Thanks for the Memories

Apr 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

No performer in the history of television can top the success of Bob Hope. Not only is he the most honored entertainer in history, but he also holds the distinction of maintaining the longest-running contract with a single network-more than 60 years with NBC. And while he enjoyed remarkable success in vaudeville, radio and film before his jump into national television in 1950, the small screen offered him the longevity that most of his contemporaries could only dream to reach.
On April 9, 1950, Bob Hope made his national television debut with the Easter Sunday special Star Spangled Revue. Despite the success of the special, Mr. Hope fought off the urge to immediately sign up for a weekly show-a trap that spelled the end of many of his radio colleagues’ careers. Instead, Mr. Hope opted for extravagant specials, most significantly his Christmas shows that ran for an unprecedented 20 years, from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s.
The Christmas specials were most often filmed during Mr. Hope’s goodwill tours to entertain the troops overseas, which became Bob Hope’s signature. These specials were so loved by the viewing public that two of the programs-both during the Vietnam War, still rank among the 30 all-time top-rated television programs. But rather than recount his three television series, his more than 280 television specials or his last television appearance in 1997, as we look back on Mr. Hope’s amazing contribution to television, consider the qualities that made this man the towering icon he still is today. And who better to recount these unique attributes as Bob Hope celebrates his 100th birthday than those individuals who had the pleasure to work with him.
Virtually every one of his colleagues was amazed at Mr. Hope’s uncanny ability to connect with his audience. Gene Perret, who served as Mr. Hope’s head writer for the 10 years up until his last TV special, noted that Mr. Hope was “so astute about what the audience was looking for. He had his finger on the pulse of everything. He knew what the audience wanted and he gave it to them.”
Mort Lachman, who was one of Mr. Hope’s first writers, commented about “the very intimate relationship between Hope and his audience. He loved the audience and they loved him.” Mel Shavelson, also one of Mr. Hope’s earliest writers, recalled, “He could get to be one of the audience. And to his generation, he represented America, and he risked his life to bring humor to Americans.”
Though his demeanor in front of his audience may have seemed effortless, his work ethic was beyond reproach. He surrounded himself with a cadre of talented writers, and Bill Faith, his public relations executive from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s and the author of Bob Hope: A Life of Comedy, summed it up succinctly: “He was in charge.”
Mr. Perret always knew that Mr. Hope “pushed his writers because he only wanted the best. He would call anytime from the road and tell me about what, maybe, the mayor of Cincinnati had just done. He said he would call back in a half-hour. He’d call back, wouldn’t say hello and just say, `Thrill me.”’
To colleagues, no performer topped his comedic genius. Hal Kanter, who for many years wrote, directed and produced for Mr. Hope, was awestruck by “his prodigious memory for jokes.” Marie Osmond, who appeared on his program for the first time at age 13, offered possible insight as to why Mr. Hope may have retained such unique recall for his quips. “Bob told me that he kept a card file in his basement of every joke he ever told and where he told each joke.”
Phyllis Diller compared his intellect to that of Albert Einstein and asserted confidently, “He knew more about comedy than anyone.” Mr. Perret said working for Mr. Hope was the equivalent of obtaining “a Ph.D in comedy.”
The chance to attend Bob Hope U. kept writers and performers coming back for more. “Working for Hope was an education on how to write a joke and how to get it to go,” Mr. Shavelson recalled. He added, “Bob did not look at the end date of a contract.”
Mr. Kanter recalled, “Once you worked for Hope, you always worked for him. You were on loan to the rest of the world.”
Ms. Osmond described Mr. Hope as an “incredibly bright man [who] treated me like one of his kids. He took me under his wing. He was a wonderful friend.”
That camaraderie and jocularity made working with Mr. Hope feel as if it was not work, Ms. Diller reminisced. “He always teased me. I would be coming out of makeup and he would say to me, `When are you going into makeup?’ He used to quip that my bra size was 34 long. He joked that before I had my faced fixed, a Peeping Tom threw up on my windowsill.”
Mr. Shavelson fondly remembered that he and Mr. Hope would occasionally disagree on whether a joke would work. They would bet $5 on whether it would garner laughs, and then “Bob would louse it up just to win the bet.”
While preparing for a special celebrating the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, one of Mr. Perret’s jokes died in rehearsal. “Hope walked up to me and said, `You wrote it.’ He gave some keys to another writer and told him to take me to the Tower of London.”
A career working with Bob Hope is filled with favorite television shows. While certain trips to entertain the troops naturally touched those who were involved-the 1983 trip to Beirut and the 1991 trip during the Gulf War, for example-remarkably, one annual event was cited repeatedly as a favorite. “His Oscar performances were absolutely superb,” Mr. Lachman said. “The Oscars have never been as good.”
Hal Kanter pronounced that Mr. Hope “was the best master of ceremonies that the Oscars ever had.”
If Mr. Hope could be on television today, Gene Perret is sure where he would be. “He would be in Iraq,” Mr. Perret said. “He had such a devotion to the soldiers. His philosophy would not be whether the troops should be there, but he knew that he should be there. They would need uplifting.”