'The First Ninety Years': Holding out Hope for greatest TV special

May 14, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

The big question for Bob Hope is why?

Why, at 89 years of age, with every accolade and all the money anyone could want, is he still doing phone interviews with reporters to try to promote his latest TV special? Why is he still working this hard 25 years after most people have retired?

"I don't consider it hard," Hope said after some hesitation, as if the question was one of the strangest he had ever heard. "I'm not doing anything now but talking to people around the country about the special that's coming up. . . . And I have to tell you, by the way, that this is the greatest special yet."

The special Hope was talking about in a recent telephone interview is "Bob Hope: The First Ninety Years," which airs at 8 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2). The 90 in the title refers to the age Hope will reach May 29. But since May 29 comes after the May sweeps ratings period, Hope and NBC decided to have the celebration early.

There is speculation that this might be Hope's last special for the network, since NBC has yet to renew his contract. But NBC said it is currently negotiating that renewal with Hope.

As to whether it really is the greatest special yet, let's put it this way: This is the 10th or 11th year that I have talked to Hope about his May sweeps special, and this is the 10th or 11th time he has told me it would be the greatest yet.

So why keep coming back and playing the role of promotional patsy for him?

Because talking to Hope on a good day is like hearing the history of show business come alive, from turn-of-the-century burlesque and vaudeville to the age of network TV.

In 1924, Hope was a regular in vaudeville as half of a dancing act in the Fatty Arbuckle Revue. By 1935, he was on Broadway with the "Ziegfeld Follies."

Hope was also on radio from its earliest days as part of "Rudy Vallee's Thursday Night Show" in 1934. His film career started with the "Big Broadcast of 1938," stretched through the 1940s with the "road" pictures, and lasted all the way into the '70s. Since his first TV contract with NBC in 1950, he has done more than 500 TV shows -- and that's not counting guest appearances.

The Guinness Book of Records lists him as the most honored entertainer ever, for awards ranging from Emmys to the French Legion of Honor medal.

My first sense of the incredible span of Hope's show business career came when he misunderstood a question about his trademark presidential humor. I was asking about Ronald Reagan, but Hope started talking about Franklin Roosevelt. That was when his kidding of the presidents started -- on radio in the late 1930s when he was invited to appear with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during one of their chats with listeners.

And here he was the other day, at 89, still on the presidential case:

"Clinton? Clinton? Let's see," Hope said, stalling long enough for his memory to click into gear. "I remember. I was over in Arkansas a couple of years ago doing a show, and he came over to see me. He was governor then. He hung around for a couple of hours, was very personable. He took me over and introduced me to Hillary.

"And, then, when I did the show that night, he sat right in the front row. So I introduced him. And he got up and made a speech. Climbed right up on the stage and made a speech. A very long speech right there on stage during my show."

Hope paused for a minute, then resumed, "Yeah, show, speaking of the show, we haven't talked much about the special. Look, you know all the TV I've done, I have to tell you I think this is the greatest special ever. Did I mention that? It's different."

He had mentioned it several times, of course. But tonight's special is different from the other Hope shows. It's a black-tie tribute to Hope from the Hollywood community rather than a variety show with Hope and guests performing.

Johnny Carson, Garry Shandling and Roseanne and Tom Arnold are among the performers who introduce segments of the show, which was taped at NBC Studios in Burbank. The program features clips from Hope's career and tributes by folks ranging from Rosemary Clooney to Whoopi Goldberg.

The lineup -- with the likes of Carson and Roseanne Arnold -- suggests the kind of esteem that Hope is held in by the show business community.

But maybe esteem is not enough for NBC. Hope said that the switch to a tribute format does not mean that he's given up performing. But the tribute does have a feeling of closure to it, as if NBC might be saying goodbye to Hope after 43 years of memories.

NBC denied that. "We haven't concluded the process," said Curt Block, vice president for public relations. The day we spoke did not seem to be a great day for Hope. He spoke a bit about performing with Ethel Merman for the Roosevelts and playing for the "troops over in Vietnam with [Viet] Cong listening from tunnels right under the stage." But he sounded tired and had difficulty with details in some of the recollections.

Or, perhaps, on the other hand, he was extremely focused and, at 89, didn't feel like schmoozing with some reporter from Baltimore about Eleanor Roosevelt when there was work to be done. What kind of work?

"I think it was Ethel Merman and me on that radio broadcast with the Roosevelts. Hell, there were so many. I'm not sure. But back to the NBC special. Have I told you all the guests and performers we've got lined up? Let me see, there's . . ."

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