Bob Thomas dies; longtime Hollywood reporter covered stars from Gable to Cruise


Actress Hedy Lamarr shoots pinball accompanied by Associated Press reporter Bob Thomas in 1945. (AP)
March 14

Bob Thomas, the dean of Hollywood reporters who covered a record 66 Oscars ceremonies, reported on the biggest stars from Clark Gable to Tom Cruise and filed the Associated Press bulletin that Robert F. Kennedy had been shot, died March 14 at his home in Encino, Calif. He was 92.

His daughter Janet Thomas confirmed the death but did not disclose the cause.

Mr. Thomas’s career began in 1944, when Hollywood was tightly controlled by a handful of studios. During his nearly seven decades writing for the AP, Mr. Thomas reviewed hundreds of films and television shows, compiled hundreds of celebrity obituaries, and wrote numerous retrospective pieces on Hollywood and how it had changed.

He was the author of nearly three dozen books, including biographies of Walt Disney, Marlon Brando and Joan Crawford as well as an acclaimed portrait of studio mogul Harry Cohn, “King Cohn” (1967). He wrote, produced and appeared in a handful of television specials on the Academy Awards, and his biographies of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes and the comedy team of Abbott and Costello were made into television movies.

In 1988, he became the first reporter-author awarded a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.


Associated Press reporter Bob Thomas, center, and other members of the media wait in 1954 outside the Beverly Hills house of Marilyn Monroe after reports that her marriage to baseball star Joe DiMaggio was breaking up. (AP)

But one of his biggest stories had nothing to do with entertainment.

Helping out during the 1968 presidential election, Mr. Thomas had been assigned to cover Sen. Kennedy on the night the New York Democrat won the California primary. Minutes after declaring victory, Kennedy was shot to death in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

“I rushed into the kitchen, where men were screaming and women sobbing,” he recalled years later. “I jumped onto a pile of kitchen trays and saw Kennedy lying on the floor, his head bloody.”

He ran to a phone and delivered the bulletin to the AP.

Robert Joseph Thomas was born Jan. 26, 1922, in San Diego and raised in Los Angeles. His father was a newspaper editor who later became a Hollywood press agent.

When the younger Thomas joined the AP in Los Angeles in 1943, it was with aspirations of becoming a war correspondent. Instead, the wire service named him its Fresno, Calif., correspondent.

He returned to the AP’s Los Angeles bureau in 1944 and was soon named its entertainment reporter. Soon he would become a ubiquitous presence in Hollywood, attending awards shows, wandering studio lots, and going from table to table at the Polo Lounge, Musso and Frank and other favored Hollywood hangouts of the day.

He enjoyed access to the stars that modern journalists rarely attain, whether visiting with Jack Nicholson at his home or chatting on the set with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Although he insisted that he never became friends with the people he covered, Mr. Thomas did strike up close, long-lasting acquaintanceships with many, and he had the anecdotes to prove it.

There was the time he tried, unsuccessfully, to match the hard-drinking Richard Burton drink for drink on the set of the 1964 film “Night of the Iguana.”

Another time, he showed up for an interview with Betty Grable armed with a tape measure. He had been sent, he told the actress, to determine whether her figure had suffered during her recent pregnancy. Grable good-naturedly let him measure her.

“Can you imagine doing that with Michelle Pfeiffer today?” he once asked. “In those days, it really seemed like a playground.”

Mr. Thomas also had his share of run-ins.

Doris Day and Frank Sinatra went months without talking to him after he quoted them candidly in stories, and Tracy cut off contact for years when he was offended by something Mr. Thomas said about him. The fiercely private Brando never spoke with Mr. Thomas again after the biography “Marlon: Portrait of the Rebel as an Artist” (1973) was published.

Mr. Thomas is survived by his wife of 67 years, the former Patricia Thompson; three daughters; and three grandchildren.

“I get to interview some of the most beautiful people in the world,” he said in 1999. “It’s what I always wanted to do, and I just can’t stop doing it.”

Associated Press

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