“I don’t think I’d do anything if it were a sacrifice.”
— Bob Hope
It should have been an antic sight gag in a Ben Turpin silent comedy. But eighteen-year-old Les Hope was a far cry from Mack Sennett’s Hollywood “fun factory” as he clung near the top of a teetering pine in the woods of Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley. Spending the summer of 1921 working with his brother Jim, 27, a foreman at the Ohio and Southern Ohio Power Company, Hope had been tying a towrope to the tall pine when it became apparent that more of its base had been sawed away than was customary. As the lofty tree began its final tilt, Hope had the reckless good sense to swing around to the upper side of the trunk. That frantic move probably saved his life, but when the tree slammed to the ground, the fury of the impact crushed the handsome young man’s face.
“I woke up in the hospital [Cleveland’s Polyclinic] and they wouldn’t give me a mirror for three weeks,” Bob a.k.a. Leslie Townes Hope now recounts tensely. “I was worried, but I felt lucky to be alive. My family was relieved when they found out there were no brain injuries, but the doctors had to rearrange my nose and face. I also had two big facial scars afterward that they’ve since fixed up.”
But the promising young vaudeville hoofer (he had dropped out of high school in his junior year to dance at the local Bandbox Theater) would never look quite the same again. The surgical reconstruction didn’t alter his former visage so much as sharpen it. The cheekbones became more pronounced; the chin acquired a strong, jutting quality, and the nose, previously somewhat snubby, took on the unmistakable appearance of…a ski jump.
Now pushing seventy-seven, the controversial comedian does not like to talk about that incident from his youth. During his six decades in entertainment, there has been virtually no mention of it in his numberless interviews and biographies; and when the man is asked, point blank, about that frightful twist of fate, he squirms, sputters, nervously scratches his famous nose and then mutters, barely loud enough to be heard, “Er, I guess the accident might have helped me in the long run, right?”
The afternoon sunlight spilling into the dining nook freezes Hope’s profile into a forbidding silhouette. But when he abruptly turns his balding head to direct his Mexican maid to serve the pork chops, the darkness falls away, and the pale, severe countenance comes into crisp focus. The years have drawn the skin tight around some of his features and draped it loosely upon others, giving the Hope head the appearance of a chiseled bust covered with a taut pink pillowcase. But eyeholes have been cut out of the fleshy fabric, and the old gaze burns through, hard brown and implacable.
We are seated opposite each other in a glassed-in bay that overlooks the putting green on Hope’s six-acre Toluca Lake compound, which includes this fifteen-room home and a rambling ranch house addition where his personal offices are located. Just over the hill from Hollywood, this has been Hope’s favorite hideaway for some forty years, his official headquarters and a comfy adjunct to his “guest house” outside Columbus, Ohio, and three residences in Palm Springs, one of which is the size of an average metropolitan airline terminal.
Dressed in a baggy white tennis shirt, green plaid slacks and scuffed brown suede moccasins, Hope has been chatting with me about his sentimental attachment to the Toluca Lake household when he rises suddenly, pressing his flowered cotton napkin to his throat in a curious, repetitive gesture. He motions for me to follow him across the room to a highly polished chest containing the genealogy compiled for him last year by Research International.
Hope begins turning the quasi-parchment pages with boyish enthusiasm, pointing out the sepia photos of his birthplace (a humble brick flat at 44 Craighton Road in Eltham, Kent, England), his father (William Henry Hope, a husky, jocund stonemason with a handlebar mustache, shown clowning in a series of funny hats) and his beloved mother (the former Avis Townes, a shy, delicate woman with a beguiling smile).
“My grandfather was a builder and my father followed in his footsteps,” Hope offers softly. “My father left England in 1907 and went to Cleveland. He built the Presbyterian Church on Euclid Avenue — but he wasn’t religious. It was just a job. We followed him later on a ship [Hope was four years old].
“My dad was sort of an amateur comedian, and he would go ’round and play a few pubs in England and have a few drinks with the boys. My mother was a concert singer in Wales before she got married. There were seven boys, and our house was like a frat house. [It is a little-known fact that Hope also had a sister, Avis Emily, who died in infancy.
“Disappeared,” as Bob tersely puts it.] My dear mother worked so hard supporting us, dressing us, keeping us fed. She used to bake lemon pies, which everyone loved. We were average financially; we had to fight it out, and everybody had to work.”
As Hope flips the pages, the photos soon give way to diagrams and text. When I show too much interest, he shuts the chest and politely but firmly orders me back to the table.
Taking my seat, I stare at my host, trying to see past the mesmerizing familiarity of his floodgate grin. The most famous and well-traveled funnyman alive, Bob Hope is also the most cryptic, an omnipresent, wisecracking American caricature who seems to cast no shadow. A star to millions, he has long since mastered the art of moving through public places with a swift, deliberate stride, paying deft, economical attention to the outpourings of awed passers-by while never slackening his pace.
