July 31, 2003
Thanks for the Memories, Bob
"Who's A Jew" may be our tribe's favorite trivia game, but when it came to Bob Hope -- who died July 27 at 100 -- his ski-slope nose gave it away: the comedian was not Jewish.
But his comedy, inescapably, was. The British Protestant referred to the Academy Awards, which he hosted 13 times, as "Passover" because he never won an Oscar. And throughout his career, Hope employed Jewish writers.
Hal Kanter, for instance, co-wrote a dozen screenplays for Hope, Leo Robin and Robert Rainger wrote his signature tune, "Thanks for the Memory," and Norman Panama and Melvin Frank wrote the screenplay for "The Road to Utopia." Brooklyn-born Melville Shavelson directed him in perhaps his best dramatic film, "The Seven Little Foys."
"On the simplest level, the New York wise-guy approach to humor appealed to him," said Lawrence J. Epstein, author of "The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America."
"He made it look so easy, too," Epstein said.
Unlike many comics who preceded him, including Groucho Marx, "Hope wasn't manic," Epstein added. "He wasn't up there sweating. There was a sense of being in control. He looked the camera in the eye, and he let the audience in on the joke, as if to say, this is only a movie about nothing -- let's have some fun."
But Hope's legacy is richer than comedy alone. He performed during a century fraught with war and conflict -- often in venues his peers avoided.
He not only visited burn units and hospitals on hundreds of military bases worldwide, he also raised money for Israel in the 1940s at a rally in New York's Madison Square Garden.
"It was at the invitation of screenwriter Ben Hecht," Epstein said. "It wasn't a popular time, but Hope was a good guy. And by rallying troops around the world in World War II, on a deeper level you could say he was helping Jews around the world."