July 28, 2003 Posted at 8:30 a.m. CDT
LOS ANGELES -- Bob Hope, ski jump-nosed master of the one-liner and favorite comedian of servicemen and presidents alike, has died, just two months after turning 100.
Hope died late Sunday of pneumonia at his home in Toluca Lake, with his family at his bedside, longtime publicist Ward Grant said Monday.
The nation's most-honored comedian, Hope was a star in every category open to him — vaudeville, radio, television and film, most notably a string of "Road" movies with longtime friend Bing Crosby. For decades, he took his show on the road to bases around the world, boosting the morale of servicemen from World War II to the Gulf War.
"Bob Hope, like Mark Twain, had a sense of humor that was uniquely American and like Twain, we'll likely not see another like him," Dick Van Dyke said Monday.
President Bush said "the nation lost a great citizen" with Hope's death.
"Bob Hope served our nation when he went to battlefields to entertain thousands of troops from different generations," the president said. "We extend our prayers to his family. God bless his soul."
Hope perfected the one-liner, peppering audiences with a fusillade of brief, topical gags.
"I bumped into Gerald Ford the other day. I said, `Pardon me.' He said, `I don't do that anymore.'"
He poked fun gently, without malice, and made himself the butt of many jokes. His golf scores and physical attributes, including his celebrated ski-jump nose, were frequent subjects:
"I want to tell you, I was built like an athlete once — big chest, hard stomach. Of course, that's all behind me now."
When Hope went into one of his monologues, it was almost as though the world was conditioned to respond. No matter that the joke was old or flat; he was Bob Hope and he got laughs.
"Audiences are my best friends," he liked to say. "You never tire of talking with your best friends."
He was admired by his peers, and generations of younger comedians. Woody Allen called Hope "the most influential comedian for me."
"It's hard for me to imagine a world without Bob Hope in it," Allen said Monday.
Hope earned a fortune, gave lavishly to charity and was showered with awards, so many that he had to rent a warehouse to store them.
Through he said he was afraid of flying, Hope traveled countless miles to entertain servicemen in field hospitals, jungles and aircraft carriers from France to Berlin to Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. His Christmas tours became tradition.
He headlined in so many war zones that he had a standard joke for the times he was interrupted by gunfire: "I wonder which one of my pictures they saw?"
So often was Hope away entertaining, and so little did he see his wife, Dolores, and their four adopted children, that he once remarked, "When I get home these days, my kids think I've been booked on a personal appearance tour."
Hope had a reputation as an ad-libber, but he kept a stable of writers and had filing cabinets full of jokes. He never let a good joke die — if it got a laugh in Vietnam, it would get a laugh in Saudi Arabia.
"He was very much at home in the TV studio or on stage live anywhere, that is where he really lived," comedian Phyllis Diller said Monday. "And, you know what, it was never a chore for him. It was never nerve-racking. He was always so completely prepared by his tremendous organization that he had put together."
On his 100th birthday, he was too frail to take part in public celebrations, but was said to be alert and happy — and overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection. The fabled intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street was renamed Bob Hope Square, and President Bush established the Bob Hope American Patriot Award.
"He can't believe that this is happening and that he's made it to his Big 100," son Kelly Hope said at the time.
He was born Leslie Towns Hope on May 29, 1903, in Eltham, England, the fifth of seven sons of a British stonemason and a Welsh singer of light opera. The Hopes emigrated to the United States when he was 4 and settled in Cleveland. They found themselves in the backwash of the 1907 depression.
The boy helped out by selling newspapers and working in a shoe store, a drug store and a meat market. He also worked as a caddy and developed a lifelong fondness for golf. A highly competitive golfer, he later shot in the 70s and sponsored the Bob Hope Golf Classic, one of the nation's biggest tournaments.
Hope changed his name to Bob when classmates ridiculed his English schoolboy name.
He boxed for a time under the name Packy East — "I was on more canvases than Picasso" — and also tried a semester in college before devoting himself to show business. He quickly veered from song and dance to comedy patter, and his monologue routine was born.
