100 Years of Bob Hope

July 9, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And finally, tonight, essayist Roger Rosenblatt speaks of the enduring appeal of Bob Hope.

ACTOR: That’s enough, come on.

BOB HOPE: Wait a minute, we work here. I am very sorry. My partners, you and me, we work here. I only been in this country a very short time.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: No one could back out of a fight quicker than Bob Hope. He was the slick, fast-talking British-born American confidence man who kept up the patter until you laughed and you loved him.

BING CROSBY: Is everything all right?

BOB HOPE: Yeah, but I think we have to have a little more room when the baby comes.

BING CROSBY: Oh, yeah?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: No one could jump higher when told to jump. No one could push a woman in front of him with more skill and grace. Hope in the movies was much more than a coward, of course. He could sing with Bing, dance a little– actually, quite well. He started out as a hoofer. He could even turn heroic momentarily, when it was absolutely necessary.

BING CROSBY: Fly, fly, fly.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Once he played the mayor of New York, a job that requires courage. In fact, he could do everything, like a con man should. Funny hat, funny suits, a little of this, a little of that. A lot of Hope. He is in his 100th year. Imagine that. We catch occasional sight of him nowadays, whited and bent over, standing beside Delores, his wife of nearly 70 years, but still vertical.

We have seen him all our lives. As a kid, I listened to Bob Hope on radio, often when he played the disrespectful guest on “The Bing Crosby Show.” I read Bob Hope comic books. There were the road pictures revived on TV.

There was Hope always going to war, from World War II to Desert Storm.

BOB HOPE: Ladies and gentlemen, today we’re in Long Binh, 17 miles northeast of Saigon. I don’t care if Charlie is watching, I’m giving away military secrets. We’re on live TV today, and we need the ratings.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Where there is life and death, there was Hope. His opening line as he would enter a hospital ward: “Okay, everyone on their feet.” His repeated line, “To give you an idea of just how long these guys have been at sea, their pin-up girl is Phyllis Diller.” He hosted the Oscars a lot, but only won an honorary trophy. He said, “Oscar night at our house is called Passover.” Indefatigable Hope. Relentless Hope. Hope springs eternal.

That nose. Caricaturists glommed on to his nose, as did he, because Hope was unusual among comics. He was sort of handsome. He had to will himself attractive in a comic way, attractive and a little scary, like a con man should. It was what Hope said and how he said it that altered his appearance. That loud, clear water, almost plaintiff voice that could turn a less-than-ordinary line into a howler.

He was the first comedian to admit he used writers, hundreds of them, perhaps because he knew it wasn’t the writers that got the laughs. They said it was his timing, but it was something else. We knew he was con man, but we also sensed he was a good guy. That guy could take us anywhere.

SINGING: Thanks for the memories…

ROGER ROSENBLATT: In his 100th year, he represents a century of American life, two world wars, prohibition, the depression, Korea, Vietnam, television, talkies, Silicon Valley, 9/11– the nation within the compass of a comedian who read the newspapers and made jokes about that life.

BOB HOPE: Here I am, starting another season on television. Well, don’t look so surprised. Jackie Onassis is working too.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The Guinness Book of Records reports that Hope is the most honored entertainer in world history. Here are some specifics. Two hundred and eighty-four TV specials. Fifty-six starring roles in movies. Fifty-six theaters, schools, performing art centers, and U.S. Streets named after him, as well as three species of plants and two military ships.

BOB HOPE: Hey is that… nah.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: And with all that, you and I have no idea who the real Bob Hope is, nor do we care. So complete and consistent an entertainer has he been, his so- called real self would only get in the way. All we’ve seen of him is what he chose to show us: Funny hats, funny suits, a little of this, a little of that, and the adorable con man standing outside the tent, selling laughter.

BOB HOPE AND BING CROSBY: Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man, bake a cake as fast as you…

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I’m Roger Rosenblatt.