Date: October 1st, 2003
Leslie Townes Hope worked as a shoe salesman, a stock boy, and even a boxer before he found his true calling. But when you saw the ease with which he tossed out one-liners onstage and waited for the audience to catch up, it was hard to believe he was ever anyone other than Bob Hope, America's enduring entertainment legend.
Building on some dance classes he had during and after high school, Hope got his start as an entertainer with a vaudeville act in the 1920s. He teamed with a few different people to develop some moderately successful acts, but cut his teeth as a solo act during one three-day engagement when his introductory teaser about coming attractions turned into a hit all by itself.
By the early 1930s, he was regularly acting in skits and plays on Broadway. His first feature film role was "The Big Broadcast of 1938." During the 1940s, Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour starred in a series of "Road" movies, beginning with "Road to Singapore," that showcased their comedic talent and firmly established Hope as a powerful entertainer.
While he was making movies, he was also starring in his own NBC radio variety program, which began in 1937 and lasted until 1956. He was known during this time for a gently risqué sense of humor that kept censors at the edges of their chairs.
America's most prized ambassador of good will
In 1941, Hope joined with a group of other entertainers to perform a radio show for servicemen and women stationed in California. The enlisteds loved the show, and Hope began airing his radio shows from military installations around the country. His first trip to Europe was in 1943. Time magazine featured him in a cover story celebrating his contribution to the morale of the homesick troops.
After the war ended, Hope continued to visit troops stationed all over the world. In 1948, he put on what would be the first of many Christmas shows. President John F. Kennedy awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal, praising his efforts and calling him "America's most prized ambassador of good will throughout the world."
Hope continued to make movies in the 1950s. His first of only two dramatic films was "The Seven Little Foys" (1955), in which he played Eddie Foy, a popular vaudeville entertainer who incorporated his seven children into an act after their mother died. While the film is widely viewed as sentimental, critics praised Hope's performance.
Hope also produced his own movies in the late 1950s, including "Alias Jesse James" (1959) and "The Facts of Life" (1960). His movie career declined in the 1960s with a few poorly reviewed movies. By this time, however, that his popularity as a television entertainer had really begun to take flight.
Hope declined offers for a weekly series, guessing wisely that his act would get old if seen every week. Instead, he performed monthly or almost-monthly variety specials. He also televised his Christmas specials for the troops beginning in 1954 and continuing until his retirement. The Christmas specials as well as many other periodic television appearances combined song and dance with his trademark mildly biting and timely sense of humor.
An honorary veteran
Hope performed on his last official USO tour in 1990, when he was 87 years old. The entertainment industry bestowed many honors onto him, including a place in the Television Hall of Fame and four stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Emmy Awards now include a Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, which honors those "whose deeds and actions have had a lasting impact on society." Oprah Winfrey received the first such award in 2002.
He was widely recognized outside of Hollywood as well, receiving an estimated 2,000+ honors- including more than 50 honorary doctorates. Congress thanked him for his decades of dedication to American troops by naming him an honorary U.S. veteran in 1997.
The United States was not the only country to recognize Hope's contributions. He was born and spent the first four years of his life in England, and Queen Elizabeth presented him with an honorary knighthood in 1998.
Bob Hope died July 27 at the age of 100. He made very few public appearances during the past decade, but he was never far from the hearts and minds of grateful Americans.