"I’m afraid the President would like to do this": Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, Johnny Carson and a legend's strange final years

It might have driven Reagan aides crazy, but Bob Hope knew how to get what he wanted from the White House

Published November 28, 2014 4:59PM (EST)

You need a great gift. We have excerpts from some of the season's biggest entertainment biographies and memoirs all day -- guaranteed perfect for someone on your list.. Excerpted from "Hope: Entertainer of the Century"

Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980 was a welcome restoration for Hope. After four years of Jimmy Carter, whom Hope never warmed to (a president who didn’t play golf!), the White House was safely back in Republican hands. What’s more, Reagan was an old friend from their early days in Hollywood, and a frequent target of Hope jokes since his days as California governor. Hope entertained at the 1981 Inaugural Ball (though Johnny Carson landed the emcee gig) and had little trouble refreshing fifteen years of Reagan material for the new resident of the White House. Hope joked about the president’s Hollywood background (“Reagan has been rehearsing for the inaugural all week—he wanted to do it in one take”), his advancing age (“He’s the only candidate who calls me Sonny”), and his wife Nancy’s ritzy taste in White House decor. Yet Hope was a court jester careful not to offend. After making some cracks at a 1981 USO dinner about the first lady’s plans to buy expensive new china, Hope wrote Reagan a note to make sure no feathers were ruffled: “I know that Nancy was shook up a little bit by some of those dish jokes, and I realize that I laid it on a little too strong. You can rest assured that I will not do another dish joke as long as I live.” Reagan’s good-natured reply: “Please don’t con­cern yourself about the humorous barbs you directed toward the new White House china—after all, if you can dish it out, we can take it!”

Though they had known each other for years, Hope and Reagan were not especially close, and Hope didn’t enjoy the kind of inner-circle access that he had during the Nixon administration. His chief role appears to have been as a supplicant for official presidential messages—to the minor annoyance of the White House staff. In 1981, White House assistant Dodie Livingston got a request from the Bob Hope British Classic for a message from President Reagan for its sou­venir program. She declined, explaining that the president didn’t do messages for ordinary benefits—“even if it is named for Bob Hope.” Miffed, a Hope representative threatened to take up the matter with his friend Ed Meese and warned that “if a message wasn’t provided, Bob Hope would never do anything else for the President.” Livingston appealed to Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Deaver: “We’ve already done a couple of messages for events honoring Hope,” she wrote in a memo. “Do you want us to stick to policy on this?” The handwritten reply, apparently from Deaver: “I’m afraid the President would like to do this.”

Requests for presidential messages from groups honoring Hope kept coming: from the Golf Course Superintendents Association, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a Boys Club dinner honoring Hope as Los Angeles Citizen of the Year. Most were granted, grudgingly, with notes such as “Randy, don’t overdo—we have done tons for him” and “Keep it short.” Hope did little actual cam­paigning for Reagan, but he seemed to consider himself an unofficial part of the team. “The thing I remember about Bob Hope is that he’d show up,” said campaign strategist Stu Spencer. “We were in Cincin­nati once for a campaign event, and the event guy says, ‘Bob Hope’s here.’ So we’re thinking, ‘What the hell are we gonna do with him?’ We put him on [the program] and he entertained and did fine. But the next morning, around six or seven a.m., I get a call from Hope: ‘Let’s go for a walk.’ I’m beat up, probably hungover, and I go walking the streets of Cincinnati with Bob Hope. It was weird.”

Reagan was there for Hope too. For his eightieth birthday celebra­tion, Hope turned down a fervent bid from his hometown of Cleve­land to host the event and opted instead for another big fete at the Kennedy Center in Washington, again produced by Jim Lipton. Rea­gan not only joined Hope in the guest-of-honor box, as such stars as George C. Scott, Lucille Ball, and Phyllis Diller paid tribute, but also taped an opening segment with Hope in the Lincoln bedroom, in which they reminisced about their early days in show business. It was the first Hope special ever to originate from inside the White House.

In December 1983, Hope made his first overseas Christmas tour since the Vietnam War. The new global trouble spot was Lebanon, where a terrorist bombing in October had killed 241 US marines stationed at the Beirut Airport, sent there as part of an international peacekeeping force following Israel’s 1982 invasion of the country. The marines were still in shock from the tragedy, and their confused mission ended just a couple of months later, when Reagan brought the troops home. But for Hope it was a chance to get up close and per­sonal with his favorite audiences once again, and to try to erase some of the bad memories of Vietnam.

