August 11, 2003 12:00 PM

BOB HOPE 1903-2003

The one subject Linda Hope can’t remember her father ever joking about was his own, mortality. “He was in Vietnam and had some, close calls,” she says. “He always said, ‘When it happens, it happens.’ The only thing he really wanted to do was to live to be 100. His English grandfather had lived to be a month or two shy of that. He would often say, ‘I’m going to beat my grandfather.'”

Bob Hope got his wish—and perhaps the last laugh in an extraordinary life and career. On July 27, two months after his May 29 centennial, the ski-nosed, tart-tongued entertainer died of pneumonia, with Linda, 64, a TV producer, her sister, two brothers and their mother, Dolores, 94, at his bedside in his Toluca Lake, Calif., home.

Till his final days, death was seldom on his mind, says Linda. “He was too busy living life and figuring out a joke for what was going on at the time.” Indeed, for more than half a century, the irrepressible Hope was America’s nonstop joke dispenser. Through 1,145 radio broadcasts, nearly 70 movies, some 500 TV specials, 18 Oscar-hosting gigs and performances before millions of U.S. troops from World War II to the Gulf War, Hope churned out more gags than anybody—”They once timed me at 44 jokes in four minutes,” he boasted.

Among his targets were Presidents from Roosevelt to Clinton. “Clinton loves to make long speeches,” Hope said. “In fact, this [1993 Inaugural address] will be the first with an intermission.” He “leaves a matchless legacy of laughs,” says Clinton. Gerald Ford, now 90, a frequent partner in 4-handicapper Hope’s favorite pastime of golf, remembers him as “one of the premier entertainers of all time.”

Certainly he was among the most influential. His Road pictures with Bing Crosby paved the way for decades of buddy movies, and his screen persona—”a woman’s man, a coward’s coward and always brilliant,” Woody Allen once said—inspired Allen’s own screen image. Years before late-night TV, Hope developed the talk show host prototype, smart and smart-alecky. “His monologues—which were always so topical—had an enormous influence on me,” says Jay Leno. Former host Dick Cavett agrees: “I not only practiced his lines, I practiced his walk, [even] how he cocked his eyebrows after telling a joke.”

Hope never found a more adoring audience than the GIs he entertained, sometimes under enemy fire. “He once said that as long as there are troops in a combat area, he could not in good conscience not go,” said his USO show writer-director Mort Lachman.

Though Hope for most of his career “was middle of the road” politically, says pal Don Rickles, Vietnam turned him hawkish. He drew close to Vice President Spiro Agnew, feeding him jokes to use about antiwar protesters. In return Hope was sometimes booed on college campuses.

Hope was conservative when it came to money as well. Though at the time of his death he was worth more than an estimated $100 million (much of it from shrewd investments in Southern California real estate), he never lived lavishly. “He was very conservative with a buck,” says longtime performing partner Debbie Reynolds. “He didn’t have a private plane until his final years.” Still, no one performed at more benefits or raised more money for charities (distributed through the Hopes’ own foundation). Asked how much he’d raised, he’d always reply, “Not enough.”

Leslie Townes Hope knew about not having enough. He spent his early childhood in the London suburb of Eltham, the fifth of seven sons of Harry, a struggling stonemason, and Avis, a former concert singer. (“Four of us slept in the same bed,” he’d later quip. “When we got cold, Mother threw on another brother.”) He was 4 when the family left England and settled in Cleveland in 1907. Leslie, who later changed his name to Bob (“It’s more ‘Hiya, fellas,'” he would say), was encouraged as a boy to recite poetry, dance and play tunes on a comb and tissue. Seeking work where he could find it, he shined shoes, caddied and hustled pool. A good athlete, as a 128-lb. teenager he briefly flirted with a boxing career, going by the name “Packy East.” Before Hope dropped out of East High School at 16, though, he had shown promise as a performer, winning a Chaplin imitation contest at 10. In his 20s he hoofed his way through backwoods towns on the vaudeville circuit.

Moving to Manhattan, Hope hit it big in Jerome Kern’s 1933 Broadway musical Roberta, where a costar introduced him to nightclub singer Dolores Reade. Hope always swore that his first words to her were, “Can I take you home?” They were married within three months. Dolores gave up nightlife for family life: The Hopes adopted four children, starting in 1939 with Linda, then Tony, 63, a lawyer; Nora, 57, a homemaker; and Kelly, 57, a journalist.

Hope’s success grew even faster than his family. In 1938 he landed his own radio program and made his first movie. The Big Broadcast of 1938 featured Hope and costar Shirley Ross crooning the song that would become his signature, “Thanks for the Memory.”

Though not all his films were memorable, Hope rated among the Top 10 box office draws from 1941 through 1953. He would also become a huge draw on the small screen through his frequent NBC specials, starting in the 1950s. In 1969 they accounted for six of the year’s 11 top-rated shows.

Hope kept up the grueling schedule of TV specials, benefits and tributes. In 1989, at age 86, he had 190 nights booked on the road. “He couldn’t survive without [performing],” Bing Crosby once explained. “Applause, laughter and commendation are food and drink to him.”

But age finally caught up with him. Andy Williams, who last saw Hope three years ago, says, “He didn’t remember me. He couldn’t see or hear well. Dolores would say, ‘Bob, it’s Andy’ And Bob would say, ‘Oh, yeah,’ but he had no clue.” He spent his final years at home in Toluca Lake with Dolores, their kids and four grandchildren. When the end finally came, at 9:28 p.m., “I can’t tell you how beautiful and peaceful it was,” said Linda. “He left us with a smile on his face and no real last words. He gave us each a kiss and that was it.”

Still, Hope, whose private funeral will be followed by a public memorial service in L.A. Aug. 27, may have left behind one last joke for the occasion. “I do benefits for all religions,” he once said. “I’d hate to blow the hereafter on a technicality.”

Michael A. Upton

Vicki Sheff-Cahan, Lorenzo Benet, Pamela Warrick, John Hannah and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles, Sharon Cotliar and Anne Driscoll in New York City and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.

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