Fred Fox

Gagsmith for Bob Hope
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The Independent Online

"They didn't need writers, they were brilliant on their own." It takes a confident gagsmith to say that, even when referring to comics of the calibre of Bob Hope and George Burns, but Fred Fox could afford to be generous. He was in the vanguard of television and radio scripting from the Second World War onwards and wasn't in danger of making himself redundant.

Born in 1915 in St Louis, Fox graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1938 before getting his first job as a writer-producer for the San Franciscan radio stations KYA and KSFO. The latter aired his one performing success as the children's character Freddie the Fox in a show that, although a huge hit, was axed after a barrage of complaints from the audience's mothers. Apparently, their offspring were imitating the furry creature's stutter.

For the first 18 months of America's involvement in the Second World War, Fred Fox worked for the Office of War Information, then relocated to Hollywood in the hope of becoming one of the fresh, new writers that established comedians were allegedly seeking. He achieved this almost at once, putting funny words into the mouths of George Burns and his wife Gracie Allen as well as Bing Crosby, Doris Day and the musical parodist Spike Jones, but it was in 1944 that he signed up for the man who proved to be virtually his lifelong employer.

Bob Hope was notorious for expecting his army of joke-providers to drop everything - even their honeymoon - when the call came for new material. In 1946 Fox's bride, Mercedes, might have been forgiven for thinking her new husband was already betrothed, to the star of NBC's Pepsodent Show; but Bob and Dolores Hope made it up to the young marrieds by offering them the use of the Hope family home in Palm Springs.

As television began to turn listeners into viewers in the early 1950s, Fox found the time and energy to balance his work on the yearly Bob Hope Christmas Specials and the famous US troop galas with a raft of output for other entertainers. The star vehicles of Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason and Jerry Lewis were all enriched by Fox's contributions, each being rooted in a mixture of sketch and stand-up, but his gravitation towards a longer form started emerging in the Sixties, most notably on series showcasing Lucille Ball.

The Lucy Show and its successor, Here's Lucy, ran for 12 years between them, capitalising on the comedienne's existing prime-time reign. Another of Fox's associations, however, caused controversy throughout middle America, despite being far milder than its British counterpart. All in the Family (based on Till Death Us Do Part) blew away the cosy domestic format of the mainstream sitcom, focusing instead on the bigotry of the father-figure.

Fox returned to familiar territory after a certain veteran performer came out of retirement aged nearly 80, earning himself a Writers Guild award for The George Burns Comedy Hour. He also co-wrote a Burns movie, Oh God! Book II (1980), and enjoyed the distinction of having three of his television shows scheduled back to back on the same evening: specials for Burns and Hope, plus an episode of The Love Boat.

Throughout all this, the working relationship with Bob Hope had endured. One joke Fox didn't create for Hope came out when Fox and his wife were expecting twins. Hope quipped: "Fred doesn't only stutter when he talks."

Bob Sinfield

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