We only have one national comedian and it is Bob Hope. He is the sign of a passing time -- a more homogeneous, unified, uncomplicated time, as corny as that sounds. Bob Hope, who has played golf with presdidents and been around the world many more times than Superman, still is very concerned about wanting you to come and see his show.
"Are you coming to the show tonight?" he asks.
"I hope you see the show tonight," he says a little later.
"You gotta see the show tonight. You're gonna like it," he says a little later.
It should matter to Bob Hope whether one more schlemiel comes to see him and laughs at his jokes? It matters, it matters. It probably matters to him that his original one-week run at the Kennedy Center, with Suzanne Somers, had to be cut down to three nights, starting tonight, for lack of briskness in ticket sales, but he doesn't show it. He is a great unstoppable natural resource, and variations in the public mood can't be allowed to discourage him. Not at the age of 77.
Winding up a week at Westbury Music Fair in Long Island and relaxing before a performance in his hotel, with wife Delores sitting quietly in the next room, Hope is still the picture of buoyant American optimism. It's as if we never lost a war.
"I've been coming at them so long, on radio and television, they know me, they stand up when you come out, and they're ready, you know? One woman, we played Valley Forge, and she sent me a scrapbook that thick, from the time I started in radio, all my old opening gags for Pepsodent. You don't remember that, you're to young, but I used to open with, "This is Bob Pepsodent Hope, coming to you by the skin of your teeth.' Every week I had another line like that," Hope says.
In a move that will not jolt the broadcasting industry, Hope is about to sign again with NBC, his home for 30 years of TV specials. In the coming season, however, he will do only 8 to 10 hours of programming, not the almost 16 hours he did last year, when NBC President Fred Silverman kept trying to bolster the schedule with Hopeful shows.
"Silverman? I like him, yeah. I'll tell you why I like him: He's cooperative. Really is. He listens. This is funny: About three years ago he invited me over to ABC to talk to him. He wanted to know how he could get me over there and I said, 'I still have two years on this contract.' He said, 'I'll wait.' Of course he beat me -- he went to NBC the next year."
Hope has heard the rumors about Silverman's job being in jeopardy. "About him disappearing? Oh sure, everybody hears it. They say "the Vanishing American.' It looks like he's on the way but, who knows? He . came here to the show last night and I introduced him from the stage, and he got a tremendous hand. I was surprised. Yeah, they know him.
"And then I do a bit where I tell about being with NBC 42 years -- which I have been, radio and television -- and I say, 'Look at Fred, he's been there two years. He's been at every network two years. An if they start another network, he'll be at that one for two years."
He will kick off the NBC season Sept. 6 with another special.Last year he rang up the fall curtain with a three-hour show taped in China, but ratings were not as high as expected.Hope says now the network should have bought more big ads in newspapers and magazines; he buys space himself at times for specials that are important to him. But he does not complain about the network he calls home.
"Nobody's ever had a better deal than I've got. Oh, Carson must have a marvelous deal. But I'm talking about 30 years! I've had six five-year contracts. [CBS Chairman] Bill Paley is a good friend of mine, and he called me up 30 years ago before I signed with NBC, and he said, 'What's the deal?' and I told him and he said, 'I wish I could handle it.' He couldn't handle it.That's how good the deal was.
"Television, it gets tougher all the time. Everybody is looking for spots and looking for a brace of strength and my God, look at me, I've got a rating thing that's unbelievable, unbelievable. They put together my 30-year average the other day, and I've got an average over the last 30 years of about a 40, 41 share! Can I show you those Nielsen things? I'll get them. I know I packed them."
Hope ambles off in his white golf pants, chartreuse socks, blue tennies and alligator shirt and returns with a sheaf of papers. His first special for NBC, in 1950, got a 53.7 rating and a 73 percent share of the audience. This would be all but unthinkable todayfor anything but The Second Coming. Last season, however, when Silverman overused him, Hope sometimes plummeted to shares as low as 27.
