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BOB HOPE, 1903-2003

The Master of the One-Liner

Comic was especially loved by GI audiences.

July 29, 2003|By Al Martinez | Times Staff Writer
  • Bob Hope entertains the troops in 1971 at Cu Chi, in Vietnam; Hope visited war zones from WWII through Desert Storm.
Bob Hope entertains the troops in 1971 at Cu Chi, in Vietnam; Hope visited… (Associated Press )

Bob Hope, the elder statesman of comedy whose extraordinary career spanned vaudeville, Broadway, radio, television, movies, books and makeshift concert platforms in war zones, has died. He was 100. Hope died at 9:28 p.m. Sunday at his home in Toluca Lake of complications from pneumonia, his publicist, Ward Grant, announced Monday. His wife, Dolores, and other members of his family were at his bedside when he died.

An increasingly frail Hope marked his 100th birthday quietly on May 29 with well-wishing from the famous and not so famous from around the globe. Hope's home was inundated with birthday cards and flowers. An intimate party attended by close family members was held with cake and a 100-candle celebration.

President Bush led the nation in mourning Monday for the beloved comedian, saying, "The nation has lost a great citizen."

"Bob Hope served our nation when he went to battlefields to entertain thousands of troops from different generations," the president told reporters before boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base. "We extend our prayers to his family. God bless his soul."

Bush also issued a proclamation ordering all U.S. flags on government buildings lowered to half-staff on the day of Hope's funeral.

One of the world's most enduring comedians, "Rapid Robert" outlasted hundreds of briefly popular political satirists, social-comment comics and television sitcom stars who flared and faded.

From his early days in radio to the television specials that would endear him to subsequent generations, Hope became synonymous with the comedy monologue, striving to be topical but not offensive, cocksure but not arrogant.

"He possessed all the gifts I, and all other comedians, could ever ask for or want," "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno said in a statement Monday: "impeccable comic timing, an encyclopedic memory of jokes, and an effortless ability with quips. His monologues — which were always so topical — had an enormous influence on me. In fact, they established the paradigm for me, and for all of us in this business. We are all blessed to have had him as our standard-bearer."

With his wisecracking manner and trademark sneer, Hope was the quintessential populist comedian, his humor fueled by the legions of joke writers for whom he was a tough boss.

"He had such a strong comic persona that all the writers got to know it," said Gene Perret, who began writing jokes for Hope in 1969. "It was a confidence that bordered on arrogance. Hope could always boast about himself, but it [would] normally turn itself around where he's the brunt of the joke."

"If they had coed dorms when I went to school, you know what I'd be today?" Hope once quipped. "A sophomore."

Presidents, too, were a favorite target of his humor, including Gerald R. Ford, a golfing buddy known for his erratic play. Hope once joked that there were "86 golf courses in Palm Springs, and Jerry Ford never knows which one he's going to play until his second shot."

Hope was a friend of, and honored by, presidents for more than 50 years starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he was an acquaintance and occasional golf partner of celebrities around the globe.

His face was known to millions of Americans spanning three generations, perhaps especially those who served in the military during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

The comedian began entertaining servicemen and women at U.S. bases in 1941—starting at California's March Field near Riverside — and in 1948 began annual Christmas shows at American bases overseas.

Hope was never a member of the military. But on Oct. 29, 1997, when he was 94, he became the first American designated by Congress as an "honorary veteran of the United States Armed Forces."

Hope appeared for the presentation in the Capitol Rotunda looking, as one observer noted, "as fragile as a sparrow's egg." Many thought his visit to the Capitol would be the increasingly deaf and weak comedian's final public appearance.

And it was just eight months later that he was mourned on the floor of the House of Representatives. Then-Rep. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.), working from an erroneous release of a prewritten Associated Press obituary on the Internet, rose to announce that Hope had died. Tributes to the comedian followed from other congressmen, but at his home, Hope was having the last laugh.

"They were wrong, weren't they?" Hope told friends who called to offer condolences to his family.

Half a Century of Entertaining Troops

His shows for the troops — with an entourage of other comics, singers, dancers and pretty girls — lasted for half a century, often not far from the fighting, earning Hope praise for his patriotic efforts and criticism for his hawkish stance during the Vietnam War.

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