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Bob Hope 1903~2003

Bob Hope: A lifetime of laughter

Whether on radio, Broadway, USO stages, television or in vaudeville or the movies, Bob Hope's mildly irreverent comedy kept America laughing for more than 70 years.

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(CNN) -- The 20th century had dozens of pop icons and rock 'n' roll kings, sex symbols and silver screen legends, comedians and television stars. But it had only one Mr. Entertainment.

Bob Hope left a rich legacy. He mastered many genres and brought laughter to audiences around the globe.

By the time of his death, Hope had appeared in more than 75 films, had starred in more than 475 TV programs and 1,000-plus radio programs, had toured tirelessly for the U.S. armed forces, had received countless honorary degrees and awards -- everything from the Medal of Freedom to an honorary British knighthood -- and had written a dozen books.

Hope was born Leslie Townes Hope on May 29, 1903, in Eltham, England, the fifth of seven sons of William Henry Hope and Avis Townes Hope. Hope's mother was a former concert singer and aspiring actress, and his father was a stonecutter.

His family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when he was 4. Hope got his first taste of show business in 1915 when he won a Charlie Chaplin imitation contest.

It was a hint of what lay ahead for the young entertainer.

Before taking the stage name "Bob" in 1928, Hope, right, and George Byrne toured vaudeville together from 1925 to 1927. They began as a dance act and later expanded their teaming to include songs and comedy.  

From boxing to vaudeville

Hope became successful the hard way, through years of tough work and persistence. Hitting the work force full time at 16, Hope held such jobs as a shoe salesman and stock boy at an auto company.

In his spare time he made money singing at local restaurants and even took to the boxing ring for three fights, throwing uppercuts under the name "Packy East."

But the boxer cared more for punch lines than punches and soon devoted himself to vaudeville, learning the art from willing instructors. In the mid- and late '20s, he paired with fellow acts Lloyd "Lefty" Durbin, George Byrne and Louise Troxell, road-tripping from one vaudeville theater to the next. In 1928, he took on the stage name "Bob."

It was during these years that Hope developed his wisecracking style, performing in front of large crowds with rare self-confidence. He'd roll out ad-lib jokes and pause, seemingly for endless moments, while waiting for the audience to "get it."

His performances led to parts on Broadway, including the 1933 musical "Roberta."

During the run of the show, Hope met nightclub singer Dolores Reade. They married on February 19, 1934, and eventually adopted four children: Linda (born in July 1939), Anthony (July 1940), Kelly (July 1946) and Nora (August 1946).

Hollywood's Hope

Following another sweep through vaudeville, Hope finally made it to the silver screen with "The Big Broadcast of 1938." He did it in grand fashion, teaming with Shirley Ross in the Oscar-winning song "Thanks for the Memory." The tune became a signature theme for Hope.

Bob Hope reads from a book called "How to Make Love" with Dorothy Lamour in 1940's "The Road to Singapore," the first of the seven "Road" pictures.  

In 1939's "The Cat and the Canary," Hope perfected a screen persona as the would-be great lover and brave coward who hides his insecurities behind a shield of smart-aleck remarks.

The following year, Hope teamed with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in "Road to Singapore." The film launched an uproarious and successful "Road" series that featured Hope and Crosby at their comic best.

Meanwhile, Hope was also starring in his long-running and envelope-pushing NBC radio program. The variety show was pure Hope, with topical humor and risquŽ material that ruffled the feathers of conservative America but left the rest of the nation giggling. His radio contract with the network, which began in 1937, would encompass 18 years and 1,145 programs.

The USO tours

Soon he'd stumble on another outlet of entertainment -- one with which he'd be associated until his death.

Following the advice of a colleague, Hope and a group of fellow entertainers in 1941 visited U.S. troops stationed in California and did a radio show for them. The overwhelmingly positive response from that show prompted Hope to take his act to the battlefields of World War II, bringing a slice of America to homesick troops.

That made Hope an even brighter star, and in 1943 TIME featured his face on an edition of the magazine's cover. It accompanied an article that gave a glowing account of his wartime experiences during the previous year.

