Bob Hope, KBE, KCSG, KSS, was born Leslie Townes Hope in Eltham, London, UK, the fifth of seven sons. His English father, William Henry Hope, was a stonemason from Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, and his Welsh mother, Avis Townes, was a light opera singer from Barry who later worked as a cleaning woman. She married William Hope in April 1891 and the couple lived at 12 Greenwood Street in the town, then moved to Whitehall and St George in Bristol. In 1908 the family emigrated to the United States aboard the SS Philadelphia, and passed inspection at Ellis Island on March 30, 1908, before moving to Cleveland, Ohio.
From the age of 12, Hope earned pocket money by busking (frequently on the streetcar to Luna Park), singing, dancing, and performing comedy patter. He entered many dancing and amateur talent contests (as Lester Hope), and won a prize in 1915 for his impersonation of Charlie Chaplin. For a time Hope attended the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster, Ohio. As an adult, Hope donated sizable sums of money to the institution.
Hope worked as a butcher's assistant and a lineman in his teens and early twenties. Deciding to try a show business career, he and his girlfriend, Millie Rosequist, signed up for dance lessons. Encouraged after they performed in a three-day engagement at a club, Hope then formed a partnership with Lloyd Durbin, a fellow pupil from the dance school. Silent film comedian Fatty Arbuckle saw them perform in 1925 and obtained them steady work with a touring troupe called Hurley's Jolly Follies. Within a year, Hope had formed an act called the Dancemedians with George Byrne and the Hilton Sisters, conjoined twins who performed a tap dancing routine in the vaudeville circuit. Hope and Byrne had an act as a pair of Siamese twins as well, and danced and sang while wearing blackface, before friends advised Hope that he was funnier as himself. In 1929, he changed his first name to "Bob". In one version of the story, he named himself after racecar driver Bob Burman. In another, he said he chose Bob because he wanted a name with a friendly "Hiya, fellas!" sound to it. After five years on the vaudeville circuit, Hope was surprised and humbled when he failed a 1930 screen test for the French film production company Pathé at Culver City, California.
In the early days, Hope's career included appearances on stage in Vaudeville shows and Broadway productions. He began performing on the radio in 1934 and switched to television when that medium became popular in the 1950s. He began doing regular TV specials in 1954, and hosted the Academy Awards fourteen times in the period from 1941 to 1978. Overlapping with this was his movie career, spanning the years 1934 to 1972, and his USO tours, which he did from 1942 to 1988.
Hope signed a contract for six short films with Educational Pictures of New York. The first was a comedy, Going Spanish (1934). He was not happy with the film, and told Walter Winchell, "When they catch John Dillinger, they're going to make him sit through it twice." Educational dropped his contract, but he soon signed with Warner Brothers. He made movies during the day and performed Broadway shows in the evenings.
Hope moved to Hollywood when Paramount Pictures signed him for the 1938 film The Big Broadcast of 1938, also starring W. C. Fields. The song "Thanks for the Memory", which later became his trademark, was introduced in this film as a duet with Shirley Ross as accompanied by Shep Fields and his orchestra. The sentimental, fluid nature of the music allowed Hope's writers (he depended heavily upon joke writers throughout his career) to later create variations of the song to fit specific circumstances, such as bidding farewell to troops while on tour.
As a movie star, he was best known for comedies like My Favorite Brunette and the highly successful "Road" movies in which he starred with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. The series consists of seven films made between 1940 and 1962. Hope had seen Lamour as a nightclub singer in New York, and invited her to work on his United Service Organizations(USO) tours. Lamour sometimes arrived for filming prepared with her lines, only to be baffled by completely re-written scripts or ad-lib dialogue between Hope and Crosby.. Hope and Lamour were lifelong friends, and she remains the actress most associated with his film career. Hope made movies with many other leading women, including Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Rosemary Clooney, Jane Russelland Elke Sommer.
Hope teamed with Crosby for the "Road" pictures and countless stage, radio, and television appearances together over the decades from their first meeting in 1932 until Crosby's death in 1977. The two invested together in oil leases and other business ventures, but did not see each other socially.
After the release of Road to Singapore (1940), Hope's screen career took off, and he had a long and successful career in the movies. After an 11-year hiatus, Hope and Crosby teamed up for the last Road movie, The Road to Hong Kong (1962), starring 28-year old Joan Collins in place of Lamour, who Hope and Crosby thought was too old for the part. They had planned one more movie together in 1977, The Road to the Fountain of Youth. Filming was postponed when Crosby was injured in a fall, and the production was cancelled when he suddenly died of heart failure that October.
Hope starred in 54 theatrical features between 1938 and 1972, as well as cameos and short films. Most of Hope's later movies failed to match the success of his 1940s efforts. He was disappointed with his appearance in Cancel My Reservation (1972), his last film, and the movie was poorly received by critics and filmgoers.
Hope was host of the Academy Awards ceremony fourteen times between 1939 and 1977. His feigned desire for an Academy Award became part of his act. Although he was never nominated for an Oscar, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him with four honorary awards, and in 1960, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. While introducing the 1968 telecast, he quipped, "Welcome to the Academy Awards, or, as it's known at my house, Passover."
