Born Leslie Townes Hope May 19, 1903, in Eltham, England, Mr. Hope would become known as "Mr. Entertainment" and "The King of Comedy." He appeared in more than 475 television programs, 75 films and more than 1,000 radio programs, but got his first big break in the 1933 Broadway hit Roberta.
Mr. Hope's persona as a cowardly wise-craker was well known to the public from a string of wildly successful (and, for the time, innovatively extemporaneous) "Road" films with Bing Crosby and, later, a series of television specials which saw him warbling and cutting up with the latest stars of the moment. Mr. Hope was famous for his ready stream of one-liners and retorts, supplied by an unseen, but notorious team of joke men kept in his employ. He delivered each quip with a sheepish grin, clenched jaw and ski-slope nose thrust out, his slicked-back hair seemingly gleaming with flop sweat, and often milked a second laugh out of the crowd by squirming under the supposed failure of the first joke. He did not create characters, but was always Bob Hope, and, according to a John Lahr New Yorker profile, the self-preserving, hustling personality he presented on stage was not far from his own, faults and all.
The comic's roots were in vaudeville, and, though best known as a stand-up comedian, he never left behind his ability to passably sing, dance and act. He made his New York City debut as a Monk in The Sidewalks of New York in October 1927. He then played a comic butler in 1928's Ups-a Daisy and appeared in the chorus of Smiles at the Ziegfeld Theatre in 1930. Two years later, he played in Ballyhoo of 1932.
The role of Huckleberry Haines in the Jerome Kern show Roberta provided him with his first meaty role. The musical ran 295 performances. Reviewing the show, Robert Benchley said newcomer Hope "has a slick, humorous style of delivery which ought to put him in the front rank of talking bandmasters as soon as he gets something to say which does not bring the blush of shame to his cheeks." Benchley later joked Mr. Hope carried "corny dialogue without causing offense."
After appearing in the short-lived Say When and then the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, where he sang "I Can't Get Started" to his co-star Eve Arden, he won another big part, in Cole Porter's Red Hot and Blue. He played Bob Hale and starred alongside Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante. Early in the run, he won laughs by lying down and mugging during Merman's numbers, until Merman put a stop to the upstaging, threatening to "sit on the son of a bitch." Though he would occasionally act in summer stock and became well known for entertaining U.S. troops in several wars, Mr. Hope's stage career effectively ended in the mid-30s. His first big film was "The Big Broadcast of 1938." The movie provided him with what became his signature song, the comic-sentimental "Thanks for the Memories." Mr. Hope would sing the tune, with different lyrics to fit the occasion, at the close of each of his television specials.
The "Road" films began in 1940 with "The Road to Singapore." The series of seven films, which were enormously popular with audiences, featured velvet-voiced smoothy Crosby as a foil to Mr. Hope's fretful, skirt-chasing con artist, while Dorothy Lamour provided the love interest. The plots usually sent the stars to some far-off locale where they would become ensnared in a farcical tale of intrigue, barely escaping with their lives. The actors often broke the screen's "fourth wall" and their self-conscious jibes at each other's careers fed into the popular, studio-generated myth that they were mortal enemies off stage. (One sung duet went: Hope: "I love to hear your voice/so good for selling cheese"; Crosby: "I think your jokes are great/It's just folks are hard to please.")
Mr. Hope's other important films included "The Paleface," a smash western parody; "My Favorite Blonde," a spy caper; and "The Lemon Drop Kid." His female co-stars were typically "full-figured" gals like Jane Russell. During these years, he became a frequent host of the Oscar ceremony, a program he said was referred to in his home as "Passover" (though he did win five special Academy Awards for humanitarian actions and contributions to the movie industry). Later, another famous Oscar host, Johnny Carson, gave Mr. Hope carte blanche to walk on the "Tonight" show whenever he felt like it. Mr. Hope often felt like it and his drop-ins were legendary.
His film career tapered off in the '60s with such inferior titles as "Call Me Bwana" and "I'll Take Sweden." Many critics thought his television debut would fail, but he again proved a success and his specials were a staple on NBC for decades.
He wrote several memoirs, including "They Got Me Covered," "I Never Left Home," "So This Is Peace," "Have Tux, Will Travel," and "I Owe Russia $1,200." Always a savvy businessman, and famously penurious, he has long been recognized as one of the richest entertainers in the world.
By 1953 he had performed for over one million servicemen. Congress named the entertainer an honorary U.S. veteran in 1997. He is the only person to ever receive that honor.
Hope is survived by his wife, Dolores Hope, their four adopted children as well as four grandchildren.