The following article was published on April 17, 2003, as part of Variety’s Legends and Groundbreakers series.
While the Brokaws, Seinfelds and other Peacock giants have inscribed their names in NBC’s history books, one name stands above them all.
When the two-hour “100 Years of Hope & Humor” airs at 7 p.m. Sunday, it will mark the 286th primetime special Bob Hope has appeared in for the network. The date is also significant in that it will be exactly 53 years since his first special aired on NBC. It will also be the first Hope special in which the comedian will not appear, due to his frail health.
If Hope’s glory days are behind him, his legacy at NBC is unparalleled. Going back to his radio days, Hope began at Rockefeller Center in 1937 with a series of vaudeville shows and his contract with the network — 66 years — is the longest of any performer in the history of showbiz.
Though the ratings universe has completely changed over the years, Hope’s numbers have been extraordinary. Nineteen shows had ratings shares in the 60s and 50 shows were in the 50s.
“Starting in 1980, I was the NBC programming executive who worked with Mr. Hope on his specials,” says Rick Ludwin, the Peacock’s senior VP of latenight and primetime series. “I was impressed that he would still call personally to check on the promos, ask about the print ads and the morning after each of his shows, the overnight ratings.
“He loved being in on the action, trading the latest stories and jokes. He wanted his monologue and the sketches to reflect whatever was popular and in the news. He usually taped his monologue separately from the rest of his show as close to the air date as possible, often borrowing the audience of Johnny Carson’s ‘The Tonight Show’ to do so.” For Sunday’s show, dozens of entertainers and athletes will appear to pay homage. Many weren’t even born when Hope enjoyed his heyday in the 1950s and ’60s — Sean Astin, Tiger Woods — while other comedians appearing — Brad Garrett, Ray Romano, Bruce Vilanch, Bernie Mac — consider Hope an inspiration.