He brought along a new generation of glamour girls, including teenage model Brooke Shields and TV stars Ann Jillian and Cathy Lee Crosby. Ten years removed from the unpleasantness of Vietnam, the entertainers relished the chance to join one of Hope’s storied overseas missions. “I always felt your career wasn’t complete unless you had at least one USO show with Bob Hope under your belt,” said Jillian, who was a lively song-and-dance partner for Hope and led the traditional chorus of “Silent Night.” Crosby, who had worked with Hope on her “Get High on Yourself” series of public-service TV specials, said yes to his last-minute invitation, even though she was in the hospital recover­ing from knee surgery and had to start rehearsals on crutches.

With Beirut considered too dangerous, Hope and his troupe were restricted to entertaining on the decks of US warships off the Mediter­ranean coast. (Hope was helicoptered alone into Beirut on Christmas Day for a tour of the battered Marine compound, and he taped a message for the troops.) The performers were impressed with Hope’s stamina and dedication at age eighty—leading the group in climbing a rope ladder from a small ferryboat to one of the warships where they entertained, or keeping his cool when a red alert roused everyone out of bed in the middle of the night aboard the USS Guam. “He was big­ger than life,” said Crosby. “For me he was an inspiration.”

The two-hour special devoted to the tour, which aired on Janu­ary 15, 1984, didn’t have the documentary-like urgency of his Vietnam shows. Hope and his troupe performed on well-lit stages instead of on jungle hillsides, and the show seemed more stage-managed through­out. Some of the service gags dated back at least a couple of wars, and Hope’s ogling of the gals was as retrograde as ever (“Is that scenery or not, huh?”). But he seemed energized by the military audiences, and the special drew a solid 18.7 Nielsen rating—no blockbuster, but bet­ter than average for Hope’s shows of the period.

Not all of Hope’s international ventures turned out so well. Earlier in 1983 the Bob Hope British Classic, the pro-am golf tournament launched in 1980 in an effort to replicate Hope’s Palm Springs event, ran into money troubles and had to shut down after just four years, £500,000 in debt. Hope got embroiled in the mess when it was re­vealed that he had been paid £124,000 in fees and another £75,000 in expenses, even as the tournament was hemorrhaging money. Hope claimed all the money paid to him went toward legitimate expenses: “When you’re bringing stars over and taking care of them and their fares, it’s a hell of a lot of expense there.” Despite the financial mis­management, the tournament raised £150,000 for charity—which mostly went to an organization for disabled children and for the res­toration of the Eltham Little Theatre in Hope’s hometown, which was rechristened the Bob Hope Theatre in a grand ceremony that Hope attended in September 1982.

Hope was having some financial headaches closer to home as well. He was growing disenchanted with his daughter Linda’s management of his TV operations. He thought she was spending too much money. Linda blamed the problems on her father’s overpacked schedule, which left him with little time to focus on his TV shows. “He was very demanding, in a way,” she said. “He expected things to be ready and on time and on budget. But sometimes you had to pay more when you didn’t get decisions until the last minute—sets getting built quickly be­cause he hadn’t had a chance to decide what the sketches were going to be. It would cost him money, and he wasn’t happy about that. And I’d say, ‘Dad, if you’d give more time to your television show, we could get this done and we wouldn’t have a lot of this overage.’ ”

Their clashes got so bad that in 1983 Hope replaced Linda with Elliott Kozak, whom he had originally pushed aside to create a job for his daughter. For Kozak, who had moved to ICM after leaving Hope, the return brought a measure of vindication. Despite getting ousted by her own father, Linda stayed involved, forming her own production company with her partner Nancy Malone and continuing to develop projects for him (including a TV movie based on his life and career, which never got off the ground) before returning to the fold full-time a few years later.

* * *

The awards and honors continued to pile up, so many that Hope barely had time to acknowledge them. When the National Parkinson’s Foundation, whose annual dinner he hosted for more than two de­cades, named a road near its Miami headquarters for Hope, he asked if the dedication ceremony could be held in the morning, so he could attend it on the way to the airport. While Miami mayor Maurice Ferré was making the formal presentation, Hope’s limo waited nearby with the motor running. Sometimes the honors didn’t live up to his exalted expectations. The USO, the beneficiary of Hope’s seventy-fifth birth­day celebration at Kennedy Center, had promised to name its new headquarters building after Hope. But he was disappointed to find out that the building had been downsized, to four leased floors of an existing DC building—and that President Reagan would be out of the country and unable to attend the dedication. In 1985, Hope received one of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors—but only after sev­eral other Hollywood stars, among them Cary Grant, Gene Kelly, and Danny Kaye, had preceded him. And when Hope was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, in November 1986, he was just one of a group of seven that also included Johnny Carson, Ernie Kovacs, Jim Henson, and Eric Sevareid. Hope’s staff worked diligently behind the scenes to make sure he got the final spot on the program, and a presenter of enough stature. (Lucille Ball did the honors, which satis­fied him.)

