By the time he died in 2003 at age 100, Bob Hope had conquered vaudeville, Broadway, recordings, live concerts, radio, films and, from its infancy, TV, where he remained a welcome presence into his 90s.
Yet memories of Hope have already dimmed, and his achievements, still felt by performers and audiences alike, now are largely taken for granted.
Richard 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.
The idea 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 with the AP. “Nobody once mentioned Bob Hope. I thought that was really unjust because, in my opinion, he invented their art form. “
Hope, the father of standup?
Zoglin explained, “Instead of packaged routines...Hope took topicality and turned it into jokes — what standup comics do today.” And he was doing it as early as the 1930s.
Born in London, Leslie Towns Hope arrived in America at age 5. He was destined to achieve global fame, but would remain quintessentially American with his snappy vocal style. He embraced “our boys in uniform” 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.
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.