The following article was published on April 17, 2003, as part of Variety’s Legends and Groundbreakers series.
When Sime Silverman put the very first issue of Variety to bed Dec. 15, 1905, little Leslie Towns (later to be known as Bob) Hope was already 2 years old. Just a toddler in England, three years later he and his family would be on a steamship approaching Ellis Island in pursuit of the American dream.
Although initially ridiculed for his girly name, Hope went from selling newspapers on a Cleveland street corner to becoming — as New Yorker writer John Lahr recently dubbed him — “the CEO of comedy.”
In today’s celeb-obsessed world of overnight stardom, Hope’s importance in the history of showbiz cannot be overemphasized. Hope, who will turn 100 on May 29, has witnessed a century of miracles and conflicts, an entertainment scene that leaped from minstrels to cyberspace, that saw vaudeville fade, musical theater get bigger, movies, radio and sound recordings make billions, and TV become — well — the national pastime.
That Hope rose to the top of all these media is an unparalleled feat, and in this day and age would be impossible to top. “He owned radio, he owned movies, he owned television,” says Sherwood Schwartz, a comedy writer whose collaborations with Hope date back to his first days on radio. That he also found time to become a bestselling author would seem like gilding the lily, if it wasn’t fact.
Hoofer at heart
Though today we are apt to think of Hope as one of our national monuments, his roots lie in raucous, bumptious vaudeville. His nimble feet and quick wit manifested early, then his showmanship developed gradually, but what inspired him (besides his Welsh harp-playing mother) were his heroes: legendary vaudevillians treading the theater boards in the early 20th century, names like Bert Williams, Frank Fay, Ted Healy, Ken Murray, Eddie Foy, Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields as well as a couple of newcomers such as Jack Benny and George Burns. Hope sneaked into theaters to see some of them perform and read about others in Silverman’s reviews.
Hope’s personal slice of the American dream pie was the pursuit of fame. This celebrity sprung partly from his considerable talent, but also his ability to hustle, and an uncanny sense of how to get in touch with his audience. “His career was not an accident, he made it happen,” says Mort Lachman, a writer who worked with Hope for more than 20 years.
Adds Martha Bolton, who helped pen many of Hope’s television monologues: “He knew what people wanted and he gave it to them.”
Hope was ever mindful that media attention was essential and always contended that the public had a short memory. A master of self-promotion (he has co-authored eight autobiographies), Hope was a born publicist; he could make every interview seem exclusive. In this regard, he said no day was a good day if he wasn’t in touch with Army Archerd.
Getting in touch started early. At 7 he would do a Charlie Chaplin walk to the laughter and applause of the firemen sitting outside the neighborhood firehouse. More recently, in his 90s, at a personal appearance, someone suggested that he share with his audience that he wasn’t feeling quite up to snuff that day and Hope snapped, “You don’t want sympathy out there. You want laughs!”
Survival of the funniest
Learning to be the century’s most famous standup comic was full of risks, but Hope seemed fearless. When agent Charlie Hogan saved the young entertainer from starvation by booking him in a tough Chicago vaudeville house, Hope’s survival was on the line. “If you were funny they let you live,” quipped Hope.
To win over that audience he developed a brash and impudent stage personality. He learned quickly and painfully that when you are working the same audience night after night, survival depends on how you freshen your jokes — and, of course, that became a lifelong concern.
He developed a shotgun delivery that became his trademark and something that could even bolster inferior jokes. He learned the value of a stage wait and found a degree of subtlety that was appropriate to each audience — something which today’s talkshow hosts could learn from.
“His aim was to get as many laughs in as short a time as possible,” recalls Melville Shavelson, who co-wrote Hope biography “Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me.” “He was uncomfortable unless the audience was constantly laughing.”
Hope put his stamp on the classic vaudeville monologue and made it the 20th-century model for all subsequent standup acts. It was about time and timing. He found that jokes based on today’s headlines could break up an audience, but it also had to do with tempo and pauses.
“He always had fresh jokes,” says Jay Leno. “If he were still performing, he’d be doing material about rap music.”
Although he might have been considered a lightweight in films, his contract with Paramount held solid for 20 years, and his teaming with Bing Crosby in the “Road” films became the standard for comedy teams until Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin joined the studio a decade later.
Many even considered him a cinematic original. Woody Allen claims that Hope’s comedic style in movies — the cowardly wiseguy — inspired the character he has perfected in his own films. NBC’s latenight talkshow host Conan O’Brien says, “I don’t think a lot of people in my generation saw his best work. If you go back and look at his movies — like ‘Son of Paleface’ or any of the ‘Road’ movies, you’re just amazed at his talent. He was so smooth and so precise.”
By the ’60s he was clearly a national institution — a television star whose award-winning variety specials on NBC, particularly his Christmas shows performed for U.S. troops overseas, touched the hearts of audiences everywhere.
He has increasingly been referred to as a national treasure and the recipient of honors and awards such as the congressional Gold Medal and 54 honorary degrees from colleges and universities (“that I could never have gotten into”). The Guinness Book of World Records says he is the most honored entertainer.
Despite his iconic status, Hope, whose net worth has been estimated at $200 million, has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. One biographer took the comedian to task for his shrewd real estate purchases, purported obsession with money and alleged infidelities.
Regardless, Hope continued to be in demand. Even in his 70s and 80s, Hope kept up a schedule of personal appearances, television specials and guest shots that nearly equaled his most energetic years. He would command $75,000 per appearance, while at the same time perform tirelessly for free on behalf of such organizations as the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation and the Eisenhower Medical Center. One of his most innovative productions was a two-hour television variety show that originated in China.
In 1993, NBC toasted his 90th birthday with a two-hour show that celebrated his 60-year association with the network and a host of celebrities validated his achievements. Chief among the participants was wife Dolores who sang “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” the song she was singing when Bob walked into the nightclub where they first met.
When Hope, then 95, was asked by reporter Kurt Jensen how Dolores changed his life, the comedian replied, “From the beginning, 64 years ago she’s been my stability.” And in the opinion of many of the people who were around the comedian the longest, that’s the absolute truth.
How does he want to be remembered? As a guy who kept people laughing and also thinking about why they laughed. He would never respond, as some of our more thoughtful critics have, that the legacy of Bob Hope’s career is that he has been the most versatile entertainer of our time and that his humor, and especially his monologues — (now all safely stored in the Bob Hope Museum of Entertainment at the Library of Congress) — have uniquely mirrored the history of the past century.
William Robert Faith is the author of “Bob Hope: A Life in Comedy” (DaCapo Press, April 2003).