HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BOB HOPE By RON MILLER
My Times with Bob Hope
On & off the Christmas card list with the great comic
ob Hope turned 97 on May 29. I don't know what sort of party his friends and family will be throwing this time -- or if there even will be one. Whatever happens, I don't think the press will be invited, which means I won't be there to wish him a happy birthday. I mean, I'm not even on his Christmas card list anymore.
Don't laugh. I really used to be on his Christmas card list, along with a lot of other press guys. And, because I was a nationally syndicated writer, I was on another special list: The people who were invited to his home for private interviews.
Hope cultivated the press. He had guys working for him who kept him up to date on who needed cultivating at any given moment. One of them was Ken Kantor, a dear friend who had handled public relations for the Hope TV specials at NBC in the 1970s. When NBC retired Kantor, Hope immediately un-retired him and put him to work on his payroll, doing the same job he'd done for NBC: handling guys like me.
So, when my newspaper sent me to live and work out of L.A. in 1983, Kantor saw to it that I joined the exclusive roster of columnists he called when Hope was ready to do one-on-one interviews. If Hope had anything really big coming up, I'd go to his house on Moorpark in the Toluca Lake district of North Hollywood, right next to Burbank, and we'd have lunch while I taped an interview. If I needed to talk with him quickly about something specific, I'd call Kantor and arrange a phone interview.
I haven't seen Hope privately since he turned 90 in 1993. NBC cut him loose not long after that, which irritated him no end. He wanted to go on with the network where he'd spent an amazing 50-plus years as a star, but the network wanted to court younger viewers.
I suspect Hope isn't the same man he was when I was a frequent guest at his beautiful English Tudor home in the valley. I know he's grown very hard of hearing and no longer has that brisk walk that used to awe everybody who ever saw him striding through a shopping mall or crossing a golf course. He doesn't host reporters much these days. At 97, who needs them?
Hope is an immortal. He is one of the towering public figures of the 20th century who has crossed over into the 21st, knowing his legacy of humor and public service won't ever be forgotten. He's safely enshrined on Mt. Olympus while he's still breathing.
As for me, I now look back on those years of easy access to this incredible character as a time when a writer's dreams could come true. I treasure those moments the way a modern politician might treasure his private moments with a Harry Truman or an FDR. And, I might add, Hope knew those guys pretty well, too.
Meeting Bob Hope face to face for the first time could be awfully intimidating -- not because Hope was such a difficult guy, but because he was such a famous one.
The late Brandon Tartikoff, who was president of NBC Entertainment at the time, once told me how he felt when he first met Bob Hope in 1980. Tartikoff was then 31 and had just been put in charge of NBC's entertainment division while Hope was 76 and had been a show business immortal for at least a decade before Tartikoff was born. He was the reigning star at NBC, so the young executive was expected to call on Hope and introduce himself.
"I was more than a little in awe of him," Tartikoff said, "but, as it turned out, we just sat around and told jokes."
For me, the situation was much simpler, despite the fact Hope was, to me, the godhead of American comedy. After all, I didn't have to break the news to Hope that I was his new boss. When I showed up at his home in 1983 for our first face to face interview, he knew I was a reporter, so I was home free. Hope liked having reporters around, which automatically made him unique. His old pal and frequent biographer, Bob Thomas, the Associated Press columnist, was just leaving when I showed up that day, but Hope wanted us both to see some funny clips he'd found of Will Rogers, so we all went up to his bedroom and laughed at them together.
Like Tartikoff, I was amazed to discover Hope was a regular guy. He could kick butt when he had to and he could order people around pretty good, but, in more than a decade of frequent personal contact with him, I never saw any evidence he had an ounce of pretension anywhere in his body.
"He's not a guy who's always on," Tartikoff observed, which we both knew was kind of unusual for a show business legend who already had transcended plain old fame and become an American cultural icon.
If you're from my generation, you don't want to picture a world without Bob Hope. That's like driving up to see Mount Rushmore, then discovering they've removed George Washington's face from the lineup.
Actually, the Rushmore imagery is apt. Though Hope was born an Englishman, he was as quintessentially American as George Washington. This is the man who entertained generations of American troops from the 1940s through the 1970s because he so loved the people of this country he came to at the age of 3. So, if they ever put up a Mount Rushmore of American comedians, his should be the first face they carve. Washington may have been the father of our country, but Hope was the father of our comedy -- and you can hear his echo in anybody who does one-liners today, on the stage or around the water cooler.
Relentlessly topical, Hope was as relevant as Will Rogers, but purposely un-folksy. He once told me he'd spent years on the road searching for his comedy style. Once he found it, he defined the 20th Century American attitude: Brash, impertinent and forever smart-mouthed.
Hope could only have thrived in a democracy like ours. Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein would have sent him to the firing squad before his first, "I just wanna tell ya," but American presidents loved him. I know because he had a room off the staircase in his Toluca Lake home that was filled with gifts, letters and awards from every U.S. President since F.D.R. They were offended if he didn't nail them in his monologues.
Hope has been a part of my life so long that I can almost remember humming "Thanks for the Memory" in the womb. He was already a famous movie star the year I was born -- and that was 61 years ago. I grew up copying his radio one-liners and fantasizing myself in the middle of his frantic, surreal "Road" pictures. In that setting, a cowardly dude with no muscles and a weird nose had a good chance of winding up smooching Dorothy Lamour or hugging Jane Russell, then wolf-growling an aside to the camera, suggesting it wasn't going to end there.
The first time I actually saw him in person, he was hustling down a hallway at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, heading for an NBC press conference. I'd waited for him by the door to grab a few quick quotes on his way in, but he was distracted. Natalie Wood was just leaving her press conference and he ducked by me to give her a great big hug. Who on Earth would blame him?
That day he was in rare form. Today's youngsters may not know it, but Hope was once the bane of radio's censors. He got away with one-liners that he later admitted he tried just to get the attention that rocking the boat usually gets. Asked if he set some kind of example for the blue comics to come, Hope admitted that was probably true.
"I'm guilty in a way," he said, though he pointed out his marginal material was tame by today's standards. "On radio, if I said Kate Smith was trying to get her moon over the mountain, the censor would run back and tell me I couldn't say that. Today's it's a straight line."
Over lunch one day, I asked Hope what kept his feet on the ground when just about everybody he met treated him like the second coming. He explained it quite logically: He was a nothing for so many years on his way to the top that all he had to do was think back to those days for a shot of instant humility.
"I came up slow," he told me. "I played all these little towns."
What you got if you were on Bob Hope's Christmas Card list
At one point, he was half of a dance act with George Byrne. After they did their act, the theaters had them come back on stage to dance with Daisy and Violet Hilton, who were Siamese twins. "That's the only reason they booked us," Hope explained, " -- so we would come back after our act and dance with these Siamese twins, who were darling girls."
If you're wondering just how well Hope knew those Siamese twins, just keep on wondering. He had a reputation as a "ladies' man," but I never asked Hope anything about his sex life for fear he'd actually tell me something I didn't want to hear. I'll admit it right here and now: I respected Hope like I respected my Dad. I never wanted to know anything about my Dad's bedroom ways because I liked the image I had of him and didn't want to mess with it. That's the way I felt about Hope, so I never asked him about Daisy and Violet or if he ever found out what Dorothy Lamour had under that sarong.
Instead, I often asked Hope about his salad days in show biz. Patiently, he told me how he got into what we now call standup comedy by accident. One day he was asked to go on stage to introduce Scottish comic Marshall Walker, but he cracked a joke about him in the process. It got a big laugh, so he started adding jokes to his introduction. Pretty soon, he was just telling the jokes.
Even after he discovered his real calling, Hope had trouble earning a decent living. His childhood and youth were spent in poverty, so nearly starving was nothing new. That day he told me his youthful dream was to become so famous that he'd someday earn $1,000 a month. At the time he told me that, though, Hope was earning about $1,000 a minute.
