over again, he wouldn’t have time.

The fifth of seven sons, Leslie Townes Hope was born May 29, 1903,in Eltham, in southeast London. His mother was a concert singer and his father a stonemason.

The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when he was 4. After high school he tried various odd jobs — including boxing, under the name Packy East — before winning a Charlie Chaplin imitator contest and deciding on a career in vaudeville.

He partnered with Lloyd Durbin in a 1924 revue headlined by Fatty Arbuckle, who recommended Hope for a job in 1925’s “Hurley’s Jolly Follies,” where he partnered with George Byrne.

Hope and Byrne slowly worked their way through the Midwest theater circuits on a bill with Siamese twins or trained seals. It was during this period that he changed his name from Les to Bob.

After moving to New York, he worked the RKO vaudeville circuit and got a small stage part in “The Sidewalks of New York” in 1927. Shortly thereafter, Hope went solo and formed his own Chicago company, whose acts included ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and sidekick Charlie McCarthy.

His Broadway roles also included “Ballyhoo of 1932,” followed by the ’33 musical “Roberta.” During the run of the play he met and married singer Dolores Reade.

Hope’s career continued its momentum when he appeared with Fannie Brice in the Ziegfeld Follies and with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante in Cole Porter’s 1936 “Red, Hot and Blue.”

Having at first turned his back on radio, he made his debut on the 1932 “Capitol Family Hour,” then appeared two years later on Rudy Vallee’s weekly program. By 1938 he had his own radio show for Pepsodent; within a few years, he was attracting 22 million listeners.

In all, he made 54 films, mostly at Paramount. Hope’s first film, “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” featured him dueting on “Thanks for the Memories” with Shirley Ross, a tune that won an Oscar and quickly became his theme song.

After a handful of so-so comedies that year, he had a success with the 1939 “The Cat and the Canary,” but hit the big time the following year with “Road to Singapore,” the first of seven adventure spoofs that featured a few songs, and plenty of horseplay and in-jokes. He was soon earning $150,000 per film.

For a dozen years, starting in 1941, Hope was among the industry’s top 10 box office draws, right behind Bing Crosby.

“You can’t imagine the impact of those ‘Road’ films on a nation at war,” said writer-director Melville Shavelson, who worked several times with Hope. “He and Crosby went to the very top.”

Woody Allen has cited “Road to Morocco” as the film that inspired his career.

Starting in 1941, Hope began his avocation, touring military bases and theaters of conflict through the USO. He continued these endeavors throughout World War II, traveling a million miles and playing to more than 10 million servicemen. In 1948, at the request of Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington, Hope began an annual Christmas custom of entertaining troops in various parts of the globe, a tradition that continued through the Korean, the Vietnam and even the Gulf War.

As columnist Irv Kupcinet once wrote, “He’s Uncle Sam, Santa Claus and a letter from home all wrapped up in one neat package of hilarity.”

Throughout the 1940s, Hope made a string of comedies, most of which paired him with sex symbols who always proved to be more competent at solving the plot crises than the braggadocio Hope: “My Favorite Blonde” (1942, Madeleine Carroll), “The Princess and the Pirate” (1944, Virginia Mayo), “Monsieur Beaucaire” (1946, Joan Caulfield), “My Favorite Brunette” (1947, Dorothy Lamour) and “The Paleface” (1948, Jane Russell).

While most film actors avoided television in its early days, Hope made the plunge on Easter Sunday in 1950, the same year his radio show ended. He was paid $40,000 for hosting “Star Spangled Revue,” a 90-minute variety show on NBC that also featured Beatrice Lillie, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Dinah Shore and the Mexico City Boys Choir.

In a review, Variety noted that “America’s current No. 1 film box office attraction failed to establish that he’s even started to lick the transitional hurdle into video,” but that in one segment he seemed relaxed enough to indicate that “when he takes the medium in stride, he’ll bring a reasonable facsimile of his Par pix successes.”

By the end of the year, he had a multimillion-dollar contract. This helped him withstand Paramount’s refusal to renew his film contract in 1957.

Thanks to the televised ceremonies, Hope also became synonymous with the Oscars; he made a running joke of the fact that he always appeared but was never given an award, noting on one show that “It’s the Oscars — or, as it’s known in my house, Passover.”

By the mid-’50s, he was earning well in excess of $1 million a year from film and live appearances, reportedly $500,000 per film and $100,000 per TV special. But his films were erratic, and Hope never made the transition to serious actor, as had Crosby. His best-regarded performance came in the 1955 “The Seven Little Foys,” which tapped into his vaudeville experiences.

After the unlikely pairing with Katharine Hepburn in the 1956 “The Iron Petticoat,” he starred in “Beau James” (1957) as New York’s rapscallion mayor Jimmy Walker, one of his last attempts at a serious film career.

TV proved wildly successful for him, however. In 1954, he began to tape his annual Christmas tours of army bases, the first of which pulled a 60 share.

His 1960s films included “The Facts of Life” and “Critics Choice,” both with Lucille Ball (whom he had previously appeared with in the 1949 “Sorrowful Jones” and the 1950 “Fancy Pants”).

Even in his 60s, Hope continued to be paired with bombshells in his comedies, such as “Call Me Bwana” (1963, Anita Ekberg) and “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!” (1966, Elke Sommer). His final starring role was in the 1972 “Cancel My Reservation,” though he did cameos in “The Muppet Movie” (1979) and “Spies Like Us” (1985).

His TV special from Vietnam in 1970 pulled a 64 share, one of the highest-rated programs in TV history. His 1965 Christmas jaunt brought him his only Emmy.

He tried to quit the overseas tours in 1972 with the end of the Vietnam conflict, but returned to Beirut in 1983, the Far East in 1987 and the Persian Gulf in 1990.

But his TV dominance had waned: His salute to the Gulf War ranked no better than 30th in the ratings the week it was shown. His last TV special aired Nov. 23, 1997. In all, he chalked up 284 primetime shows, with nearly 700 guest appearances on talkshows and other shows.

For a time he wrote a daily column for the Hearst newspapers and published 10 books, including “Confessions of a Hooker” about his love for golf.

Survivors include his wife Dolores; and his four adopted children, Linda, a TV producer, Tony, Kelly and Nora.

Linda Hope is currently Emmy-nominated for the doc “100 Years of Hope and Humor.”

Funeral plans were private.

Linda Hope said her mother had asked Hope in recent days where he wanted to be buried and he answered: “Surprise me.”

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