In 1948, Hope held a Christmas show for the troops -- the first of many to come. By 1953, he'd performed before nearly 1 million servicemen at some 400 camps, naval stations and military hospitals in every part of the world. In the process, his name became synonymous with entertainment.

He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President John F. Kennedy, who called Hope "America's most prized ambassador of good will throughout the world."

Hope made his last tour in 1990, visiting troops in the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War, some 50 years after first visiting those California troops readying for a world conflict.

Hope and his wife, Dolores, sing "Silver Bells" in one of the many Christmas specials he broadcast during his 60-plus-year career with NBC.  

Comedian's many faces

In 1950, Hope signed a deal with NBC that eventually turned into 40-plus years of TV specials -- more than 475 programs and specials, many of which swept the Nielsen ratings.

The 1950s also marked an image change. With film audiences no longer buying his image as an aging girl chaser, Hope took the advice of friends and attempted a straight dramatic role in "The Seven Little Foys" (1955). Critics praised his performance.

By 1957, Hope had made enough money from movies to become his own producer, creating such films as "Alias Jesse James" (1959) and "The Facts of Life" (1960).

In the 1960s, Hope's movie career took a downturn from which it never fully recovered. During this period, critics lambasted the quality of his films such as "Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!" (1966). Hope's fans assumed that he was becoming too distracted with his various commitments to focus on Hollywood.

Late in his career, Hope spoke to new generations of television viewers through his annual song-dance-comedy Christmas specials on NBC. On every show, he'd introduce the college football players named Associated Press All-Americans for that year, then would serenade audiences with a rendition of "Silver Bells."

And as always, his sense of humor was sharp. During one Christmas special from Saudi Arabia, Hope mixed Bush administration politics with an entertainment scandal to create a typical quip:

"Did you know Milli Vanilli had planned to be over here Thanksgiving when President Bush was here?" he asked. "But they were afraid people wouldn't know whose lips to read."

Hope also became one of America's most famous amateur golfers. Each year he hosted the Bob Hope Classic; the tournament, still played by tour pros, is now called the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. The comedian's love of the game is so well-known that he even made a cameo in the 1985 comedy "Spies Like Us," walking into a scene carrying a golf club and casually saying, "Mind if I play through?"

Over the years, Hope also gave time and, according to his agent, more than $1 billion to dozens of organizations, including those that fight Parkinson's disease, cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

In 1997, the U.S. Air Force honored Hope by naming a cargo plane "The Spirit of Bob Hope" after the legendary entertainer.  

Among Hope's countless honors (some sources claim he has received more than 2,000) are his induction in the Television Academy Hall of Fame, 54 honorary doctorates and the four stars that bear his name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In 1997, Congress named Hope an honorary U.S. veteran, citing his decades of entertaining troops around the world. He is the only person to receive that distinction.

When informed of the honor, Hope was uncharacteristically serious. "I've been given many awards in my lifetime," he said, "but to be numbered among the men and women I admire the most is the greatest honor I have ever received."

The next year, Queen Elizabeth weighed in with an honorary knighthood reminding Hope that his flowering achievements were rooted in England, the country of his birth. The queen presented Hope with the Honor of Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

At the 2002 Emmys, actor Tom Hanks presented entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey with the first ever Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, which honors those "whose deeds and actions have had a lasting impact on society."

In April 2003, a host of entertainers -- including Phyllis Diller, Eva Marie Saint, Cindy Williams, Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Miller -- turned out to rededicate one of Hope's stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hope himself made few public appearances after the turn of the century.

The following month, on May 29, Hope privately celebrated his 100th birthday. Publicly, fans and fellow entertainers lauded Hope, with NBC airing a special featuring old footage and celebrity tributes to mark the occasion.

His daughter, Linda Hope, once said that of all the things for which Hope is known, he got the greatest pleasure by making audiences laugh.

"Beneath it all, he had a real desire to be a good actor," she said. "But I think if it was a choice (between) getting a laugh or dealing in a more emotional way, he'd go for the laugh."

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