Up close, he seems the inveterate professional gentleman, a smooth-talking, glad-handing elder statesman who is perfectly at ease with the showbiz prattle and conservative political posturing that have characterized his World War II, Korea and Vietnam USO tours and his thousands of peacetime benefit walk-ons. Hope strives to project a happy-go-lucky sprightliness that is indefatigable, but whenever our talk turns to something of substance, his triphammer timing falters.
“You always speak of your childhood in rosy, idyllic terms,” I tell him, “but I know, for instance, that your older brothers twice saved you from drowning. The first time it was Ivor, way back when you were a baby in England. And then there was a time in your early teens…”
“God!” Hope blurts, eyeing me suspiciously. “Where’d you get that?”
“From a little research. It’s true, isn’t it?”
“Well, ah, I believe it was Fred who rescued me the second time,” he concedes with obvious discomfort. “That’s an old piece of business, that is.” He is about to change the subject when he interjects with a triumphant grin, “There was a little commotion when I got home, but my family was kinda happy to see me survive — ’cause they knew I was gonna be a breadwinner later on.
“Actually, it’s funny you mention that,” he adds, “because I’ve done an awful lot of things for Fred lately. He’s the only brother I have left, you know.”
There is an underlying rivalry in Hope’s tone when he details his relationship with his brothers. Fred Hope, now eighty-two and in poor health, describes Bob as “a kid who was a big show off since he was about nine. He used to walk past the local firehouse doing imitations of people like Charlie Chaplin.” When the drowning incident is mentioned, Fred is quick to affirm that “unlike Bob, I was always an excellent swimmer,” and then insists that he also helped his brother get his first job. “We pulled taffy together at a store called Humphries.” As Bob grew prosperous, he often participated in his brothers’ business affairs, owning shares of Ivor’s Hope Metal Products Company and Fred’s United Provision Company (a large Ohio meat distributor) and enlisting Jim to manage some of his own extensive real estate and business properties.
“My brothers, they doubted I would ever make it,” he chuckles contentedly. “Funny thing is, at one point early on, I was making a thousand dollars a week, which in those days was a fortune. This was around 1931, and my brother Ivor was the manager of Sanymetal Products. He said, ‘We’re opening our new factory, and if you would come and do a show it’d be good for ya.’
“Now,” Hope emphasizes, “he had already told my mother, ‘I think he stinks,’ but he figures I’m a free act and he’s doing me a favor. So I went out to this damned place, and they had it insulated so the sound just didn’t carry. The workers were tired and drunk by the time I arrived, and I went up on this stand and bombed. My brother stood there going, ‘Umm-hmm, umm-hmm,’ and he went back to my mother and said, ‘I told ya, he stinks!”
Hope’s grandiose grin decays into a near sneer.
“Well, I came out here to California in 1937,” he continues, “went to Paramount, then went on the radio for Pepsodent, and by 1940 our show was number one. I went on a big tour, broke the house record in Chicago, and I even went to Cleveland and broke the house record there. My brother was standing backstage when the manager brought the check for me, and the amount was over $20,000. My brother looked over my shoulder and his eyes popped. He looked at me, smiled at me for the first time since I was born. Shortly afterward, he was borrowing money from me and started his company — the Hope Metal company! Can you imagine?!”
Hope’s father, a rather narrow-minded soul when it came to his estimation of manly labor, “worked all the time,” according to Bob, and in turn imparted his workaholic tendencies to his own offspring. It was Bob’s mother who provided the attention and tender approval he needed, and she frequently took her son to the vaudeville shows at the Keith’s theater on 105th Street.
“One time we went to see a great comedian called Frank Fay,” he bubbles. “In the middle of his act, my mother said in a loud voice that you could hear in the balcony, ‘He’s not half as good as you!’ Everybody turned around, and I actually slid off my seat.”
There is an awkward silence before Hope speaks again.
“I was really sad when my mother was passing away,” he murmurs solemnly, “because it was slow and we knew it was gonna happen. She had cancer and died in 1934. [Hope’s father died two years later.] That was probably…the saddest period of my life.”
Hope raises his napkin to his throat again, an absent look in his eyes, and then he glares at me.
“Let’s talk,” he states sternly, “about something else.”
Leslie Hope took a lot of guff for his fancy, feminine-sounding moniker, which the kids in the schoolyard transposed into the nickname “Hopeless” — so he changed it to the slightly more virile Lester.
After a mercifully brief career as an amateur boxer under the whimsical pseudonym of Packie East, Hope, 21, left home with his tap shoes under his arm and took out an ad in Variety: “Les Hope available. Songs, patter and eccentric dancing.” Response was scant, and he reasoned that a handle like Les lacked the common touch, so he opted for the more “chummy” Bob. He was working in 1924 as half of a two-man dance team in a roadshow called Hurley’s Jolly Follies when his partner died suddenly of ptomaine poisoning. Undeterred, Hope hired a stand-in and missed only a week of his tour.