By 1930, he had reached vaudeville's pinnacle — The Palace — and in the '30s he played leading parts in such Broadway musicals as "Roberta," "Ziegfeld Follies" and "Red, Hot and Blue," with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante. During "Roberta," he met nightclub singer Dolores Reade and invited her to the show. They married in 1934.
After a few guest radio spots, Hope began working regularly on a Bromo Seltzer radio program. In 1938, he was hired by Pepsodent to create his own show, and that led him to Hollywood.
Paramount signed him for "The Big Broadcast of 1938," in which he introduced the song that became his trademark: "Thanks for the Memory."
Soon he was teaming with Crosby in the seven "Road" pictures — "Road to Bali," "Road to Morocco," "Road to Zanzibar" and so on — playing best friends who lie, cheat and make fun of each other in comedic competition for glory and Dorothy Lamour.
In between, there were such pictures as "Cat and the Canary," "The Paleface," "Louisiana Purchase," "My Favorite Blonde," "That Certain Feeling," "I'll Take Sweden" and "Boy, Did I get a Wrong Number." He made 53 films from 1938 to 1972.
In 1950, he entered television, and his successes continued. Even 40 years later, he could be counted on to pull in respectable ratings. He also appeared more than 20 times at the Academy Awards, first on radio and than on television, as presenter, cohost or host between 1939 and 1978.
Hope started playing to troops well before the United States entered World War II.
He tried to enlist, but was told he could be of more use as an entertainer. He played his first camp show at California's March Field on May 6, 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor.
His traditional Christmas tours began in 1948, when he went to Berlin to entertain GIs involved in the airlift.
"For more than five decades, through four wars and years of peacekeeping missions, Bob Hope came to symbolize, for every man and woman in uniform, the idea that America cared for and supported its troops," said Edward A. Powell, president and CEO of the United Service Organizations.
His 1966 Vietnam Christmas show, when televised, was watched by an estimated 65 million people, the largest audience of his career. But his initially hawkish views on Vietnam opened a gap between the comedian and young Americans opposed to the war, who sometimes heckled him.
Later, Hope said he was "just praying they get an honorable peace so our guys don't have to fight. I've seen too many wars."
In 1990, he traveled to the Persian Gulf to entertain troops preparing for war with Iraq. Because Saudi Arabia bars female entertainers, he had to leave Marie Osmond and the Pointer Sisters behind in Bahrain.
Hope never had a regular straight man, but he worked often with crooner Crosby, first in radio, where they developed a routine of insulting each other merrily. Crosby helped make Hope's nose famous as a "droop snoot" and a "ski run." For his part, Hope replied: "Only in Hollywood could a meatball make so much gravy."
Hope's awards included scores of honorary degrees; special Oscars for humanitarianism and service to the film industry; the George Peabody Award; the National Conference of Christians and Jews Award; and the Medal of Freedom from President Johnson. He received honorary knighthood from Britain in 1998.
He was the author or co-author of 10 books, including his 1990 autobiography, "Don't Shoot, It's Only Me."
Hope's 85-year-old nephew, Milton Hope, said Monday he hopes his uncle is remembered not just for his jokes, but also for donating his money and time to charities.
"All I can say is he sure made a lot of people happy," Milton Hope said from his home in Aurora, Ohio.
In the mid-'90s, Hope played charity dates around the nation, but he seemed to slow his schedule. What was billed as his last NBC special, "Laughing with the Presidents," focusing on his long friendships with many occupants of the White House, appeared in late 1996. His more than 60-year association with the network was said to be a record.
In recent years, his hearing eroded, although he refused to wear a hearing aid. He suffered recurring eye problems, once remarking: "I've got a hemorrhage in the right eye now, and I used to have one in the left eye. I'm a walking hemorrhage."
Until increasing frailty slowed him down, Hope repeatedly pledged never to quit entertaining.
"I'm not retiring until they carry me away," he said. "And I'll have a few routines on the way to the big divot."