Bob Hope, one of Hollywood’s greatest and most beloved entertainers, could do it all—sing, act and dance—but what he loved most was comedy, and he went on to make an entire nation laugh for generations.
One of his greatest fans was author Ron Miller who, during his 22 years as a TV columnist, had many opportunities to chat with the star of stage and screen. In our recent release, Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era, Miller includes an illuminating compilation of his various talks with the acclaimed entertainer.
To commemorate what would have been Bob Hope’s 113th birthday, we’re sharing an excerpt from his interview:
Setting the Scene
Born Leslie Townes Hope on May 29, 1903, Bob Hope immigrated to the U.S. from London as a child. He began his show business career in vaudeville which helped develop his skills as a joke teller and master of ceremonies. He appeared on Broadway and in movie shorts as a comic actor. In 1938 he became the star of his own radio show, The Pepsodent Show, and the rapid delivery of his comic lines garnered popularity and made him an overnight sensation. That same year he was signed to Paramount Pictures and made his feature film debut in The Big Broadcast of 1938 with W.C. Fields.
He went on to star in a number of films, most notably The Road to Singapore (1940) with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, which launched a series of “road” movies. He hosted the Academy Awards ceremonies 18 times, and became one of the most popular USO entertainers with a number of overseas tours to combat zones during WWII and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
MILLER: You’re such an iconic symbol of America around the world that it’s often hard to believe you came here as an immigrant from England. Tell me about it.
HOPE: My uncle, Frank Hope, came over first. Then we all got on the boat–in steerage–and took off. I was four years old. They wanted to vaccinate me at Ellis Island, but I wouldn’t let them. I ran all over the place. I think I was a little mischievous.
MILLER: Your dad was a stonemason. Was he a good one?
HOPE: There’s a bridge in Cleveland with a sign saying “Built by Harry Hope.” It connects the east side with the west side. It’s still standing, so I guess he was good enough.
MILLER: I’ve read a good deal about how tough it was at first for you becoming a success in show business. What was the turning point for you?
HOPE: I always go back to 1928 when I was standing in front of the Woods Theater building in Chicago. I couldn’t book a date. I was getting $10 a show in those days and stood there looking over at Henrisi’s Restaurant, which had an open window. I could see them eating in there and I’m starving. And I was thinking, “I’ve got to go back to Cleveland, get my laundry done and get a fresh start.” That’s when a guy I knew, Charlie Cooley, says, “Hey, what’re you doing?”
He took me upstairs to a booker who got me one day at the West Inglewood Theater for $25, which was more money than I’d ever made. From that booking, I got a booking at the Stratford, where they were using a permanent M.C. for shows and pictures. I stayed there six months. When I came out of there, I could do anything.
[. . .]
MILLER: Your biggest break up to then came when you were signed to play one of the leading roles in the Broadway show Roberta by Jerome Kern. I imagine you were doing pretty well with the ladies by that time, too.
HOPE: I felt like I had every girl in New York. I was running around with every girl in the chorus, all these beautiful dames. But one night, my pal George Murphy, talked me into catching the act of what he called “a real good-looking singer” over at the Vogue Club. Her name was Dolores Reade. It was love at first sight. I just kept going back again and again to see her act.
MILLER: So you started going out?
HOPE: Pretty soon I was just sitting in the car with her in front of her hotel and talking. That was fatal. One night she finally had time off and attended a performance of Roberta. I was shocked to see her walk right by my dressing room after the show, completely ignoring me. She wouldn’t even stop and talk to me.
MILLER: What was that about?
HOPE: She was so embarrassed because she didn’t know I was one of the stars of the show. She thought I was just a chorus boy.
MILLER: I guess she got over it.
HOPE: Well, we were married soon afterward.
MILLER: Between 1934 and 1938, you made eight movie short subjects, but things didn’t really boom for you until you were signed by Paramount. Your first feature was The Big Broadcast of 1938 and it gave you your signature song, Thanks For the Memory, which won the Best Song Oscar. Tell me about that.