During the lean times he lived on doughnuts and was the dandy of the pool halls, shooting three-cushion billiards for pocket money while he waited for the wall phone to ring. After he landed on the Great White Way in 1927, in a revue called Sidewalks of New York, his lifestyle accelerated and he became a self-professed playboy. By 1933, when he was starring on Broadway opposite Fred MacMurray and George Murphy in the musical comedy Roberta, he was driving to the theater in a gleaming Pierce-Arrow town car, a succession of chorines warming the passenger seat.
“I was single, I had a car with these beautiful low fenders, and I had all the girls in New York,” he brags with a booming laugh. “All the showgirls!”
That is, until fellow pub crawler George Murphy took Hope to the Vogue Club one night to see a stunning singer named Dolores Reade. “We were married about four or five months later, but before that she did a smart trick,” he says sheepishly. “She got me hooked and then went to Florida to work. So I had a telephone growing out of my ear, trying to keep in touch with her. Dolores made me like it her way.”
Hope soon regained the upper hand, however, and would seem to have held it ever since. After a simple wedding in Erie, Pennsylvania, Dolores retired from show business, and set about raising Linda and Anthony, the first two of their four children (all adopted in infancy). Hope, meanwhile, plunged headlong into his career. During the Second World War, he was away most of the time, entertaining troops in Europe, Africa and the South Pacific or appearing at War Bond rallies, not to mention the radio shows and feature films he cranked out in his “off” hours. By the time he and Bing Crosby made the first of their celebrated Road pictures, The Road to Singapore, in 1940, Hope had grown comfortable with his carefully casual screen personas — the crowing coward, the aspiring ladies’ man and the stingy, shifty smartass with a repertoire of vague reassurances.
In 1946, the year daughter Nora and son Kelly were adopted, Hope filmed Monsieur Beaucaire for Paramount, made an army-air force tour of the Caribbean, did his radio show, wrote his daily newspaper column for King Features Syndicate and managed to squeeze in a marathon number of benefits and personal appearances.
“You’ve arranged your whole life around and for your audiences,” I offer. “You feel the need to make people laugh that much?”
“Yeah, I do,” he barks, then catches himself and smiles weakly.
“In terms of your success,” I press, “what do you think your biggest sacrifice has been?”
“I can’t figure anything in the way of sacrifice,” he retorts. “I wanted to tell you how lucky we stand-up comedians are, because of the things we can do to help people…I think I’m damned lucky. So when you talk about sacrifice, that, to me, is ridiculous. There is no sacrifice being connected with this kind of excitement. I think anybody would feel that way.”
“Anybody? Hasn’t your family ever come out and told you that they felt badly about your constant absence?”
“No, not really,” he snaps, openly aggravated. “They never did because my wife kept that in good perspective. She did a great job of raising our kids, and I was sort of [groping]…a casual visitor. But they were always happy to see me,” he assures. “The kids never went into a sad note about the thing because we always had a lot of fun. It was hard for them, especially around holidays. They couldn’t figure it out until I took ’em with me and they got the feeling of gratification that you get. Those GIs are the greatest audiences in the world, you know.”
I missed him very much; I was so sorry that he wasn’t there when I was growing up,” says Linda Hope, 40, a bright, pleasant blond, who, like her sister, Nora, is divorced and has one child. “I sometimes felt angry that he wasn’t there at the things other kids’ fathers were present for. I felt so disappointed that he was not able to be at my high-school graduation. I really wished that he could have been there.”
Linda stops speaking for a moment, and when she resumes, she struggles to be upbeat. But her voice gradually loses its appealing lilt as she begins to think out loud.
“I felt, growing up, that people were always looking past me, at him,” she confesses. “I remember inviting people over to the house, as kids always do, and them making a big fuss, and the parents wanting to get inside and see as much as they could. They were more interested in the whole Bob Hope situation, and they weren’t being my friends.
“When I was a freshman at Mount St. Mary’s College, I was somehow nominated to be the home coming queen at Loyola University. I was just thrilled that finally my moment had arrived. And then I found out that I could be guaranteed to be picked as the queen if my father would show up.” She sighs. “Inasmuch as my father was busy doing something else, and was not particularly interested in appearing at that thing, somebody else was picked — and not someone whose father was a celebrity.
“But you know, he is quite focused when you spend time with him,” she allows earnestly. “He brought us into his world in a kind of interesting way. I remember being very proud that I could coach him with his lines. And when he was doing radio, he would come in sometimes and rehearse among the family and do a whole routine. It was no big production: he was just concentrating on learning the lines and our participation was very casual. But it was fun.
“You must understand that we were raised in a formal fashion. We had governesses who were there to see that we got our homework done, and then got dressed for dinner, and then said good night and went to bed. We didn’t go to particularly fancy schools, just the neighborhood Catholic schools. I mean, my life was not filled with Cadillacs and big Beverly Hills mansions. You saw that house in Toluca Lake: it’s big, but it’s not showy.
