Five reasons Bob Hope is a Hollywood original -- He wasn't just a corny old yukster; today's performers owe him a debt and acknowledge his influence

By Gary Susman
July 28, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Bob Hope: Kobal Collection

Audiences under the age of 40 may remember Bob Hope only as the old wisecracker leering at Brooke Shields on countless corny TV specials, or as a guy who played golf with presidents. Those who caught his career only during its long twilight may not realize how thoroughly he dominated all facets of show business for decades, or how much of a debt of influence he’s owed by some of today’s top performers. Here are five areas where Hope, who died July 27 at age 100, set the standard.

The Oscars
Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Steve Martin have a long way to go if they want to match Hope’s tenure as host of the Academy Awards. He hosted the show some 18 times between 1940 and 1978, more than anyone else in Oscar history. Hope liked to grumble that his emcee gig often left him the only person on the podium who always went home empty-handed; he opened the show one year by welcoming everyone to the Academy Awards, ”or, as it’s known at our house, Passover.” Actually, Hope won five Oscars between 1941 and 1966, though none was for his acting. They were all honorary citations, including the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1960, all for his service to the industry. At least no one has won as many honorary Oscars as he did.

The USO Tours
These days, it’s almost de rigeur to see stars heading out on USO tours to perform for the troops; indeed, without the USO, Coolio probably wouldn’t still have a career. But long before Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Robin Williams, and Mariah Carey showed their love to the G.I.s, Hope was there, even when it meant putting himself in harm’s way. ”I guess I have my critics everywhere,” he said, when a Saigon hotel was blown up just before his arrival. From his first tour in 1941 to his last in 1990, he logged some 3 million miles and entertained some 10 million troops. For his efforts, Hope was named an honorary veteran in 1997 and had a naval support ship named after him. In later years, especially during the Vietnam War, opposition to the conflict at home (and often among the troops themselves) widened the generation gap between the gung-ho Hope and his audience. Still, his humor was topical without being divisive. As he told a military audience in 1966, ”Technically, we’re not at war. So remember that when you get shot. Technically, it doesn’t hurt.”

The Movies
Hope liked to joke about the how little respect he earned for his film career, but he had a strong following among both critics and audiences (he was a top 10 box-office draw from 1941 to 1953). Decades before Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson (or Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, or Robert Redford and Paul Newman), Hope and golfing pal Bing Crosby invented the buddy comedy in their “Road” movies. Among Hope’s best, besides ”The Road to Morocco” (1942) and ”The Road to Utopia” (1946), are 1952’s ”Son of Paleface” (an even funnier sequel to his 1948 Western spoof ”The Paleface”), 1946’s ”Monsieur Beaucaire” (a spoof set in ancien-regime France, and Hope’s favorite among his own movies), and 1955’s ”The Seven Little Foys,” a rare dramatic role for Hope as Eddie Foy Sr., a real-life vaudevillian of the type Hope himself started out as.

The TV Specials
According to the Bob Hope archives at the Library of Congress, Hope made some 284 specials for NBC from 1950 to 1996; including his radio years, he had an unbroken contract with the broadcaster for more than six decades. The shows held to a reliable formula: topical jokes, a parade of college football players, and sketches where Hope would jostle with fellow old-timers (George Burns, Jack Benny), crack wise with then-current TV stars (say, Kirk Cameron or Tom Selleck), and ogle starlets (frequently Brooke Shields, though he’d sidle up to anyone from Raquel Welch to Ann Jillian). The specials were always dependable ratings winners, and they singlehandedly kept alive Hope’s vaudeville tradition into the videocassette era. He was even hip enough to win a cameo on ”The Simpsons” in 1992, where he crowned Lisa as Junior Miss Springfield. ”Actually, they made me look fairly good,” he told Entertainment Weekly. ”Well, anyway, they made me look younger. Dolores [his wife] thought I never looked better. I played myself, but I could have used a little more time to get into the role.”

The One-Liners
Hope was one of the first comics to get by with no gimmicks other than his persona, his whipcrack timing, and his verbal wit. Comics from Drew Carey, whose self-deprecating deadpan is a descendant of Hope’s, to Conan O’Brien, who openly swiped Hope’s lecherous growl, have acknowledged his influence. Woody Allen, who began selling jokes to Hope as a teenager, told the New York Times in May: ”I just see an enormous skill and hilarity to his delivery, and his persona, and the character that he developed over the years, and the superbly flippant style that coped with every situation.” In his comedy, Hope tackled everything from politics to golf to his own life. His harmless leer allowed him to sneak sex jokes past the censors that might have tripped up other performers. During a 1940 radio broadcast, Dorothy Lamour told Hope that she was just pulling his leg. He replied: ”Dottie, you can pull my right leg, and you can pull my left leg, but don’t mess with Mr. In-Between!” He and his writers amassed a file of 89,000 pages of jokes, or more than a million punch lines, which he donated to the Library of Congress. He had enough jokes to tell his entire life story in one-liners, which he did just this year, in ”Bob Hope: My Life in Jokes.” ”I consider myself very fortunate,” he once said. “I owe everything to my family and my make-up man. My wonderful family keeps me going and my wonderful make-up man keeps me from looking like I already went.”