In his long dynamic career, Bob Hope's story resonates as a cultural history of the last decade: a rags-to-riches immigrant, he was a pioneer in vaudeville, inventing stand up as we know it: he worked in movies and on television, and entertained the troops abroad. Not only was his profile, a ski slope nose, a world famous trademark, but so too were his walk and turns of phrase: "I wanna tell ya," he would say. In a new biography, Hope, Time Magazine's theater critic Richard Zoglin provides an engrossing read on Bob Hope's life and times. I caught up with Richard Zoglin recently to find out why Hope mattered so much, the artist Jeff Koons would sculpt him in silver, and why Dick Cavett would walk his walk.
What was the moment that made you realize there was a great book in Bob Hope?
I always liked him, and even before I did my previous book, Comedy on the Edge, I thought of doing a book about Bob Hope. I did '70' comedy instead, and then went back to Hope. I always wondered who did the first stand up, where did it come from? Older comics had flashy packaged routines. When Bob was in vaudeville and he'd be an M.C., he explored improvisation. He was the founding father of stand up comedy in the form we know today.
For Comedy on the Edge, I talked to comedians, George Carlin, Richard Lewis, Robert Klein, Jerry Seinfeld, and others about the comedians who influenced them. They mentioned many people but no one mentioned Bob Hope and it struck me as a real injustice. He was the first guy on the radio to do topical monologues. The other radio comedians in 1938 were all vaudeville guys like Burns & Allen doing routines. Jack Benny had a character with his butler Rochester so they were in their own little worlds. Bob Hope did not have a character. The idea of a stand up comedian commenting on the state of the world and their own life is something Bob Hope invented. He used writers and told them to read the news for their material. Comedians of the '60's and '70's wrote their own material so they did not see Bob as doing the same thing. A lot of comedians rejected him and became anti-Bob Hope. I wanted people to realize that even though his style became very old fashioned. You have to recognize he was an innovator when he started out.
Bob Hope is such an iconic figure, aren't there already several biographies?
Yes, but they are not very good. Of all those major Hollywood figures, he is the only one who has not had a major biography about him that people read. Think of it Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Kathryn Hepburn have each had one or more major biographies done about them; that's missing with Bob and I couldn't understand why. He was so big for so long and then in later years he was damaged during the Vietnam era. He alienated the younger generation, fairly or unfairly, and in later years he stayed on too long, appearing on televsion when he really shouldn't have been. Most people have a memory of him as a doddering old guy who couldn't hear very well so by the end, people were through with Bob Hope. It's been a long enough time to reexamine his achievements, which were enormous.
What would young people today who may be seeing him in collaborations with Bing Crosby on Turner Movie Classics enjoy about him?
In movies he created a character who was fresh and original. The 1930's romantic comedies were stylized and funny. But when Hope came around with Bing Crosby they had a much more casual intimate style, improvisational: they would talk to the camera, talk to each other creating a much more relatable comedy. People who look back at the "road" movies are surprised at how improvisational they are. They would break the 4th wall all the time, have self-referential jokes about their lives and career. He was a real innovator in his time and people should rediscover that. He was on television from the 1950's to the late 1990's. All of those years he was a top rated star on NBC. Others like Sid Caesar had a short run, Jackie Gleason had a decade or so. Lucille Ball may have had the longest run. Bob's 1970's specials on Vietnam were the highest rated programs on television, and are still on the top 10 lists for entertainment shows of all time.
Didn't Hope stand for more than just entertainment?
Yes, he stepped outside of show business and became a public figure. He was friends with every president from Truman through Clinton, and with his work for charity and entertaining the troops, he showed that a comedian could take a role on the public stage, and do good works. He was a role model for Hollywood in terms of public service. He showed it was an obligation to use your celebrity to give back. Other stars supported charities, but few made it a part of their image the way Bob did.
Was he anti-Semitic, or racist in any way?
I don't think so. He had a lot of Jewish writers who worked for him. I think he had the kind of generic attitude about Jews that most suburban Wasps of the 1950's had. His attitude toward race and religion was: if you are talented, I will have you on my show. Pearl Bailey was one of his favorites. Here is a story that is not in my book. Billie Holliday in her autobiography said in the early '40's there was a heckler making racist remarks during one of her performances. Hope was in the audience: he stood up, and shut the guy up. She forever remembered that. When it came to talent, he was open-minded.
Your book portrays Hope as a womanizer. Was it more than just being a man of his time?
He was married to Dolores for nearly 70 years. Before Dolores he had a first marriage that he kept under wraps to his vaudeville partner. After Dolores, he had no compunctions about fooling around. He was fairly open about it; everyone covered for him the way they used to in those days, and the way you couldn't get away with today. He was attracted to lesser performers who would appear in shows with him, and travel with him. As a rule, he was not into the big stars; to my knowledge he did not have anything to do with Raquel Welch, Ann Margret, or other big stars entertaining in Vietnam, although his costars had a lot of affection for him. For some it was the high light of their careers. He chose chorus girls or singers. He was active till late in his life. He assumed that others would be quiet --and they were.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.