NEW YORK — While today he may be thought of with misgivings, if at all, Bob Hope reigned for much of the last century as America’s wisecracking avatar of comedy.
By the time he died in 2003 at age 100, Hope had conquered vaudeville, Broadway, recordings, live concerts, radio, films and, from its infancy, TV, where he remained a welcome presence into his 90s.
“By nearly any measure, he was the most popular entertainer of the twentieth century,” writes Richard Zoglin.
That alone should bear out Hope’s career-long theme song, “Thanks for the Memory.” Yet memories of Hope have already dimmed, and his achievements, still felt by performers and audiences alike, now are largely taken for granted.
Aiming to correct that, Zoglin, an arts writer and editor for Time magazine, has drawn on his enduring fascination and years of research to produce “Hope: Entertainer of the Century” (Simon & Schuster), the first major biography of this towering figure. It’s a thorough, evenhanded and absorbing portrait of the man who, beyond his vast exposure through the media, “may well have been seen in person by more people than any other human being in history,” Zoglin writes.
From childhood, Zoglin loved Bob Hope for his films, including the classic “Road” comedies he made with Bing Crosby, and the zippy monologues that were a staple of his TV specials.
Then the idea for a biography struck as Zoglin researched his first book, “Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America.”
“I talked to all those comedians, from (George) Carlin through (Jerry) Seinfeld, and I would ask them who their influences were,” recalled Zoglin in a recent interview. “Nobody once mentioned Bob Hope. I thought that was really unjust because, in my opinion, he invented their art form. That made me want to take a closer look at him.”
Hope the father of standup?
Zoglin explained, “Instead of packaged routines that were part of their own self-contained world, Hope took topicality and turned it into jokes — what standup comics do today.” And he was doing it as early as the 1930s.
Hope’s forte was rat-a-tat zingers churned out by his stable of writers, not him, but mined from his persona and the world he shared with his audience. They were cheeky and relatable and, even when they touched on hot-button issues, they were carefully crafted to ruffle no one’s feathers. Consider this relic dating from Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare of the 1950s: “McCarthy is going to disclose the names of 2 million Communists. He just got his hands on a Moscow telephone book.”
Thus did Hope as a jokester maintain a close but not too close relationship with relevance, while staying safely far afield of the partisan.
Born in London, Leslie Towns Hope arrived in America at age 5 with his family. He was destined to achieve global fame, but would remain quintessentially American with his snappy vocal style, his image (brash, upbeat, irreverent), even the name he gave himself in his 20s (Bob “had more ‘Hiya, fellas’ in it” than Leslie, he reasoned). He embraced “our boys in uniform” (whom he entertained on innumerable concert tours), and was embraced by America’s power elite, including presidents Harry Truman through Bill Clinton, both on and off the golf course.
Hope’s ties to one of those presidents, Richard Nixon, and his all-too-vocal support of the Vietnam War did him grave harm among the under-30 generation, a portion of which never forgave him.
But that stood as the lone misstep during a career that seemed blessed not only by Hope’s talent but also by his enterprise and impeccable timing.
“He was smart enough to figure out how to follow the mass audience wherever it was going, from vaudeville to radio, to movies, to television,” Zoglin said. And in tracking this multiplatform cakewalk, Zoglin also chronicles the century of show business that Hope blazed.
Meanwhile, the book penetrates as well as any biography could this man who lived his life masked by the public face of Bob Hope.
“I don’t think he had many close friends,” said Zoglin. “He was a distant father and he cheated on his wife. I think there was a certain poverty in his inner life that maybe his public life compensated for: What gave him the most satisfaction was being onstage.”
By the end, Hope stayed onstage too long, sadly past the time when he could keep fans coming back.
“Hope needed to keep performing,” writes Zoglin, “because he couldn’t stop believing that the audience needed him.” And though the audience eventually stopped needing him, that doesn’t undercut his remarkable run or his lasting impact on popular culture. Zoglin’s fine book makes a rich case for why.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore