Posted on: Tuesday, July 29, 2003
BOB HOPE: 1903-2003
Comic was 'standard-bearer'
By Al Martinez
Los Angeles Times
Hope's wife, Dolores, and other members of his family were at his bedside when he died.
An increasingly frail Hope marked his 100th birthday quietly on May 29 with well-wishing from the famous and not so famous from around the globe. His home in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Toluca Lake was inundated with birthday cards and flowers. An intimate party attended by close family members was held with cake and a 100-candle celebration.
President Bush led the nation in mourning for the comedian yesterday, noting that "the nation has lost a great citizen."
"Bob Hope served our nation when he went to battlefields to entertain thousands of troops from different generations," the president told reporters before boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base. "We extend our prayers to his family. God bless his soul."
One of the world's most enduring comedians, "Rapid Robert" outlasted hundreds of briefly popular political satirists, social-comment comics and television sitcom stars who flared and fizzled.
From his early days in radio to the television specials that would endear him to subsequent generations, Hope became synonymous with the comedy monologue, striving to be topical but not offensive, cocksure but not arrogant.
"He possessed all the gifts I, and all other comedians, could ever ask for or want," "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno said in a statement yesterday. "(He had) impeccable comic timing, an encyclopedic memory of jokes, and an effortless ability with quips. His monologues which were always so topical had an enormous influence on me. In fact, they established the paradigm for me, and for all of us in this business. We are all blessed to have had him as our standard-bearer."
With his wisecracking manner and trademark sneer, Hope was the quintessential populist comedian, his humor fueled by the legions of joke writers for whom he was a tough boss.
"He had such a strong comic persona that all the writers got to know it," said Gene Perret, who began writing jokes for Hope in 1969. "It was a confidence that bordered on arrogance. Hope could always boast about himself, but it (would) normally turn itself around where he's the brunt of the joke."
"If they had coed dorms when I went to school, you know what I'd be today?" Hope once quipped. "A sophomore."
Hope was a friend of, and honored by, presidents for more than 50 years starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he was an acquaintance and occasional golf partner of celebrities around the globe.
His face was known to millions of Americans spanning three generations, perhaps especially those who served in the military during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
His shows for the troops with an entourage of other comics, singers, dancers and pretty women lasted for half a century, often not far from the fighting, earning Hope praise for his patriotic efforts and criticism for his hawkish stance during the Vietnam War.
He estimated once that he had traveled almost 10 million air miles entertaining American service personnel around the world, and he ended his regular Christmas shows in 1972 during the difficult days of the Vietnam War.
The hiatus lasted 11 years. In 1983, at 80, Hope once more hit the road, this time traveling to Lebanon, where a peacekeeping force of U.S. Marines and ships of the 6th Fleet had gathered.
In the early '90s, the octogenarian Hope was in the Middle East cheering soldiers in Operation Desert Shield and then Operation Desert Storm during the first U.S. campaign against Saddam Hussein.
Queen Elizabeth II recognized the native Briton's entertainment of British troops during World War II by granting him knighthood. His official title was Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
Hope was born Leslie Towns Hope on May 29, 1903, in Eltham, England, the son of stonemason William Henry Hope and Avis Townes Hope, a former concert singer.
He was the fifth of seven brothers, and when he was 4 his family moved to Cleveland, where he attended grade school. He became a U.S. citizen in 1920. After high school, Hope tried various jobs including boxing under the name Packy East and then began dance lessons. He was a natural.
At 19, he was teaching dance classes, and two years later he was booked by Fatty Arbuckle into a show called "Hurley's Jolly Follies." It was the beginning.
From "Follies," he went on to vaudeville in Detroit and then to a part in the show "The Sidewalks of New York." After it folded in 1927, Hope, until then not a soloist or comedy specialist, discovered that he was both.
But those weren't easy times. He lived mostly on coffee and doughnuts and once got by on a nickel's worth of beans a day for four weeks, an experience he recalled later when he was making as much as $50,000 for an hour's performance.
In 1938, Pepsodent gave him his own radio show, which began his six-decade association with NBC, and he made his feature film debut in "The Big Broadcast of 1938."
"Big Broadcast," more than anything else, elevated the comedian to stardom and gave him his theme song, the Academy Award-winning "Thanks for the Memory," which he had sung in the movie.
Hope kept the NBC radio show for 18 years, and his guest stars read like a who's who of the entertainment world: Al Jolson, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, Bette Davis and Red Skelton.
He met Bing Crosby playing golf, a game both loved almost as much as entertaining, and invited him to appear on his radio show.
A lasting friendship grew, barbed in public and warm in private. Crosby gave Hope the name "Ski Snoot," and Hope liked to needle Crosby about his wealth by saying, "Bing doesn't pay income tax. He just calls the government and says, 'How much do you boys need?' "
They turned their mock feuds and personal friendship into a winning combination in seven road films, beginning in 1940 with "Road to Singapore" and ending in 1962 with "Road to Hong Kong."
Hope made 58 movies in all, including such classics as "The Ghost Breakers," "The Paleface," "Monsieur Beaucaire" and "Fancy Pants." In addition to his screen career, 10 books of humor or autobiography were either written or co-written under Hope's name.
Honors were heaped on Hope throughout his career. The Guinness Book of Records cited him as the most honored and publicly praised entertainer in the world, with more than 2,000 awards.
Golf was more than a hobby or pastime with Hope. He liked to say it was his vocation and comedy his avocation. A golf club was often his prop on stage, and golf clubs filled his Toluca Lake home.
But more than golf, Hope loved his family, and in private he would agonize about the years on the road that kept him away while his children were growing up.
In 1934 he married singer Dolores Reade while he was appearing in "Roberta" on Broadway, and they adopted Linda, Anthony, Nora and Kelly.
Once, during a private interview, as he sat by a window overlooking his lush gardens in Toluca Lake, he reminisced about how the children would sit at the dining room table as he read his radio routines, with wife Dolores, a devout Catholic, admonishing him when his jokes were too risqu for family consumption.
"I learned to temper my humor in those years," he said. "I discovered which jokes were for matinees and which ones for the night crowds in Vegas. Dolores was a tough critic."
"He was gone a lot and we missed him, of course," Dolores Hope said, "but we always had quality instead of quantity. ... When he wasn't home, he'd call almost every day, except when he was in a combat zone. Even then, he'd try."
Theirs was a happy marriage, she once said, and she would not have traded it for anything.
"We are normal, imperfect people trying to be perfect. We have been blessed with humor and with a respect for each other," she said.
Then she added with a smile: "If it hadn't been a good marriage, I'd have never stayed."
Despite the reports of his many infidelities over the years, she was a patient but not docile wife to the hyperactive comedian. When they were together, he often deferred to her.
"Dolores takes care of me," Hope often said, and as a result he watched his diet, slept well and exercised, keeping himself fit and trim. He was able to make occasional public appearances well into his 90s.
On Sunday night, family members, as well as longtime caregivers and a priest, gathered at his Toluca Lake home as the comedian slipped away.
"I can't tell you how beautiful and serene and peaceful it was," his daughter Linda told a news conference yesterday. "The fact that there was a little audience gathered around, even though it was family, I think warmed dad's heart."
"He really left us with a smile on his face and no last words. ... He gave us each a kiss and that was it," she said.
Times staff writers Paul Brownfield and Susan King contributed to this report.