“I wanted to have a car so much when I was sixteen. My mother thought I was too young, and I was incensed. Then I got a car my senior year in high school, and it was a very modest blue Chevrolet. I was pleased with it, but I had in the back of my mind the hope that I would have a snappy red Jaguar convertible or something a little flashier. My mother said, ‘You’re only seventeen years old. It would give you nothing to look forward to.’
“I would say my mother is a woman of great courage; very strong in the worldly sense, in terms of priorities and values. She had a wonderful sense of humor — she would have to in order to deal with my father for all the years they’ve been together. But she always assumed the role of the disciplinarian, the one who had expectations of our behavior. She instilled us with her values.
“She came from a very poor background,” Linda explains. “Her father died young; she had to work since she was about fourteen years old to support her family.”
After college, Linda taught high-school English and took film courses at USC and UCLA. When her six-year marriage to a TV producer ended, she found a job in 1976 at Hope Enterprises, the independent production company that handles her father’s TV specials.
“It simply is a result of pure nepotism,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not sure whether there was a legitimate opening or whether there was an opening created.”
She developed (with writer Bernie Kahn) the short-lived 1978 NBC sitcom Joe and Valerie, and has conceived and produced several other programs that include her father’s recent efforts. Now vice-president of Hope Enterprises and Bob’s executive producer, she negotiated the endlessly complex arrangements for his China trip last year and has more TV pilots of her own in the hopper.
Talking to some NBC brass about Linda Hope, I learn that she is both liked and respected for her talents as a businesswoman — “She could get a good job anywhere in the creative community,” one executive asserts — but several sour notes are sounded by insiders familiar with the demise of Joe and Valerie.
“There was general agreement that it was a good series,” says one source. “The shame is that Bob Hope has in the past been NBC’s biggest star, yet his production company has never been able to put together any offshoot programs that were fit to air, and that’s where the real money is. So Hope finally found in his own daughter someone competent and hard working enough to make it happen.
“And I was amazed,” the source adds, “to learn that he was paying Linda a salary of $600 a week for running Hope Enterprises and developing, selling and executive producing a TV series. [“I was on a beginner’s salary for the first two years or so,” says Linda. “My salary was on the low side, but he was generous to me in other ways, like helping me with my divorce.”] The standard fee in the industry for working on the series alone would not be less than $10,000 and as much as $30,000 per show. He just doesn’t appreciate her. But then, many people have described Hope as one of the cheapest men in television.”
Hope delights in telling the story of his edifying encounter with John D. Rockefeller back when he was a boy hawking the two-penny Cleveland Press on the corner of 105th and Euclid Avenue.
“One day old man Rockefeller came up in his limo and he gave me a dime,” says Hope. “I said, ‘Ah, I can give you the difference tomorrow.’ He said [coldly], ‘No. Go get change.’ And I had to run fifty yards — and probably lost a coupla sales in the process — to get him his change. He took it from me and he said, ‘Son, always deal in cash.’
“And I tried to,” he snickers. “I tried to.”
A good, albeit exotic, example of this truism was Hope’s contract in the early Fifties with a roadshow mounted to promote a dubious elixir called Hadacol. Several other prominent entertainers (Hank Williams, Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney, Jack Dempsey) were involved, but Hope was skeptical of the venture, so he demanded a guarantee of $30,000 for his two dates. On the night of the first show, Hope impulsively called his agent and told him to get the money beforehand or he wouldn’t go on. His agent panicked and so did the promoter, but Hope got his check, which he then rushed to the bank.
“I was the only one who got paid,” he beams. “You gotta deal in cash.”
In 1968, Fortune magazine estimated Bob Hope’s net worth to be somewhere between $150 million and $200 million. “Based on our research, most of his holdings seemed to be in real estate,” says associate editor Arthur M. Louis, who wrote the article. “So it’s obviously difficult to be certain about actual market value, for instance, unless the land is up for sale.”
During the same period, Hope was reported to own properties in Thousand Oaks, California, worth some $35 million; 8000 acres in Palm Springs; thousands of acres in the San Fernando Valley and in Phoenix, Arizona, in addition to realty and other investments in North Hollywood, Malibu and Puerto Rico. Recent financial involvements include part ownership of the Cleveland Indians, his enduring links with Hope Metal Products and United Provision, some holdings in the dairy business plus his myriad endorsements for products and companies ranging from friend William Fugazy’s New York limousine service and the Chrysler and Texaco corporations, to his recent commercials promoting California Federal Savings and Loan.
Hope himself is loath to discuss his bank account. Even though real estate prices have soared, Hope still calls the decade-old Fortune figures “exaggerated” (at the time of the article, he alleged that his total wealth was closer to $70 million). He does confirm that his initial “big money — about $3 million,” was made in an oil deal he shared with Bing Crosby.
