The following article was published on April 17, 2003, as part of Variety’s Legends and Groundbreakers series.
At 1993’s Academy Awards, host Billy Crystal told the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that a legend was in their midst; the camera shot to 90-year-old Bob Hope, who received a standing ovation.
It was a salute to longevity, legacy and memories.
Hope has appeared on stage at more Oscar presentations than anyone else, including hosting 16 ceremonies and appearing on the program a record 27 times.
Crystal and other recent emcees Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg understand that Hope is the gold standard when it comes to the Oscars, or as Hope refers to the ceremony, “Passover” — a nod to his fruitless quest to nab an Oscar nomination.
From the beginning, Hope had no trouble endearing himself to the Academy. In his first year in Hollywood, he strode to the dais at the Biltmore Hotel to the accompaniment of what would become his signature tune, “Thanks for the Memory,” which Hope sang in his film debut “The Big Broadcast of 1938.” He was there to present the short film awards, but he had a few jokes to distribute first.
Shooting a glance at the gaggle of Oscars yet to be handed out, Hope remarked, “It looks like Bette Davis’ garage.”
At the 1940 Oscars, Acad prexy Walter Wanger surprised Hope with the first of his five honorary Academy Awards, this one a humanitarian laurel. Hope had no jokes prepared, just gratitude: “I don’t feel a bit funny. It’s a kick — it’s a beautiful thing.”
Hope professed shock at each subsequent laurel — once noting that that he did “not have writers for this type of work.”
Despite the honoraries, Hope turned his frustration at never receiving an acting nomination into fodder for his humor. At the 1945 awards he referred to the Oscar statuette as “nothing but bookends with a sneer.”
When he received an honorary statuette at the 1952 awards, one of the first things he did was bite its head to make sure it was genuine, then query, “Is this the same size as Crosby’s?” (Hope’s “Road” movie co-star Bing Crosby had won the lead actor prize eight years before for “Going My Way.”)
When Oscar leaped to TV in 1952, with Hope was on hand to emcee the West Coast part of the telecast. Tweaking the new technology became par for the course: “Television — that’s where movies go to die.”
When his one-liners broached subjects that dwarfed Hollywood, Hope’s humor could be a particular salve. During the Cold War, after Hope had taken a goodwill trip to Moscow, he offered this anecdote at the 1957 awards: “I’ve just returned from Moscow. They had a television in every room, only it watches you.”
At the end of the 1969 Oscars, as the U.S. was divided by the Vietnam War, Hope eschewed gags for a sincere wish for a time “when all the fighting will be for a place in line outside the theater or a better seat inside.” It was Hope at his best — selling a desire for world peace as brilliantly as any punchline.
But during this era of upheaval, Hope occasionally misjudged his topical zingers. After one generation gap crack on sexual liberation, he had to shake off something about as rare for the entertainer as a nomination — boos. The offending gag? “I go back to the kind of movie when a girl says ‘I love you’ and it’s a declaration, not a demonstration.”
Hope returned for his last tour of duty as solo emcee in 1978 to commemorate Oscar’s golden anniversary.
Continuing his tradition of lampooning the lavish, he observed: “I haven’t seen so many jewels go by since I watched Sammy Davis Jr.’s house sliding down Coldwater Canyon.”
By the end of the Oscarcast, though, his mood had turned more sentimental, as Hope saluted an ailing Hollywood icon.
“Duke, we miss you here tonight,” he said of John Wayne, who had open-heart surgery earlier that day. “We expect to see you amble out here in person next year, because nobody else can walk in John Wayne’s boots.”
Source: “Inside Oscar” by Mason Wiley & Damien Bona