At home with Bob

He is adored worldwide. He is a multi-millionaire. But more importantly , at 92, Bob Hope can still spin a tale and remember the punchline. By Jim Cusick
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"He's a handsome-looking fellow. Whatever happened to him? He must be my son, but he doesn't write." A tanned and wrinkle-free Bob Hope is peering at a faded magazine of himself from the Forties. At 92, Bob Hope might have slowed down, but his memory for jokes is not yet on a life-support system. He is going through the issue of Picturegoer from 27 June, 1942, in his north Hollywood residence, just off Riverside Drive and Tinsel Town's major studios. At that time, Hope was the toast of Hollywood. Pearl Harbour and the United States' entry into the Second World War was only six months gone. He may not have known it then, but he would go on to become one of America's biggest war heroes, quite an achievement for a man who never enlisted and who never fought in a battle.

Sitting in his day room at an impressively large, solid oak table, our crystal glasses filled with ice-cold water, there is a sense that you are being honoured with an audience in Los Angeles' equivalent of a stately home. At the hereditary home of Lord Hope of Hollywood, Prince Charles's comment from 1974 that "it is not a good idea for a monarch to retire" seems curiously to have found resonance.

Hope rarely gives interviews these days. His eyelids are often red from ointment intended to preserve failing sight and he is deaf, very deaf. Months of transatlantic olive-branch diplomacy have been needed following his VE-Day performances in Britain last year when many critics said his Albert Hall turns resembled nothing less than a penny arcade trinket where he performed his own showbiz last rites with Darby and Joan quips. "I've got to watch myself these days: it's too exciting to watch anyone else." The joke, like all of Hope's lifetime material, was written for him. But recently his lines have looked more like medical advice than gags.

Audience expectations may have been too high. They may have forgotten that it is almost half a century since the American Nobel Prize writer, John Steinbeck, commented that Hope got laughter wherever he went. "It is impossible to see how he can do so much, can cover so much ground, can work so hard and be so effective. There's a man. There is really a man."

Inside "The Hope House", the smog and earthquake-prone urban chaos of Los Angeles feels a universe away. Behind 10ft-high electric fences and towering hedges there is a private world protected from the voyeuristic gaze of the tourists cruising Hollywood and the aphrodisiac of spotting a star.

Redolent of a peaceful English garden, Hope House's internal countryside appears to have its own studio complete with script-perfect butterflies dancing to cue across colourful flowery borders. The manicured grass looks enhanced by a Technicolor retouching artist unhappy with plain green. The swimming pool and tennis court, compulsory in the Hollywood hills, seem commonplace beside a one-hole golf course that allows Hope to practice his lifelong passion - the Royal and Ancient game.

He still plays nine holes of golf every day at the exclusive Toluca Lake club. No one ever asks for his autograph there because the members are likely to be film stars or former US Presidents. "Exclusive" is appropriate for such a place.

As we talked, he cast his mind back to the days before the "Road to" films began in 1940 when his weekly top-rated radio show for NBC, sponsored by the tooth-paste giant, Pepsodent, was already delivering him into homes across America.

Today with the competition of television, computers and multi-media, the ratings of the Pepsodent show seem destined never to be repeated. At its height, half the American nation tuned in.

For $1m a season, Pepsodent won the ears and minds of America. Hope got very rich. The show laid the foundation of a personal fortune thought to be a colossal $500m. But at the time, it all looked a dream to the lad from Eltham in south east London. "It used to feel like I'd robbed a bank when I got my first pay for the radio show. They gave me so much I had to run around the corner to count it. It felt like I had stolen it."

As the show took off, so too did the stars who were part of it. Judy Garland, Doris Day, George Burns, Crosby and others were regulars over its 12-year run. Hope now includes the ageing Burns among his one-liners. "Burns and I have a little club back home with some other older fellows. We go out at night, hold hands, and try to contact the living." The joke was tried last year at the Albert Hall. His "Road to" film character - all nervous, trembling hesitation, accidental successes, run-for-your- life escapes and self-disparagement - has now given way to inverted ageist jokes with himself as the prime target. In London, he said his hotel was wonderful "but there were mirrors all over the bedroom ceiling. I wouldn't mind, but there's nothing I do in bed I want to look at lately".

That, if a recent unauthorised biography by Arthur Marx (son of Groucho) contains any grain of truth, is not how it has always been. The book portrayed Hope as a woman-chasing, egotistical fraud, and a performer unable to summon up a joke without the aid of a team of scriptwriters. Bob Hope may be a creation, an image. However the book only dented his place in the public's hall of fame. They clearly still want him to remain untainted.

At 92, the veteran-that-never-was can nevertheless recall his war battles as though they were yesterday. "I feel very lucky that I have had the chance to entertain so many people." During the war he did 1,000 shows for troops around the world. Each radio show was recorded on disc by his NBC paymasters and shipped around the globe for broadcast on the American Forces Network. "When NBC suggested I do a Pepsodent show for the troops, I told the producers to invite the troops to the studio. It turned out to be a problem, so we headed off to the base to do the first show." The day in question changed Hope's career. It was 6 May 1941.

Road to Zanzibar was already a success. Now its two stars - crooner Bing Crosby, the straightman, and his foil, Hope - would help cheer up the boys at March Air Field in California who could not have known that in six months they would find themselves facing combat when President Franklin Roosevelt took them and the USA into the Second World War.

"It was a moment you could never forget. There's nothing so frightening, or inspiring, as working to an audience of troops. If you're good, they let you know it. But if you're bad..." While many Hollywood stars were called up, Hope was among a handful singled out by Roosevelt. "He told me that with a face like mine, I could do more for the war effort if I entertained the troops than if I tried to frighten the Germans and the Japanese!" Since then "GI Bob" has taken his show to the theatres of the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf and US military bases worldwide. On the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, 10,000 US veterans gathered in Hawaii. There was to be a show at Waikiki Shell. Like Hamlet without the prince, or pat-a-cake without Crosby, there could be no war anniversary entertainment without Hope.

Legend has it that he wanted all the soldiers to know they were being remembered back home. He still keeps a letter sent to him in March 1945. It reads: "I was stationed in Algiers when you and your crew were there in '43." A description follows of a young soldier, overseas and struggling. The sight of Hope helped. When the comedian walked on stage, the soldier recalls: "I could see our living room at home, and my mother sitting at the radio laughing at one of your gags... for a few seconds, I was back at home and that did more good than anyone will ever know." The radio, not surprisingly, is important to Bob Hope. So much so that he recently agreed to feature in a series of cameo advertisements for UK commercial radio. The notion that England, his birthplace, would still care to hear him, clearly brought much pleasure. Even though, this year, he accepted the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton (the latest of 1,000 awards he has received for his creative and humanitarian efforts), the performing ego of the comedian, still trying to deliver to his audience over the airwaves, seemed far more important.

This coming year will be the 31st year of the annual Bob Hope Classic, a charity golf tournament that this year raised $1.5m. Entry is one of the main perks given to current and former US Presidents. Rumour has it that Bill Clinton has been angling for an invite. Waving his hand dismissively, Hope, with an enlarging grin, said: "I'm considering it." It must be nice to know that at 92 he does not visit Mr President - Mr President must come to see him.

Additional reporting by David Longman