“I’m property poor,” says Hope. “One time I paid $750,000 in taxes on property. And luckily I was working. If I sold all my property, I’d be worth about $25 million.” As for the history of Hope Enterprises, the boss explains that it was established in 1944 to ensure his prosperity. “What happened was that Bing and I were making about $100,000 a week back when we were in pictures and radio and making personal appearances, and we weren’t keeping anything’ cause of taxes. So I went to Paramount and asked them if they’d let me do a picture of my own. They said no, so I laid out one solid year during the time when I was the number one box-office attraction in the world [actually, Bing Crosby was number one]. And they finally called me and said, ‘Aren’t you coming back to work?’ So we fixed up a thing where Hope Enterprises made a picture a year for itself. And it stood me in good stead, because later on I could sell those films as a package.
“When Bing found out I had that contract, he called his brother and said, ‘Get out here right away and help me make a deal!’ So Bing formed the Crosby company.”
He and Crosby worked out a handsome pact with Paramount for their Road series. When I ask him if Dorothy Lamour, who was featured in all the pictures, had a share, he says, “Yeah, uh-huh.” “Unfortunately,” says Lamour, “I have no financial share whatsoever in those pictures.”
Hope seems just as shrewd when it comes to TV. The majority of the NBC and outside production executives I spoke with who have worked with Hope over the last ten years express varying degrees of disgruntlement with his alleged tightwad tendencies. (Although some added that they got a big thrill out of working with him in spite of this.) Most detractors charged that he frequently underpays writers, settles for cut-rate standards in scenery and musical accompaniment or relies too heavily on the thrifty custom of “swapping” guest stars, i.e., trading your own services on a star’s special in return for his or her presence on your program.
As for his business procedures with his own production company, I ask him whether Linda shares in the profits for any shows she develops, Joe and Valerie, for instance.
“Yeah,” he says. “Starting with Joe and Valerie.”
When I ask Linda the same question she says, “No, I didn’t own a piece of Joe and Valerie or get royalties. That show belonged to Hope Enterprises. You see, I’m a salaried employee.”
There is, of course, another aspect to Hope’s finances: his fund-raising efforts for an impressive number of charities, including the American Cancer Society, the Los Angeles Music Center, the Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Springs and various hospitals, universities, colleges, secondary schools (there is now a Bob Hope High for crippled children in Texas) and civic organizations.
His annual Bob Hope Desert Golf Classic raised a million dollars in 1980 for forty charities, and he has established a Bob Hope British Golf Classic to assist a British spastics research and rehabilitation organization. Another drive now under way is the solicitation of $10 million by the USO World Headquarters in Washington to build the Bob Hope USO Center on Pennsylvania Avenue. Serving as a combination theater, museum, office, training center and full-service USO center for military personnel, the splendid edifice will be a tribute to “Mr. USO, the world’s best-known entertainer and the world’s best-known symbol of the American way of life.”
“Hope is and nearly always has been the key public figure to promote and assist the USO,” says Russell Bice, 35, the national director of USO Shows.
For almost forty years, Hope, who remains active in the cause, has shouldered most of the burden himself, although he received the assistance of stars like Clark Gable, Francis Langford, Fred Astaire, Mickey Mantle, Phyllis Diller, Lola Falana, Charley Pride and Bing Crosby. After World War II, the Camp Shows became Christmas Tours, beginning with the Berlin Airlift in 1948; and in 1954 Hope began to tape and televise them, the first program originating from Thule, Greenland. All performers donated their time and talent (the USO offered them a tiny living allowance, and NBC paid the rock-bottom TV scale) to raise the holiday spirits of so many Americans stationed far from their homes. The Pentagon, says Russell Bice, footed the bulk of the bills.
“But say,” I tell Bice, “all twenty-odd Bob Hope Christmas TV specials were highly rated, and some are among the highest-rated shows in the history of television. Did the USO derive any revenue from those shows?”
“Why no,” he answers meekly after checking with his finance department. “We got no money from those TV programs.”
“So who did?”
“Why, I guess it was the network, and of course, Mr. Hope.”
“Did Hope Enterprises make money from the USO shows?”
“No,” says Hope, who had his own finance officers call me to reaffirm his assertion. “Hope Enterprises lost a million dollars on the last two or three years.”
However, an NBC finance executive who has dealt with Hope over the years alleges, “If anybody says that he lost money on the USO shows: ha, ha, ha.”
I had only been in Vietnam about a week — this was in December of 1965 in Chu Lai — and someone came over to my tent and said the Bob Hope show was there,” recalls former marine sergeant Ron Kovic, 33, the author of Born on the Fourth of July (McGraw-Hill) and a paraplegic as a result of his Vietnam injuries. “I went to the show, and I remember that when they filmed us, they tried to make us feel that we might be seen by our families back home — Hope exploited every soldier who ever fought in that war. As a kid I had seen Hope’s Korea shows on TV, but as I sat there in ‘Nam, the romance I had felt about them was gone. Our response to him came out of fear and loneliness — convicts in a prison would have done the same thing. And I saw how he used women in the shows to get a rise out of us — it seemed like he was always leaving with the women and we were always staying with the war. The Apocalypse Now scenes with the Playboy bunnies typified what it was really like in those troop shows — the terrible frustration and anguish.
