“If the light went on in the icebox, he’d start to perform,” Bing Crosby used to joke about his old crony Bob Hope. Today, at 75, Hope’s career is still far from the deep freeze. Last year he gave 131 stage shows, appeared on 30 TV programs, received his 42nd honorary degree, played golf for charity 25 times and flew 251,600 miles. This week he hosts his 20th annual Desert Classic golf tournament in Palm Springs, Calif. to raise $600,000 for the local Eisenhower hospital. Two more Bob Hope joke books and a movie (his 61st starring role) are in the works. Astonishingly, there are no signs that Bob intends to slacken the pace—he has bookings through 1980. A unique blend of talent and showbiz shrewdness has kept Hope on top for so long. Yet friends say he is a softie who has never fired anyone and who, despite his enormous wealth, has simple tastes. When not on the road, he relaxes in a modest, airy four-bedroom “cottage” in Palm Springs, Calif. which he has owned since 1939. His North Hollywood headquarters includes an office with two vaults of old scripts and an index to all the jokes he has collected in the past 40 years (more than one million). In May, Hope and his wife of 45 years, Dolores, plan to move into a new house overlooking Palm Springs. Of modern “flying saucer” design, it cost more than $1 million. The Hopes’ four adopted children, aged 32 to 39, have long since left home. Recently the comedian interrupted his hectic schedule to chat with Martha Smilgis of PEOPLE. His daughter, Linda Hope, 39, an executive producer on the NBC sitcom Joe and Valerie, was also present and contributed revealing comments on her father.
You have been described as one of the 10 wealthiest people in America. How much are you worth?
TIME magazine asked some guy who worked for me that question. He said, “Half a billion,” like I would say “Crosby owns L.A.” I wired the editors, “You find it and I’ll split it.” Really, I own 11,000 acres; that’s the most raw acreage owned by any individual in California. Most of it is optioned. Everybody is looking at it—Taiwanese, Japanese, Iranians.
Why did you buy so much land?
In 1937 I went out to join Bing Crosby at Paramount. He had a big house in the valley, so I bought a big house. He bought a limo, and I bought a limo. Then in 1949 Bing and I got lucky in oil. The stock market was down so I bought land. Now I pay nearly a million a year in taxes. I’ve got to keep working; I’m supporting the government.
Are you still concerned with money?
Yes, I just can’t sit back and play golf. I want to keep going. There were seven boys in my family and we were poor. My father was a stonemason who came over from England when I was 4. I started singing first and then at 21 I taught tap lessons in Cleveland. There was a time when I couldn’t get a job. I was $400 in debt just for coffee and doughnuts. No one came when I was billed as “Leslie Hope,” song-and-dance man, so I changed it to “Bob” and still no one came. Finally, at 25, I signed a vaudeville contract and played the Palace on Broadway. I haven’t quit working since.
Why do you keep at it?
I’ve never met a comedian who didn’t get therapy out of a good audience. I love it. I don’t consider it work. When Bing and I were doing the Road movies, he and I kept right on even after the lights went down.
Why do you do so many benefits?
It’s easy. I don’t have to prepare, since I’m always working on a monologue anyway. I go and practice, like, “The Pope wasn’t elected, they just took a poll.” I guess I do more work for the Catholics. But I don’t think it matters what religion you are, really.
What about your gag writers?
I have four of them now, but in 1938 I had the 10 greatest ever assembled. All in the Family is composed of my ex-staff. My writers know what I want and use. No reminiscing and no mother-in-law jokes. Now we’re working on Coca-Cola and the Chinese and the TV rating wars.
How do you decide on topics?
Writers send in premises and I pick one. Politics is surefire material, because people are thinking about it. I also did a lot of Anita Bryant jokes—”There was an early chill in Florida and all of Anita’s pansies froze”—but she got mad. Boy, did a lot of people jump on me.
Are there any taboos?
Of course. You can’t joke about people being killed. The Peoples Temple you can’t touch. “Amin just killed 1,000 people. It’s called keeping up with the Joneses” is only for the locker room. You can’t do it.
Are your sex jokes always tame?
I’m careful because I play to a lot of families, and mothers will switch you off. I don’t want them to start saying, “Hey, he’s a dirty old man.” Now, in person I can tell a few more things. I do a routine that the audience screams at, but I wouldn’t do it for TV.
In the past you have had a reputation as a Hollywood Casanova. What about that?
It’s so flattering, I’d like to plead guilty. But you know you’re getting old when you get on a plane with 14 gorgeous gals—and your wife hands you your thermal underwear.
