Bob Hope dies aged 100

Bob Hope, ski-nosed master of the one-liner and favorite comedian of US servicemen and presidents alike, has died, less than two months after turning 100.

He died late yesterday of pneumonia, said his longtime publicist Ward Grant, with his family at his bedside at his home in Toluca Lake, California.

America's most-honored comedian, a millionaire many times over, was a star in every category open to him - vaudeville, radio, television and film, most notably a string of "Road" movies with longtime friend Bing Crosby.

For decades, he took his show on the road to bases around the world, boosting the morale of servicemen from World War II to the Gulf War.

He was born on 29 May, 1903, and his story is part of American legend: a London-born immigrant shoe-shine boy whose wisecracks won him fame and wealth and a niche in the hearts of people all over the globe.

Up there with superstars such as Frank Sinatra, Greta Garbo and Bing Crosby there was no bigger name in showbusiness and for six decades he was an international institution.

He was not only the friend of presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan, but a hero to the millions of servicemen he entertained on battlefields going back to World War Two.

There were few major Hollywood, political or military figures with whom Hope had not shared a stage or a scene in his 50-plus films, hundreds of radio and television appearances, and thousands of stage performances.

He was even invited by US senators to stand for president, but responded with a typical one-liner: "The money's not right, and anyway I don't want to move into a smaller house."

On one occasion in 1945, President Harry Truman played the piano in honour of Bob Hope at a White House reception.

A measure of the affection, bordering on reverence, in which he was held was demonstrated in June, 1998, when a Republican politician gravely announced to Congress: "It is with great sadness I announce that Bob Hope has died..."

An immediate hush fell over Capitol Hill, followed by a string of solemn tributes.

But it was all a mistake. At the time Hope was at home in Los Angeles, feeling chipper and tucking into breakfast. When he saw the news flash, he laughed and said: "Well, I'm still here..."

The error arose when an obituary of Hope, written in advance, appeared on an internet website.

Hope always remembered his British origins, kept a picture of the Queen on display at his Californian home and secretly yearned for a knighthood, a wish that was fulfilled in May 1998 when he was given an honorary title at the British Embassy in Washington.

However, as an adopted American citizen from the age of four he was never able formally to call himself Sir Bob Hope.

"My folks were English. They were too poor to be British," he once cracked.

"I still have a bit of British in me. In fact, my blood type is solid marmalade."

The irrepressible entertainer, born in Craighton Road, Eltham, south London, on May 29, 1903, had the deck pretty well stacked against him.

Christened Leslie Townes Hope, he was the fifth of seven sons. His father was a stonemason. His mother was a singer-pianist who added to the family income cleaning other people's homes.

The Hopes emigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1907 when "Les" was four. In 1912, he spent a night in the cells after being accused of stealing a tennis racket from a neighbourhood sports shop.

It was two years after that when the man who was to become the most honoured and decorated comedian of his generation, and possibly of all time, started out as a child star, winning a Cleveland talent contest with a pale impersonation of Charlie Chaplin in front of an audience of local firemen.

As a teenager, he survived a logging accident which crushed his face and left him with his ski-jump nose - a blemish which he used to his advantage throughout his wisecracking career.

He ook dancing lessons under the tutelage of local vaudevillians King Rastus Brown and Johnny Root, and in 1921 he made his professional vaudeville debut, receiving a few dollars for a "black-face" routine in a show in which a performing seal was top of the bill.

By this t he had adopted the stage name Bob, ditching his agents' choice of 'Hope, Les'.

But Hope had to struggle to reach the pinnacle of show business. On his way up, he toiled by turns as a dancer, newspaper reporter and amateur prizefighter who threw punches under the name of Packy East.

Then came vaudeville in Roaring '20s Chicago. By now he was developing the quickfire patter that was to secure his reputation and be his hallmark for decades to come.

But often, before uttering so much as a single word on stage, he learned to tickle a crowd with his strut, a carefully polished, slightly preening series of steps that set up the gags to come. He knew how to get audiences to eat out of his hand.

Producing and financing the famous "Road" pictures, in which he teamed up with golf partner Bing Crosby, helped to make him the largest private land owner in California.

Time magazine once estimated his wealth at 500 million dollars.

He and his wife, former singer Dolores Reade, were thought to be one of Hollywood's most enduring couples after more than 60 years together.

His public image was the boastful, naive smart aleck and would-be ladies' man who cowers at the first sign of danger and never gets the girl.

But a biography in 1994 by Groucho Marx's son Arthur shattered the illusion and lifted the lid on what Hollywood insiders had suspected for years.