The one place where Hope did not like to stand out was on the financial pages. He was dismayed in 1982 when Forbes magazine put him on its list of the four hundred richest Americans, estimat­ing his net worth at $280 million. Hope, as usual, complained that the figure was too high and even challenged Forbes to prove it. “If my estate is worth over fifty million dollars, I’ll kiss your ass,” he told reporter Richard Behar. The magazine took up the challenge and as­signed Behar to track down all of Hope’s real estate holdings and put a value on them. After talking with real estate brokers, appraisers, Hope lawyers, and Hope himself (who displayed an intimate knowledge of his property holdings, down to their exact acreage), Behar concluded that, after some recent sales, Hope owned about eighty-six hundred acres, much of it inaccessible mountain and canyon land worth less than some earlier estimates. In the end, Forbes revised its estimate of Hope’s net worth downward, to around $115 million. “When we’re proved wrong, we’re glad to get it straight,” said the magazine. “Thanks for the memories, Bob.”

Yet he was certainly rich, and he traveled in rich circles. He was friends and golfing buddies with businessmen such as Bill Fugazy, the limousine-company magnate; ice-cream-store owner Tom Carvel; and Alex Spanos, the real estate developer and owner of the San Diego Chargers. Hope and Spanos even developed a little soft-shoe dance routine together that they would sometimes perform at benefits. Being friends with Bob Hope could be a heady, weirdly public experience. Dick Cavett, who got to know Hope while writing for Johnny Carson and later as host of his own talk show, was watching Late Night with David Letterman one night when Hope came on as a guest and casu­ally mentioned that he was taking Dick Cavett to the Army-Navy foot­ball game. It was the first Cavett had heard of it. (He wound up flying to the game with Hope aboard the Nabisco corporate jet and eating bean soup with him in the stands during a boring game.)

Yet Hope was a showbiz aristocrat who considered himself a man of the people. He and Dolores sent out five thousand Christmas cards a year, to practically everyone they knew or had met in their travels. He would often drive himself to the take-out window of the local In-N-Out Burger or Bob’s Big Boy. Once while traveling in the South, Hope wanted to watch a Marvin Hagler boxing match, but couldn’t get the satellite broadcast on his hotel TV set. His writers drove around the neighborhood, stopped in at the first house with a satellite dish, and asked the family living there if Hope could come watch at their house—which he did.

When the young stand-up comics who worked at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles went on strike in 1979, seeking to get paid for the first time, Hope sent a telegram backing their cause. “He supported the workingman,” said Tom Dreesen, a leader of the strike, who ap­peared at benefits with Hope and played in his golf tournament. “I never heard him bad-mouth another comedian. And I can’t say that for most of the comedians I’ve known.” Hope once asked writer Gene Perret what he thought of a young comic Hope was thinking of book­ing as a guest. Perret wasn’t that fond of him and replied judiciously, “Sometimes he’s good, and sometimes he’s not that thrilling.” Hope’s response: “Gene, that’s all of us.”

Hope became friends with younger entertainers such as Brooke Shields, the statuesque teenage model who became one of his fa­vorite guests, and with whom he developed a close father-daughter relationship. “I’d come over to his house and he’d make me grilled-cheese sandwiches,” said Shields. “When he wanted his ice cream, I’d bring him his ice cream. We were very close. I was kind of like a pet. Because of my age, he kind of let me in, in a sort of daughter-granddaughter way. I think he was even closer to me than he was to his own kids.”

Another younger performer who became friendly with Hope in his later years was Dave Thomas, the SCTV comic who did a dead-on impression of him in sketches (most memorably, a parody of Play It Again, Sam, in which Hope, not Bogart, is the object of Woody Allen’s infatuation). Thomas was sixteen when he first saw Hope in person, performing at the Canadian National Exposition in Toronto; Thomas accosted the star in his limousine after the show and tried to shake hands with him, only to have Hope roll up the window on him. When he met Hope years later—introduced by his friend Jeff Barron, another SCTV veteran, who was writing for Hope—Thomas showed him a videotape of some of his SCTV parodies. After watching them, Hope asked if he could get a copy. “Take the tape,” Thomas said, adding jokingly that Hope could take the TV and the VCR too. “No,” said Hope after a moment’s thought, “I’ll just take the tape.” He was so used to getting freebies that he took Thomas seriously.

Thomas’s impersonation of Hope was affectionate. But to many younger comics, Hope in his old age was ripe for parody—an out­of-touch, cue-card-reading relic of a vanished show-business era. Casey Keller and Richard Albrecht were stymied when they were hired to write for Hope in the mid-1980s. They broke their writer’s block only when they imagined they were writing bad jokes for Dave Thomas’s parody-Hope. “She’s the hottest thing to shoot out of Canada since hockey pucks,” they had Hope say, for instance, to intro­duce a new Canadian singer. Hope loved the jokes. Said Keller, “Dave Thomas had a better handle on Hope than we did. We were writing for a Hope impersonator.”