“On my second tour of duty in ‘Nam in ’67 and ’68, I was south of the DMZ and Hope came again. I remember not wanting to go to the show, and the men who did go came back very cynical. People didn’t laugh at his jokes; the war wasn’t funny anymore, and a hundred Bob Hopes wouldn’t have made any difference. And I don’t think he sacrificed anything in going there. He realized it was a great tool for his advancement as a personality. When I think of Bob Hope, I think of deceit and illusions. Back in Vietnam, Hope symbolized an American myth that had been shattered by our war experience — and that’s why the troops began booing him. That’s how he really made us feel.
“Now, when I see his three-hour Christmas specials on TV, I just feel numb.”
Bob, let’s talk about politics and Vietnam. When any public figure begins to get buffeted by a prominent, middle-of-the-road comedian, it’s usually an indication that something’s amiss. When Johnny Carson started rapping Nixon, you knew he was on the way out.
[Smiling broadly] You read the front pages, and there’s your material. But you have to lay off a bit on certain things, like Iran and Afghanistan, ’cause the situations get so serious they just kill off the laughs. I tell you though, I think Carter was damned right in telling the Iranians they’d better knock it off, because they might desperately need our military aid against the Russians.
Anyhow, I talked about President Johnson with his barbecues, his driving and drinking beer. You look for those things. I never let up on Ike about his golf. I knocked all the presidents.
You kidded around a lot with Agnew until he got into trouble, but you went fairly lightly on Nixon and Watergate — and you’ve always been closely identified with big business and conservative politics.
I tell you, I’ve known Nixon for a long time; I go way back with him. I know a little bit more about Watergate, I think, than the average person, because I was close to a lot of people connected with it. There was an awful lot of politics in it, I’ll tell you, so I didn’t like getting into it. But I recently did a joke on the China show: “They love Richard Nixon over here; they think Watergate’s a rice paddy.”
I did a lot of jokes about Nixon when he was president, but I couldn’t say anything bad about him.
You couldn’t or you didn’t want to?
[Firmly] It was a matter of personal discretion.
Tell me about Nixon. You say you know a side of him others don’t, and that’s why you’re still good friends. What side is that?
I knew Dick Nixon when he was running for governor of California and died in the race. And he was always wonderful to me when he was prez. He was pretty close and still is, so it’s a tough thing to comment on. But I remember he was out here at San Clemente one day, and I said. “Do you wanna play golf?” And he said, “Yeah. At Lakeside.” And I said. “Okay. Who’d you like to play with?” And he said, “Jimmy Stewart and Fred MacMurray.”
So at ten o’clock a helicopter flew in and landed over here. The neighbors thought it was Chicken Delight making a delivery or something. But it was the Secret Service. At twelve he flies in with Bebe Rebozo. And then we all went over to Lakeside and chopped it around. Afterward, Nixon was in the club and George Gobel came in. George said, “Meeting you is wonderful. My wife Alice will never believe me.” Nixon said, “Get her on the phone.” Nixon got on the phone and said, “Hello, Alice. This is President Nixon.” When George got home, the first thing she said to him was, “That wasn’t Nixon! You’re full of shit!“
But Dick was a nice man, and that was a tough thing he got into there with Watergate. And I don’t know if the whole bit will ever come out. [Unsmiling] As for those tapes ‘n’ all, it’s a shame he didn’t have a match.
Do you have any thoughts, in retrospect, about Vietnam?
Yeah. I think The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now are fiction! I was there for nine years running. It’s a tragic place, but that kind of stuff in those films is fiction.
They’re not documentaries, of course.
Well, they distort the whole thing to make it exciting. The writers of The Deer Hunter say that it never happened.
Obviously. And the spirit of Apocalypse Now is derived from a Joseph Conrad story. But I’m asking you about a war, not two films about a war.
[Sharply] Listen. It was a rough enough conflict. The only sad thing is that it wasn’t an official war. If it had been a war, it would have been put entirely in the hands of the military, and the war would have been over in three damned weeks and saved millions of lives. But what happened instead was a sad, sad thing. A sad conflict.
You’re still saddest that we didn’t win.
Yes. And I gotta tell you a story. I was standing out here on Van Nuys Boulevard and Ventura one day, and a young kid who was hitchhiking came up to me and said, “Hey, you sponsored the Vietnam War, didn’t you?” And I said, C’mere, you. Ask me that again.” And he said, “That’s what I heard. You sponsored the war.” Can you imagine that?
Frankly, it seemed like it sometimes. Or rather, the extensive press coverage of your tours there and the Christmas specials, and your well-publicized support of the war seemed like commercials for the “conflict.” I couldn’t understand why you had to commercialize your efforts by turning the footage of, say, your Vietnam Christmas shows into TV specials.
Listen, that was the greatest moral thing for those kids. The Pentagon begged us to do it. And if I hadn’t shown up, if I had reneged on that, it would have hurt me. Because if they ever needed entertainment, that was when they needed it. And the guys expected it, too. They used to have cartoons in newspapers with GIs saying things like, “Hey! I wanna go to Vietnam. What time does Bob Hope get here?”