Hope's career in broadcasting began on radio in 1934. His first regular series for NBC Radio was the Woodbury Soap Hour in 1937, a 26-week contract. A year later, The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope began, and Hope signed a ten-year contract the show's sponsor, Lever Brothers. The show became the top radio program in the country. Regulars on the series included Jerry Colonna and Barbara Jo Allen as spinster Vera Vague. Hope continued his lucrative career in radio through to the 1950s, when radio's popularity was overshadowed by television.
Hope did many specials for the NBC television network in the following decades, beginning in April 1950. He was one of the first people to use cue cards. The shows were often sponsored by General Motors (1955–1961),Chrysler (1963–73), and Texaco (1975–1985). Hope's Christmas specials were popular favorites and often featured a performance of "Silver Bells" (from his 1951 film The Lemon Drop Kid) done as a duet with an often much younger female guest star (such as Olivia Newton-John, Barbara Eden, and Brooke Shields), or with his wife Dolores, with whom he dueted on two specials. Hope's 1970 and 1971 Christmas specials for NBC—filmed in Vietnam in front of military audiences at the height of the war—are on the list of the Top 46 U.S. network prime-time telecasts. Both were seen by more than 60 per cent of the U.S. households watching television.
In 1992, Hope made a guest appearance as himself on The Simpsons, in the episode "Lisa the Beauty Queen" (season 4, episode 4). Towards the end of his career, eye problems left him unable to read his cue cards. His 90th birthday television celebration in May 1993, Bob Hope: The First 90 Years, won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music Or Comedy Special. In October 1996 Hope announced that he was ending his 60-year contract with NBC, joking that he "decided to become a free agent". His final television special, Laughing with the Presidents, was broadcast in November 1996, with host Tony Danza helping him present a personal retrospective of presidents of the United States known to the comedian. The special received poor reviews. Following a brief appearance at the 50th Primetime Emmy Awards in 1997, Hope's last TV appearance was in a 1997 K-Mart commercial directed by Penny Marshall.
While aboard the RMS Queen Mary when World War II began in September 1939, Hope volunteered to perform a special show for the passengers, during which he sang "Thanks for the Memory" with rewritten lyrics. He performed his first USO show on May 6, 1941, at March Field, California,and continued to travel and entertain troops for the rest of World War II, and later during the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the third phase of the Lebanon Civil War, the latter years of the Iran–Iraq War, and the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf War. His USO career lasted half a century, during which he headlined 57 tours. He had a deep respect for the men and women who served in the military, and this was reflected in his willingness to go anywhere in order to entertain them. During the Vietnam War, Hope had trouble convincing some performers to join him on tour. Anti-war sentiment was high, and Hope's pro-war stance made him a target of criticism. Some shows were drowned out by boos and others were listened to in silence. The tours were funded by the United States Department of Defense, his television sponsors, and by NBC, the network that broadcast the television specials that were created after each tour. Many people considered him as an enabler of the war and a member of the system that made it possible.
Hope recruited his own family members for USO travel. His wife, Dolores, sang from atop an armored vehicle during the Desert Storm tour, and his granddaughter, Miranda, appeared alongside Hope on an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean. Of Hope's USO shows in World War II, writer John Steinbeck, who was then working as a war correspondent, wrote in 1943:
When the time for recognition of service to the nation in wartime comes to be considered, Bob Hope should be high on the list. This man drives himself and is driven. It is impossible to see how he can do so much, can cover so much ground, can work so hard, and can be so effective. He works month after month at a pace that would kill most people.
For his service to his country through the USO, he was awarded the Sylvanus Thayer Award by the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1968. A 1997 act of Congress signed by President Bill Clinton named Hope an "Honorary Veteran." He remarked, "I've been given many awards in my lifetime — but to be numbered among the men and women I admire most — is the greatest honor I have ever received." In homage to Hope, Stephen Colbert carried a golf club on stage each night during his own week of USO performances, which were taped for his TV show, The Colbert Report, during the 2009 season.
Hope's first Broadway appearances, in 1927's The Sidewalks of New York and 1928's Ups-a-Daisy, were minor walk-on parts. He returned to Broadway in 1933 to star as Huckleberry Haines in the Jerome Kern / Dorothy Fields musical Roberta. Stints in the musicals Say When, the 1936 Ziegfeld Follies (with Fanny Brice), and Red, Hot and Blue with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante followed. Hope reprised his role as Huck Haines in a 1958 production ofRoberta at The Muny Theater in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri.
Hope rescued Eltham Little Theatre from closure by providing funds to buy the property. He continued his interest and support and regularly visited when in London. The Theatre was renamed in his honor in 1982.
