The First All-Media Television Superstar

Apr 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

At one point during his third NBC special in 1950, Bob Hope got lost behind the curtain at the end of a comedy skit. For another performer on live TV, it might have been a disaster. Instead, as he worked his way out, Mr. Hope kept up a stream of wisecracks. Once again, the audience ate up his classic comedy persona as the dork who tries too hard and always fails, the coward who thinks he is a hero and the hopeless romantic who never gets the girl. His charm, wit and braggadocio were irresistible, honed by years on stage, Broadway and radio and during live appearances.
Leslie Townes “Bob” Hope, born in Eltham, England, May 29, 1903, and raised in Cleveland, was the most important among the first generation of television stars. Like his peers, Mr. Hope had come out of the rough-and-tumble world of vaudeville, where the audiences either liked you or threw a tomato at your puss. Young performers learned to do whatever it took-sing, dance, act, tell jokes. And Bob Hope did it all.
His peers included Milton Berle, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Jimmy Durante. Ultimately, none enjoyed as successful a career in TV as Mr. Hope, who clearly had a special knack for this new form of mass communication.
He was cool in a hot medium. He never seemed to take any of it too seriously. He was always the cheeky smart aleck ready with a wisecrack. He was the guy who would boast and then get caught in his own tangle of lies, charming his way out in the end.
His star shined in 284 prime-time network shows and some 700 guest appearances over 47 years. He was a seminal figure in the history of TV, not only for his comedy, much of which is too topical to translate to other generations, but because he was the first performer to master the medium. His innovations, such as the topical monologue (with a nod to Will Rogers), made Mr. Hope the forerunner to stand-up comics and talk show hosts such as Leno and Letterman.
Television was ideally tailored to his talents, but Mr. Hope almost didn’t get his chance. He was under contract to make movies at Paramount Pictures, where the top mogul was sure that TV appearances would hurt movie box office. Mr. Hope insisted on plunging ahead into the new medium and received hate letters from some exhibitors, threatening a boycott of his movies.
Indeed, movie attendance was dropping as millions bought TV sets, but Paramount soon realized that Mr. Hope’s appearances were free commercials for his movies.
He was among the first to understand modern media cross-promotion. He was the prototype of the modern media man whose TV and radio appearances, concerts, movies, books and live appearances all helped boost each other.
He had a shrewd understanding of marketing. His shows included pretty girls, hot pop stars and others, from beauty queens to the All-America football team, to bring in the widest possible audience.
Much of his act originated on radio, which he later recalled fondly as “TV without eyestrain.” The elements included a live audience, a cast of colorful regulars (like Jerry Colonna or Frank Fontaine), a band (usually with Les Brown waving the baton), a popular singer of the era (preferably a shapely female), an announcer (who could play straight man) and a guest star with whom he could banter, like longtime pals Bing Crosby, Jack Benny or Lucille Ball.
Mr. Hope kept a staff of nearly a dozen writers creating special material for every appearance, but really functioned as his own head writer. He knew what worked best. His humor had real edge, but it was rarely aimed at an individual.
His programs commanded a share of more than 70 percent of all those viewing TV on four separate occasions. If only because of audience dilution today, it would be virtually impossible to repeat that feat.
Hope in his time was among the most influential and visible personalities in the world. While his super-patriotism didn’t always wear well, especially toward the end of the Vietnam War, his commitment to entertain servicemen from World War II through the Gulf War helped create generations of fans who would never forget him.
Bob Hope has been cited by Guinness as “most honored entertainer” with over 1,500 awards for professional and humanitarian efforts. However, he has never received the respect he deserves for his profound influence on television.
Mr. Hope no longer makes public appearances but if he did, and had read this column, he would make a joke of it. He would remind us that he was just a song-and-dance man who once took second billing to Siamese twins and trained seals.
In fact, in TV history Bob Hope takes second billing to no one.