Russell Bice, the national director of USO Shows, maintains that “in most cases, attendance at Bob Hope’s USO shows was voluntary, but many times an entire battalion would be ordered to attend.”
[Very angry] Anybody who would say that is an idiot! The only guys who squawked about it were the guys who had to go out and do sentry duty when the show was on.
[According to Roger Steffens, a former army staff sergeant in Psychological Operations who was stationed in Vietnam from 1967 to 1970: “A number of GIs from the PsyOps Battalion at Bien Hoa came to our Saigon headquarters the day after the ’68 Hope show, all of them complaining that they had been ordered to attend the show or face confinement to quarters.”]
But having done those good deeds, as you see them, why were the tours made into television shows?
[Angry] Opinions like that come from people who don’t really think good. Because if I’d done a TV show here, an ordinary show, it wouldn’t have had the dramatic impact of showing what our kids were doing over there, and how we made ’em laugh — and that they were still laughing. That they were there, that we visited them, and that their morale was pretty good. That was the whole important thing.
But they do stop laughing when you leave. Unfortunately, they were still there to fight, and it’s been my understanding that morale at that point was rather low.
Listen, I was lucky enough to be able to do this stuff in World War II and Korea, all those places. But this time it became a political war. But the fact is, the kids were there, and we got mail from these kids begging us to come.
If you had traveled with me and felt the gratification behind those tours, you’d say, “Hey man.” ‘Cause boy, when they walk up to you and they hand you a medallion and they say, “Thank you very much,” that’s something. You can’t listen to a coupla oddballs who think it’s wrong.
A couple of oddballs? A majority of the nation’s population was in an uproar against the Vietnam War.
Listen, they have the right to think that way. It was one of those kinds of conflicts where it was wide open. Eisenhower sent the military advisers in; then Kennedy; then Johnson sent the troops in — but you can’t fault them for trying to find a way out of the thing. They didn’t want to escalate it. They thought maybe they could find a peace. But in the final analysis, if they had only said, “Hey, this is a war — let’s go get ’em,” just think of the people they would have saved in the long run. Just think of the Cambodians that were slaughtered, and now the boat people!
I recall stories about some of the troops objecting to repeated stops and starts, during the taping of the overseas shows, until there was sufficient crowd reaction to film a take.
[Angry] Nothing could be further from the truth. Lemme tell you something. You’ve seen my shows, right? On February 3rd and 10th on NBC, I did three hours, on both those days, of my military retrospective. Those were the greatest audiences in the world. From 1941, when I started at March Field…you know I hate to get into this, because it’s like I’m bragging.
[“I was in Bien Hoa in 1969 and went to the Christmas show in nearby Long Binh,” says Richard Boyle, a war correspondent for Overseas Weekly and the Pacific News Service and the author of Flower of the Dragon (Ramparts Press). “There were from 3000 to 4000 men in the audience, and after about fifteen minutes of Hope’s show, he was being drowned out by the boos. When the TV cameras panned the crowd, the GIs were standing up and giving it the finger and making power salutes. Then the troops started throwing things and tried to rush the stage. They brought out about fifty MPs to guard the stage, and it was getting very menacing — pretty close to a riot. Hope, who was visibly shaken, had to stop the show and leave.
[“The show was carried live all over Vietnam on the military’s AFVN-TV (Armed Forces Vietnam Network), and they showed some of the proceedings, but when things got too heavy they cut it off the air. Obviously, none of this footage was ever shown in the USA.”
[“That’s just ridiculous,” Hope charges.” Anybody who would boo our shows, why, the rest of the troops would kill him, shoot him dead. That’s just lies. I’ve never been booed. Do you want to listen to a lot of anti- guys or do you want the truth? I’m the truth. Do whatever your conscience dictates. You can print what you want.”]
I was surprised by the positive reactions’ you received on campuses during your recent college special. I was in the audience at the Harvard taping. In years gone by, you would likely have been an unpopular and unwelcome figure there.
Never! Never, Tim! Are you talking about the Vietnam thing? No, no, no! I played colleges all through that, and only one time, at Maryland, on the day they had the Moratorium in Washington, did I have trouble. I was really doing a pro-Vietnam speech at that time, about winning the war, and only one guy objected.
And I still wish we had won the war. At that time I was saying how important it was to keep the independence of South Vietnam and what a job we were doing, which I believed, and I still believe, and, damnit, I wish we had done it. It would have saved about 5 million lives.
The only other time I had any problem was in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They were picketing me, and there was a guy there, a sort of a leftist congressman, who put something on big placards saying that I was taking beautiful girls over to Vietnam and patting their fannies. And I spent an extra twenty minutes at the end of my show talking about it. I explained about these pickets and what they meant, because I said I didn’t see any of them going over to entertain any of the boys — ’cause that’s what I did. I think that, on account of our Vietnam Christmas shows being number one in the ratings at that time, there was a lot of jealousy about it.