He still remembers not only that first 90-minute special, from the Amsterdam Theater in New York, but one particular review it got. "I got in a cab a few days later and the cab driver said, 'Bob Hope, huh?' I said, 'That's right.' He said, 'You gonna do another television show"' I said, "That's right.' He said, 'Your first one wasn't too good, you know.' I said, 'Who asked you?' He said, 'I'm the public!'
"Oh Christ, I fell on the floor! I went right to NBC and I hired a guy called Tom Petty who I'd just worked with on the movie "Sorrowful Jones' -- he had his nose on sidesaddle -- and I hired him and we did that bit to open the second show, the same dialogue only with more jokes. But it never played as funny to me as it did in that cab."
Hope just dismisses the idea that there are no young comedians with the potential of becoming another Bob Hope-- comics who could sustain that kind of broad, almost universal appeal for a lifetime of joke-telling and clowning around. The young comedians he likes include Steve Martin, Tom Dreesen and "Johnny Yune, that Korean kid."
Of the fiery accident that has hospitalized Richar Pryor, Hope says, "Oh yes, that's very sad," and that he admirs the comedian. "He's kind of a gifted kid. He was on 'The Merv Griffin Show' with me once. Some clothing manufacturer was handing out awards; they gave me a brown tuxedo to wear, and they gave one to Richard Pryor, and what he did with that suit! I don't know if they cut the tape or not, but he called it a piece of crap -- on the air! He said, 'Can you imagine me slipping into this piece of crap?' and everybody broke up.
"He's a shocker. Very different. And we need those kind of guys. You know, there's always been a couple of great black comics, going back to Miller and Lyles, all those cats -- Eddie Green, Billy Higgins, one of the funniest men I've ever known. He was in a show called 'Hot Chocolates.' Funny, funny man. And you talk about timing, which is the essence of comedy, man, they have it -- good black comics have it."
Old controversies about Hope, particularly his tours of Vietnam during the war, resurfaced again not so long ago in a Rolling Stone interview. He has dedicated his career to a certain kind of winking, wiseacre, anxiousness to please, but this has not kept him entirely out of scrapes. Anita Bryant, a veteran of seven of his overseas tours, once made a crack about all the hanky-panky that allegedly went on among the entertainers during the trips.
"Yeah, yeah, I love that, my God!" laughs Hope. "I don't know what she was thinking about. That's so funny that she would say a thing like that, because if anybody was a house detective, she was. And you'll love the joke I'm doing in the show. I do a thing about how tough Carter had it a year ago -- yeah, he had one of those rough periods. It was like Anita Bryant trying to get her hair done. And I say, 'Hey, by the way, she's getting a divorce. She found out HE was one.'"
Bob Hope is asked if, since he doesn't look it, he ever feels old.
"Only when I try to put my shoes on in the morning and black out," he says.
"I'm lucky. I'm really lucky. I tell people, 'Grow old, but stay young.' And I do a little routine about that. As part of my act. I say, 'I have a very wonderful makeup man. He's very expensive; he has to come in from Lourdes.'
"And I go on and on and on. They love that, because you're bordering on the truth. They love it when you make jokes about it."
Bob Hope is asked if he ever thinks about death.
"Dying? I died in Philadelpia one time." Laughs. Coughs. "Well, with the friends of mine that have died -- with Bing, and Wayne, and Jack Benny -- you naturally think about dying, you know? And so what? It's a big deal, you die. So you die. There's nothing you can do about that. You can drive down a road and some gal just crosses that line and that could wipe you out tomorrow. So you gotta be fatalistic about that. I don't worry about that.
"My grandfather died one month short of 100. And two weeks before, he came on stage with me in England. I was playing for a fighter command, this was in 1943, and the manager said, 'You're grandfather's out there,' and I said, 'Oh come on, you're kidding.' So he came up, with a cane, got up on the stage and wished everybody good luck on their mission, and that's the last time I ever saw him. He died two weeks later.
"He was something else."
Would Hope like to break Grandpa's record? He laughs his sly, wide, city-slicker laugh and says, "Isn't that wild? "
You bet your life he would.