How did you meet your wife?
I was in Roberta on Broadway. I had a low Pierce-Arrow with the wild fenders, an apartment on Central Park West and I was flyin’. I had a different gal every night. Then I met Dolores. She was a singer at a nearby club and she was something! It was love at first sight, but she was smart. She got me interested and then left for Florida. I spent $300 in long-distance calls. I went down there and persuaded her to come back. We were married three months after we met.
Has your time away from home been hard on Dolores?
Yes. She’s writing a book, If You See Bob, Say Hello. Dolores went on the first Christmas trip to Berlin. She felt the warmth and gratitude. We’ve had an exciting life together. I took over the career and she took over the family. The children all turned out very well and Dolores should take a bow.
Linda, what was it like being Bob Hope’s daughter?
As I get older, I really appreciate that he’s not your average father. It’s true he was always away, but he was also there giving support when you really needed him—when I was married and divorced, for example.
Did you realize he was a famous comedian?
Yes, and we coached him at breakfast with his lines and listened to all his jokes. He would leave doing a softshoe number on the porch. At dinner, he would throw his voice and do a falsetto Bessie, the Little Orphan Girl. Even when we were older and knew there was no Bessie behind the curtain, we loved watching him.
Linda, do you think it was hard for your mother to give up her own career?
Probably, but Mother is very busy. She is really responsible for the Eisenhower Medical Center. She’s also been active in improving the adoption laws and services in Los Angeles. She is also very straight with Dad. Others who need their jobs won’t say anything. She’ll say that a particular routine looks ridiculous—”Old men don’t go chasing after 23-year-olds.”
Did his absences on the road cause a strain in their marriage?
Sure, it was hard for her when he went off surrounded by beautiful women. But she had made a commitment to a situation. There was always the possibility of divorce. They didn’t. It was 45 years for better or for worse. Now, as they are older, they are very sweet together. Four months ago, after his heart problem in Ohio, she said, “Okay, this is it. I’m getting on a plane and dragging him back. I’m going to force him to calm down.”
Bob, what’s this about your heart?
I was doing a little too much and I had a little rapid heartbeat—it went up to 170. The paramedics ran in like a TV show. They strapped this thing around me day and night to monitor my heart. Now everything is completely normal.
How do you stay healthy?
Well, I wouldn’t be alive today if I hadn’t stopped smoking 40 years ago. Several years back I had a bladder problem and the doctor said no more liquor. Also, I don’t drink coffee, only Kava. In the ’30s my stomach was upset. The doctor said, “Stewed fruit every morning,” and I’ve been doing it ever since. In fact, before Freddie Prinze died he told me he wasn’t feeling so well. There I was telling him about stewed fruit—can you believe it? I didn’t know about the drugs. Such a waste! A wonderful kid.
Do you have any bad habits?
Last night I ate three pieces of baklava, then had to pop some Alka-Seltzer. I love sweets. I carry a box of homemade cookies with me just in case I want to nibble.
What about having a face-lift?
What for? One thing I’ve taken care of is my hair. It’s worth it. I don’t need a toupee. I’ll never wear one of those “lamb chops”—that’s what Bing called them.
How did golf get to be so important?
I’m not really a workaholic. I’d always rather play golf. I got the bug in 1930 when I was in vaudeville. I was bored sitting around and it was a way to get outside. Dolores is a good golfer—five handicap. She beat me once, in Vienna.
Despite your wealth, your tastes seem down to earth.
You’re right, I don’t own a plane. Chrysler is a sponsor, so I have seven of their cars. I get my Texaco gas free. I can’t stand jewelry and never wear a watch. I have a built-in timer—a half-an-hour brain from doing shows all my life. I own 200 suits—Hart Schaffner & Marx, Dior and two Johnny Carsons in that electric blue.
Linda, has your dad always had a penchant for flamboyant clothes?
Flamboyant is being kind. I’ve taken it as my mission to coordinate colors for him. No, I don’t think he is colorblind. We tease him a lot. We say he tells the cook to make the meals taste like hotel food, so he’ll feel at home.
Bob, do people often recognize you?
Sure. For example, in St. Louis I went into a diner at 2 a.m. and ordered milk. The gal behind the register looked at me, then thought, then looked again and said, “Which one is you?”
Do you have any regrets?
No, not really. I never thought I’d make it as big as I have. I’ve been so damn lucky in this business. I was in the right place at the right time. Of course, I steered myself there.