Without question, Hope’s appearance at Harvard last fall would have been a disorienting experience for anyone who came of age in the late Sixties or early Seventies. Hanging from the rafters in the handsome atrium of the new building housing the John F. Kennedy School of Government, most of the crowd was dressed for a Sunday social tea.
I arrived a few minutes after the start of the two-hour taping, and two excited freshmen in the back row were only too happy to fill me in.
“He was saying,” one began eagerly, “that the best thing about Harvard is that you’ve got so many Nobel Prize-winning scientists here, you don’t have to buy drugs — you get them invented for you! And then he said, ‘Everybody remembers Timothy Leary’s contributions to society. We saw him flying behind our plane on the way here!'”
“Anyway,” offered the other, “they were good jokes.”
I nodded, bemused, with memories of the Harvard strike and Kent State swirling in my head.
Afterward, Hope lingered to thank the students for coming and couldn’t resist doing another fifteen minutes of his racier material, much of it sexist or antigay. Only once during the evening did Hope fall out of favor with the throng, and it came when he listed the rest of his guest stars for the college show. He had scarcely uttered “Sister Sledge and the Village People,” when a very flustered Hope was besieged with passionate cries of “Disco sucks!” He quickly recovered, however, with another antigay jibe about “two judges who tried each other.” The crowd was cheering too loudly to catch his blatantly inappropriate closing remark: “I was on radio for Pepsodent for twelve years. Most of my audience now uses Polident.”
A coupla months ago I was walking down the street in New York,” Hope tells me at the end of our lunch as he swallows the last of his lemon meringue pie, “and just as I passed this guy, he turned and said, ‘Jack Benny! Er, Bing Crosby! No! It’s…Bob Hope?!’
“I mean,” he asks thoughtfully, “isn’t that wild? Those other guys have been dead for quite a while, after all….When you get to this age, you really start to lose people around you,” he notes. “It makes for some rough moments.”
When did he first meet Bing Crosby?
“I first met him in New York in 1932 at the Friars Club,” he says warmly. “Then within three months we were playing the Capitol together. We got very friendly, ’cause we were doing three and four shows a day there, so we were together all the time. Bing always was a great friend.”
Who, I wonder, is Hope’s closest friend in showbiz?
“Now?” he asks. “God, that’s such a tough, tough question. I’ve got several of them, but I hate to mention them. I’ve known these people for twenty-five or thirty years, but I don’t really have anybody in the business that I would say is that close. I have golfing buddies, you see, and things like that.”
“When and how,” I ask, “did you hear that Bing had died?”
“Oh,” Hope sighs, looking very drawn. “I was staying at the Waldorf in New York and going to do a benefit show over in New Jersey for a big hospital. And at about two o’clock [on October 14th, 1977] Bill Fugazy, this friend of mine in New York, called and said, ‘Did you hear the news? Bing passed away on the golf course in Spain.’
“And I had a very funny reaction to that,” he frets softly. “My head just got so tight that it felt a little dangerous to me. So I laid down and rested, because the whole thing was such a shock.
“I didn’t cry at all. I don’t cry easily. I just felt that tightness, and I felt the whole shock of it deeply.”
There have been other shocks, not the least of which have been the deaths, from cancer, of three of his brothers (Sidney, Jack, George). And with Ivor dead from a heart attack, Jim lost due to emphysema and Fred in failing health, Bob has become acutely aware of his own physical well-being.
“I don’t smoke,” he says, “’cause if I did, I wouldn’t be alive. I’ve had four eye hemorrhages. As for the booze, I used to love to drink a lot, but I can’t do that anymore because I have a bladder irritation. If I drank, I’d piss all over the place. But my health has been exceptionally good.”
Doesn’t he also have back problems?
“How’d you find that out? I had a pain in my back some time ago, and it persisted, so I went to a bone guy. He took x-rays and he said, ‘You have a worn-out disc.’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, here goes my golf game.’ So that night I told Richard, my masseur, that I had a disc problem, and he said, ‘Tomorrow I put up rings for you.’ I hung on them and I never heard from my back again.
“I’ve managed to keep on an even keel most of the time,” he summarizes. “I’m like anybody else; I worry about certain things, but most of the day I’m optimistic. I smoked a little marijuana once, just to try it. This was about five years ago. I must say it made me a little gay — no, not that way — I had wanted to see where the effect was at. I’ve talked to a lot of doctors about it. It’s just like liquor: it all depends on the dosage and the frequency, you know?
“My only excess now,” he volunteers with a smirk, “is just playing with myself.”
Hope suggests we go upstairs to see his exercise rings, and on the way he offers a critical evaluation of his career, asserting that movies were his best medium.
“I am disappointed that I haven’t won an Oscar for acting,” he says. “I have two honorary Oscars. I thought I had a chance with Road to Zanzibar or Facts of Life and Beau James. But in those days the academy didn’t give much consideration to comedy unless it had some sort of serious thread running through it. Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant never won Oscars for acting; I keep saying these things to myself.”
As for Hope’s TV work: “The kinds of television shows I do go right down the drain,