HOPE: The whole thing was an accident. Paramount wanted Jack Benny for the part in the movie, but he was 43 and thought he was too old to play the juvenile lead in a picture. And I don’t think he wanted to be second-billed to W.C. Fields. So, he turned down the part and Paramount had to find somebody else.
I was then working on Broadway in The Ziegfeld Follies. In that show, I introduced the song I Can’t Get Started. Everybody thinks it was Bunny Berrigan’s song because he cut the record. But I introduced it, singing it to a beautiful redhead who turned out to be Eve Arden. Anyway, the movie director Mitch Leisen saw me in the show and was impressed that I could sing as well as do light comedy.
MILLER: Are you telling me Jack Benny might have wound up singing Thanks For the Memory instead of you?
HOPE: I don’t think they intended him to sing anything because Jack didn’t sing much. I think Leisen probably decided to add the song for the two juvenile leads to sing once they signed Shirley Ross and me.
MILLER: When did you learn you were going to sing it?
HOPE: When I arrived at Paramount on September 7, 1937, I went over to the music department and they asked if I wanted to hear the new song I was going to sing. I said, “Sure,” and they played me Thanks for the Memory. I loved it right away, but I took it home and played it for Dolores and she said, “I don’t think that’s much!” I think she was a little hasty.
MILLER: When the song won the Oscar, it went to the composers, Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, but it became your theme song. How did that come about?
HOPE: I began my radio show for Pepsodent (toothpaste) in September of 1938 and I needed a theme song. It hadn’t won the Oscar yet, but it was the automatic choice for me.
MILLER: You’ve told me before that you’ve sung it on every radio show since, every TV show, in just about every live performance and even in another movie (Thanks for the Memory, 1938). But you’ve almost always changed the lyrics to suit the times. How did the composers react to that?
HOPE: They loved it. After all, they got royalties every time it was played — and still do.
[. . .]
MILLER: One of the primary reasons why you’re so widely loved today must be the tremendous time you put in entertaining the troops. But you did take some flak for doing it during the really unpopular war in Vietnam and defending our being there.
HOPE: If I hadn’t gone over there, I’d have felt pretty awful. Those kids needed shows more than anyone else because they were just sitting around wondering what the hell was going on. It was a miserable, miserable situation. There was nothing different about Vietnam when it came to entertaining troops. I was doing the same thing there I was doing in other places. I wasn’t running for office or anything.
MILLER: Lots of people thought the Academy Awards would have to shut down once you stopped hosting the ceremony. Do you miss that job?
HOPE: No, not really. I did it for so long.
[. . .]
MILLER: Of all the pictures you’ve made, which is your favorite?
HOPE: If The Paleface is on, I’ll take a look at it. And I really like The Seven Little Foys.
[. . .]
MILLER: At this stage of your life, it must be very rewarding to feel the genuine love the public has for you.
HOPE: I sure do appreciate that. I feel that from people I meet. I imagine it comes from the things we did like entertaining the troops all those years. Most people had relatives or knew someone who was over there. I’ve had some wonderful things happen that make me feel good about my life. Like the time when I had this bad eye problem and it looked as if I might have to lose an eye. And this young Marine said, “I’ll give him one of my eyes.”
MILLER: If you had it to do all over again, would you do anything differently?
HOPE: No. I couldn’t be that lucky all over again.
Bob Hope had a lot of projects on the burner in his final years, including a final “Road” movie with Bing Crosby which was canceled once Crosby died. His final starring role in a feature film was in 1972’s Cancel My Reservation, but he did star in a final made-for-TV movie, 1986’s A Masterpiece of Murder, playing an over-the-hill private eye. Hope had wanted to live to be one hundred — and he did. He died in his sleep at his home in Toluca Lake on July 27, 2003. He was one hundred years old.