Though the notorious Broadway columnist Walter Winchell savagely derided Hope when he made his movie debut in some comedy short subjects, Hope probably has had the best press relations of any major show business figure. He didn't like a 1980 Rolling Stone profile that he believes was a hatchet job ordered by the editors and he denounced a recent book that suggested he was a major womanizer of Clintonesque proportions, but otherwise he wasn't ever really hounded by scandal-seekers.
There's good reason for that: Hope always made himself available to promote his projects, no matter how small, which meant he got to know literally thousands of journalists. He always treated them like friends, so they reciprocated. (He also was famous for sending out gifts to reporters until new ethics codes caused journalists to send them back.) Did they cover up for Hope when he was playing around? It wouldn't surprise me. If they did it for Jack Kennedy, why not Hope?
For years, Dorothy Lamour, the primary love interest from Hope's old "Road" pictures, lived just a block away from Hope's house in Toluca Lake. One night Hope was hosting some press guys at his house and they asked him if he'd introduce them to Lamour. Drinks had been consumed and nobody realized how late it was when Hope and five reporters began knocking on Lamour's door.
"My husband and I were already in bed, but we had to bring everybody in for drinks," Lamour recalled over lunch with me in 1991. She still remembered what Hope said when she opened the door a tiny crack and demanded to know who was there.
"Don't you recognize my nose?" Hope asked.
In 1988 I got to see Hope in action. It was a taping of an NBC special commemorating his 85th birthday and 50 years with the network. Every show business legend was on hand that night in Burbank, including George Burns, Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, Danny Thomas, Steve Allen, Jay Leno, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jimmy Stewart. Hope was in the middle of it all as the star, but he also was calling the shots on literally everything.
If I didn't believe he was a perfectionist before, I did after he made former First Lady Nancy Reagan do a retake when she sang "Thanks for the Memory" to him. He told her she was slightly out of tune. Just to be fair, he made his wife, Dolores, do a retake on her song, too.
"He always wants to do more," Brandon Tartikoff said of Hope's work ethic. "He goes over everything."
Tartikoff said he didn't always see eye to eye with Hope, but hoped they'd never have a real showdown because "Hope has seniority."
The last time I saw Hope for lunch was in 1993 as he prepared for the fanfare surrounding his upcoming 90th birthday. He had slowed down a good deal, was very hard of hearing and was giving the hired help a bad time, ringing his little bell for service of one kind or another almost constantly. I had to work hard to get my questions over, but, as usual, he answered them all fully, often with colorful anecdotes.
Though Hope was a reservoir of show business stories, he wasn't the least bit mired in nostalgia and, even on the verge of 90, was much more concerned about what he was going to be doing next than what he'd done in the good old days. He said he was in good shape medically and credited it to eating dried fruit regularly -- and having checkups. He was up to date on all the news and could talk with some authority about the new comics making the rounds.
As for his well-known penchant for political conservatives, Hope never bad-mouthed a liberal in my presence. He dearly loved Jack Kennedy and openly called him his favorite among the presidents he'd known. He also adored the Trumans, calling them "great Americans." He had supported George Bush for president, but when I asked him about the Clintons, he said, "They'll do fine."
Ironically, Hope was one of those once rumored to be a potential buyer of NBC. In our last meeting, I asked him if he'd ever seriously considered it. He laughed and said, "What would I do with a network?" A few years later, when NBC dropped him, he might have had a better answer for that.
Hope has never really announced his retirement from show business. Nobody thinks he will either. Milton Berle once suggested waiting for Hope to retire was "like leaving the porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa."
I'm guessing Hope is working on a new monologue right now. After all, this is an election year and he's certainly not going to let a couple of characters like George W. Bush and Al Gore get away unmolested.
I'm also hoping Bob is making big plans for his birthday, like maybe inviting some old pals over to help him blow out the candles. That's the hard part about getting to be 97, though: You have a lot less wind, but a lot more candles to blow out. I'm thinking he's probably working on a good one-liner about that, which may or may not involve the name Monica Lewinsky.
© 2000 by Ron Miller
Reprinted by permission of www.thecolumnists.com.