The Secret Life of Bob Hope suggested that he was an insatiable womaniser who had a string of mistresses over many years some of whom met tragic ends. Hope made no secret of his fury at this biography.

The book alleged he had a six month affair in 1949 with blonde actress Barbara Payton. Her decline was rapid after they split.

She married fading star Franchot Tone. Both became chronic alcoholics and she ended up a prostitute who killed herself in 1966. She was 39.

In 1950 he is said to have had an affair with his co-star in The Lemon Drop Kid, Marilyn Maxwell. It went on for four years. She was found dead at 49 in her Beverley Hills home in 1972. Hope read the eulogy at her funeral.

After that it was his pretty press agent Ursula Halloran. He fired her when he tired of their affair and months later she died from an overdose of pills and alcohol.

There are records that he wed his vaudeville partner, Grace Troxell, in 1933.

Grace had a daughter shortly after her marriage to gambler David Halper. The girl received a monthly cheque for many years from Hope, despite his reputation for being tight-fisted.

Hope became a hit on Broadway two years after failing a screen test: "My nose came on the screen a half-hour before I did, and left after I did... They didn't like that."

His career escalated in some of Broadway's most glittering shows, including Ziegfeld Follies (1935) and Cole Porter's Red, Hot and Blue (1936).

In 1938, in "The Big Broadcast" with W.C. Fields, Hope sang Thanks For The Memories. It became his theme song.

He ventured into radio unwillingly, thinking the medium was a passing fad. But he was booked at New York's Capitol Theatre, which advertised ticket sales with a Sunday morning radio broadcast.

It was the Capitol that first teamed him with Bing Crosby.

"I did jokes between acts, and Crosby crooned," he recalled. "Pretty soon, we were working the crowd together. A guy saw us and went back to Hollywood and said, 'Put these guys together, they're funny'.

"That's how the Road pictures started."

Hope and Crosby made seven Road pictures together for Paramount, starting with The Road to Singapore in 1940 and ending with The Road to Hong Kong in 1962.

Hope was always more than willing to criss-cross the world flying the flag with morale-boosting visit to homesick servicemen.

In Alaska he told GIs: "Be happy you guys. Be proud! You know what you are - you're God's frozen people."

In 1972 in Vietnam, he hosted what he said was his last Christmas troop show. But each following Christmas found Hope entertaining servicemen and women somewhere.

In 1983 he was under fire again in Beirut and in 1990 he went to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm.

And in 1994, though frail and deaf, the then 91 year-old Hope travelled to the Normandy beaches for the anniversary of D Day.

Later he made an emotional appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in London to mark the anniversary of VE Day.

His comic timing was still impeccable. When he nearly fell into the orchestra pit no-one could work out whether it was a joke or not.

When he received his honorary knighthood in 1998 he was frail, barely able to walk and almost blind.

But despite all that he could not resist an appreciative wisecrack.

"I am literally speechless. Where are my writers when I need them," he quipped.

He laid the early foundations of his wealth in the 1940s after fighting Paramount to be allowed to back his own films. He owned most of the Road pictures, which are still screened on late-night TV around the world.

Hope and Crosby made an oil strike in Texas but Hope invested his proceeds in 10,000 acres of farm land in the San Fernando valley, now a Los Angeles suburb where property values have zoomed astronomically.

Though his parsimony was legendary, he gave millions of dollars away, building the Eisenhower Memorial Hospital in Palm Desert, California, as well as the biggest youth centre in the US.

The funny man won four Academy Awards, the Order of the British Empire, Congressional Gold Medal, French Legion of Honour and 50-odd honorary degrees.

During Richard Nixon's first term, he turned down two US senators who asked him to consider running for president when a radio poll showed around 80% of the population would vote for him.

An appearance at the London Palladium charity show in 1991 raised money for Eltham's Bob Hope Theatre whose 230-seat auditorium he had renovated a few hundred yards from the terraced house where he was born.

Hope survived longer than any other TV or radio comic, but preferred not to dwell on his age.

"I have this terrific make-up man," he told audiences, "but he's expensive. I have to bring him in from Lourdes."

He remained a friend of the White House to the end. At the age of 92, he was still playing all 18 holes of golf, gushingly admired by his partners, President Clinton and predecessor George Bush senior.

When he reached 100 on May 29 this year, the occasion was marked across the US. Celebrations including a flypast by 1940s planes and the renaming of a Hollywood square.

His family and neighbours held a party in his honour, when 101 balloons were released and local children sang happy birthday.

Hope is said to have joked to his family: "I'm so old, they've cancelled my blood type."

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