Hope was praised for his comedic timing, specializing in one-liners and rapid-fire delivery of jokes. His style of delivery of self-deprecating jokes, first building himself up and then tearing himself down, was unique. Working tirelessly, he performed hundreds of times per year. Early films such as The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Paleface (1948) were financially successful and were praised by critics, and by the mid-1940s, with his radio program getting good ratings as well, he became one of the most popular entertainers in the United States. When Paramount threatened to stop production of the Road pictures in 1945, they received 75,000 letters in protest. He had no faith in his skills as a dramatic actor, and his performances of that type were not as well received. Hope had been a leader in the radio genre until the late 1940s, but as his ratings began to slip, he switched to television in the 1950s, an early pioneer of that medium. He published several books—written with ghostwriters—about his wartime experiences.
Although he made an effort to keep his material up-to-date, he never adapted his comic persona or his routines to any great degree. By the 1970s his popularity was beginning to wane with soldiers and with the movie-going public. But he continued doing USO tours into the 1980s, in spite of being considered a promoter of the military–industrial complex, as he thought it was a patriotic thing to do, and he continued to appear on television into the 1990s. Nancy Reagan called him "America's most honored citizen and our favorite clown."
Hope's first short-lived marriage was to his vaudeville partner, Grace Louise Troxell, whom he married in January 1933. In 1934, Hope married Dolores (DeFina) Reade, who had been one of his co-stars on Broadway in Roberta. They adopted four children at an adoption agency called The Cradle, in Evanston, Illinois: Linda (1939), Tony (1940), Kelly (1946), and Nora (1946). From them he had several grandchildren, including Andrew, Miranda, and Zachary Hope. Tony (as Anthony J. Hope) served as a presidential appointee in the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations and in a variety of posts under Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
Hope had a reputation as a womanizer and continued to see other women in spite of his marriage. In 1949, while Hope was in Dallas on a publicity tour for his radio show, he met starlet Barbara Payton, a contract player at Universal Studios, who at the time was on her own public relations jaunt. Shortly thereafter, Hope set Payton up in an apartment in Hollywood. The arrangement soured as Hope was not able to satisfy Payton's definition of generosity and her need for attention. Hope paid her off to end the affair quietly. Payton later revealed the affair in an article printed in July 1956 in Confidential. "Hope was ... at times a mean-spirited individual with the ability to respond with a ruthless vengeance when sufficiently provoked." His advisors counseled him to avoid further publicity by ignoring the Confidential exposé. "Barbara's ... revelations caused a minor ripple ... and then quickly sank without causing any appreciable damage to Bob Hope's legendary career." According to Arthur Marx's Hope biography, The Secret Life of Bob Hope, Hope's subsequent long-term affair with actressMarilyn Maxwell was so open that the Hollywood community routinely referred to her as "Mrs. Bob Hope".
Hope served as an active honorary chairman on the board of Fight for Sight. He hosted their Lights On telecast in 1960 and donated $100,000 to establish the Bob Hope Fight for Sight Fund. He recruited numerous top celebrities for the annual "Lights On" fundraiser; as an example, he hosted Joe Frazier, Yvonne DeCarlo, and Sergio Franchi as headliners for the show at Philharmonic Hall in Milwaukee on April 25, 1971.
Hope continued an active career past his 75th birthday, concentrating on his television specials and USO tours. Although he had given up starring in movies after Cancel My Reservation, he made several cameos in various films and co-starred with Don Ameche in the 1986 TV movie A Masterpiece of Murder. A television special created for his 80th birthday in 1983 at the Kennedy Center in Washington featured President Ronald Reagan, Lucille Ball,George Burns, and many others. In 1985, he was presented with the Life Achievement Award at the Kennedy Center Honors, and in 1998 he was appointed an honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. Upon accepting the appointment, Hope quipped, "I'm speechless. 70 years of ad lib material and I'm speechless."
At the age of 95, Hope made an appearance at the 50th anniversary of the Primetime Emmy Awards with Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. Two years later, he was present at the opening of the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment at the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress has presented two major exhibitions about Hope's life – "Hope for America: Performers, Politics and Pop Culture" and "Bob Hope and American Variety."
Hope celebrated his 100th birthday on May 29, 2003. He is among a small group of notable centenarians in the field of entertainment. To mark this event, the intersection of Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles was named "Bob Hope Square" and his centennial was declared "Bob Hope Day" in 35 states. Even at 100, Hope maintained his self-deprecating sense of humor, quipping, "I'm so old, they've canceled my blood type." He converted to Roman Catholicism late in life.
In 1998, a prepared obituary by The Associated Press was inadvertently released on the Internet, prompting Hope's death to be announced in the U.S. House of Representatives. Hope remained in good health until old age, though he became a bit frail. In June 2000 he spent nearly a week in a California hospital after being hospitalized for gastrointestinal bleeding. In August 2001, he spent close to two weeks in the hospital recovering from pneumonia.
On July 27, 2003, two months after his 100th birthday, Bob Hope died at his home in Toluca Lake, Los Angeles. His grandson, Zach Hope, told Soledad O'Brien that when asked on his deathbed where he wanted to be buried, Hope had told his wife, "Surprise me." His remains were interred in the Bob Hope Memorial Garden at San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles. After Hope's death, many newspaper cartoonists worldwide paid tribute to his work for the USO or featured Bing Crosby (who died on October 14, 1977) welcoming Hope into heaven.