GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, remembering Bob Hope. We begin with essayist Roger Rosenblatt.
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 (originally aired July 9, 2002): 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. ( Applause ) he is in his 100th year. Imagine that.
We catch occasional sight of him nowadays -- 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. (Cheers) 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. ( Laughter )
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. 284 TV specials. 56 starring roles in movies. 56 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...
GWEN IFILL: Terence Smith has more.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining me to discuss Bob Hope's life and legacy is comedienne Phyllis Diller, a close friend of Hope's for decades and former talk show host and entertainer Dick Cavett, who interviewed Bob Hope on several occasions. Welcome to you both. Phyllis Diller, you worked with Bob Hope in films, on television, and of course overseas. What made him special?
PHYLLIS DILLER: Well, he was just the world's greatest comic, and such a fine gentleman and a positive doer and thinker and speaker.
TERENCE SMITH: He had a great connection with the audience, and I wonder what you think what the ingredients were, Phyllis Diller, that went into that to connect, as he did, in a very affectionate way?
PHYLLIS DILLER: Well, he was such a common man for the audience he was, he spoke to them at their level. He didn't come out as a big star, he came out as an entertainer who really delivered the laughs.
TERENCE SMITH: Dick Cavett, was that it, the common man element in his presentation? I mean, he portrayed himself in a very self deprecating way. He was a wise cracking tightwad, a coward, that sort of thing. Was that it?
DICK CAVETT: It was that and a whole lot of other things too. It used to annoy me so, maybe Phyllis remember this is happening, where after Bob's radio show way back when we were kids, some kid on the playground would say hey did you hear Bob's show last night, if I had his writers, somebody would say, I'd be Bob Hope too.
And you had to find an impolite way of saying to them he had a lot of other things you don't have also. I could never believe that. And yet seemingly normal adult people who can dress themselves have asked me as recently as the last few years, could he talk without his writers or was he just tongue tied the way they say. Anybody who said that didn't know him.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, tell us what he was like when he wasn't necessarily on stage. Dick Cavett.
DICK CAVETT: Oh, I'm sorry it's me. By the way, I apologize for breaking your dress code, they pulled me right off the street. I spent a lot of time hanging around with Hope and always when he was backstage I would stand near him, and one day I said at the back stage of the Merv Griffin Show, I was a writer, I said how is your life going, and he said not so great. And then made a swinging gesture and said I just can't get any distance.
His life was golf at that point, apparently but nobody has ever really pointed out one thing about him that is amazing -- his fabulous diction. It's unparalleled in the business. Maybe Rex Harrison, possibly. And never gets said much about Hope and he almost never blows a line, and his pronunciation is so clear and said with perfect emphasis that it's a thing to behold in awe. So was his singing, which was not just a bad singer but a real singer. And his dancing, he was almost as good as Cagney.
TERENCE SMITH: Phyllis Diller, you accompanied Bob Hope on some of these overseas trips to entertain the troops, and I expect those were very special moments. Tell us about them, tell us what they were like.
PHYLLIS DILLER: Well, he was in his favorite element when he was with the armed forces because he was so grateful to them, in real appreciation he took the shows to them. Because he wanted to raise their morale and that was what it was all about, and God knows he did it. He brought big, beautiful shows with the Les Brown Band of Renouns, a lot of pretty girls, and made for comedy.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact he had a line that Phyllis Diller, he had a line a he repeated all the time to the soldiers pointing to the women in the show, and he'd say, just want to remind what you what were fighting for.
PHYLLIS DILLER: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: Dick Cavett, go ahead.
DICK CAVETT: I was just going to say, one of his writers said, no I asked him was Hope really affected by the war, it's hard to tell, on camera. And he said it is, but he said he went into a burn ward once on one of the trips and he was shattered and came out and said I just can't do that any more. But he bucked himself up and he did. And then I don't know if Phyllis knows this is true or not, the idea that they caught a sniper watching one of the shows in Vietnam.
PHYLLIS DILLER: I didn't know about that.
DICK CAVETT: There was a sniper and he was apparently a rustic and had never seen a show and was just loving it and grinning. But he was dispatched any way, figuring it would be better to have a Hope than a sniper. Said did you ever tell Bob about that, he said no no no.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell me this, Dick Cavett, by the time the Vietnam era that you're talking about especially, Bob Hope was seen then as a politically conservative, I would say establishment figure, golfing with presidents and the like. Did that cost him some audience in that era?
DICK CAVETT: I think it may well have, and a lot of it is still a little murky to me. I remember Jonathan Miller once said Bob Hope has become a desecrated part of the Republican Party, rather than a humorous. There was a lot of bad press. And I think it was John Carey, it was, who came on a show of mine and said when they booed Hope at Danang it really got to him. And I always felt sorry about that. Because God knows if he was politically primitive in any way, think what else he was.
And the fact that he went over there, risked his life, and saw these guys, and didn't listen to the idiot congressmen who said it a terrible thing sending these Hope troop over there, they get these scantily clad girls and parade them in front of these poor marines and soldiers, only get to see them for ten minutes. Would you like to have been the person to go out front and say we have some scantily clad girls back stage but we're not going to bring them out because the Congress doesn't want it. But I think the world was much, much simpler before Vietnam, in all always and even in that one dramatic way that affected Bob Hope.
TERENCE SMITH: Phyllis Diller, he seemed remarkably adaptable in such a career that began in vaudeville and went on and adapted to television and certainly in films, that seems to me a gift when people keep growing like that.
PHYLLIS DILLER: Well, he did, from youth on he was ever growing, and ever improving. You know, about the war thing and Vietnam, you see, he was a hawk, and of course it made him some enemy was the people who were against the war. He didn't like the war, he wasn't for the war, but again, having been a former fighter and successful fighter, to him not going with it to an ending was like pulling a punch, you see, he wanted to get it over with and done with. And of course he was doing everything he could raise morale, and as Dick said, he visited those hospitals and made those trips through hospitals which some people couldn't have lived through them.
TERENCE SMITH: What was his mission, Phyllis Diller, when he went before those troops, and he continued to do it right into the period before the first Gulf War?
PHYLLIS DILLER: He was at that Gulf War, wasn't he?
TERENCE SMITH: Exactly, just before it. So what was he trying to do, in his own terms, was it's lift morale, what was he trying to do?
PHYLLIS DILLER: Well, he wanted to bring them morale lifting and bring them entertainment and bring them, it was like a message from home, and give them hope, and let them see what they were fighting for because you see he always felt that they were fighting for democracy and freedom. I'm sure he felt that.
TERENCE SMITH: Dick Cavett, go ahead, please.
DICK CAVETT: I know a writer who before he succeeded all the way had a job right after World War II and the job was to drive Bob Hope to universities, where he could get fill stadiums and things because it was like a man who needed a drug, needed a boost, he, it is so addicting -- those audiences of soldiers, if you've ever stood in front of one and had acres of them laugh at you, it's something you want to have as many times as possible until you die. So it wasn't a totally self deprivation for him, but the, nobody can fault him on his generosity and his heart and his great wit.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, he certainly, obviously, drew strength and great longevity from it. Dick Cavett, Phyllis Diller, thank you both so much.