Hope’s material, to be sure, was sounding awfully stale by this time. Producer Jim Lipton complained that Hope’s writers were feed­ing his complacency by giving him variations on the same lines over and over. “I knew why they were doing it,” said Lipton. “Because Bob would choose them—he was familiar with them, and he liked them. But I said, ‘You’re doing him a disservice. It’s easier on you, but in the end it’s unfair to Bob.’ ” The writers faced their own challenges in keeping Hope current. Once they gave him a joke that included the word Formica. Hope didn’t know what it was. “It’s fake wood,” Bob Mills told him. “You’ll never own any of it.”

Hope, moreover, could betray a tin ear when it came to contempo­rary sensibilities. On July 4, 1983, he entertained at a charity benefit aboard the Trump Princess in New York Harbor and ad-libbed a line he had just heard in the men’s room: “Have you heard? The Statue of Lib­erty has AIDS. Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hud­son or the Staten Island Ferry.” The wisecrack, reported the next day in the New York Post, prompted a flurry of angry letters from gay activists and others who found it insensitive, and Hope was forced to apologize.

Nowhere was Hope’s status as showbiz royalty more vividly on display than Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Hope’s frequent guest ap­pearances on the show clung to a familiar, almost comical ritual. He would walk out to the strains of “Thanks for the Memory”—sometimes unannounced, supposedly a “surprise” guest. After some banter with Johnny, sprinkled with obviously prepared gag lines, he would intro­duce a reel of taped highlights from his upcoming NBC special. Then he would scoot away, always with somewhere urgent to go. One of those who grew tired of the routine was Johnny Carson.

Hope and Carson were NBC’s two biggest stars, and they had much in common. They shared the same studio, designed for Hope back in the 1950s and taken over by Carson in 1972 when he moved the show to California, but always available to Hope for his specials. Their comedy styles were mirror images of each other: Carson did a more urbane and somewhat hipper version of Hope’s monologues— joking commentary on the news, topical but scrupulously nonpartisan. They were strikingly similar personality types as well: cool, remote, and emotionally detached, ingratiating on the surface, but known inti­mately by only a few.

Yet there were crucial differences too. Carson was a drinker, a brooder, notoriously standoffish in social settings. Hope drank little, socialized easily, and loved being the center of attention. Beneath Carson’s smooth exterior, one could sense the angst. Hope’s superficial bonhomie hid no inner demons. Despite his debt to Hope as a per­former, Carson never warmed to the older comedian, either personally or professionally. The Tonight Show host would often mimic and pay homage to the classic comedians he adored—Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, George Burns. He almost never referenced Hope. “Johnny ad­mired Hope’s place in show business,” said Tonight Show producer Peter Lassally, “but he was not a great admirer of his work.”

The coolness between them was in part a reflection of their rivalry. Carson was the only star at NBC who could challenge Hope for clout at the network. Yet Hope was still king, and Carson had to defer. Car­son resented the way Hope could virtually book himself on the Tonight Show whenever he had something to promote, which seemed to be all the time. “We’d get a request,” said Lassally, “and Johnny would go, ‘Again?’ And I’d say, ‘Do you want to tell him no?’ And he’d say, ‘No. You can’t turn down Bob Hope.’ ” Hope would bring in highlight reels from his specials that went on interminably. “We’d say, give us two minutes,” said Jeff Sotzing, Carson’s nephew and a Tonight Show producer. “He’d bring in five minutes, cut together with a rusty knife. That was frustrating.” Once, after a Carson monologue that went over particularly well, Hope asked during a commercial break if he could use some of the laughter on his upcoming special. Flabbergasted, Car­son said okay; later, on Hope’s special, Johnny claimed he could hear Ed McMahon laughing at Bob’s jokes.

Worst of all, from Carson’s point of view, Hope was not a good guest. He came armed with scripted jokes and would rarely engage in any genuine conversation—especially in the later years, when his bad hearing complicated the give-and-take. “There was nothing spontaneous about Hope,” said Andrew Nicholls, Carson’s former co–head writer.

“He was a guy who relied on his writers for every topic. Johnny was very quick on his feet. Very well read. He was a guy who learned Swahili, learned Russian, learned astronomy. He appreciated people who he felt engaged with the real world. There was nothing to talk to Bob about.”

Excerpted from "Hope: Entertainer of the Century" by Richard Zoglin. Copyright 2014 by Richard Zoglin. Published by Simon & Schuster Inc. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

By Richard Zoglin

Richard Zoglin has spent more than 30 years as a writer and editor for Time and is currently the magazine's theater critic

MORE FROM Richard Zoglin