His natural comedic skills were genuine, but as we learn in Richard Zoglin’s Hope (Simon & Schuster), the comic, who died in 2003, carefully crafted his persona in his driving ambition to be successful and famous.
There is something epic and profound about the comedian’s journey from a struggling vaudeville performer to a brilliant strategist of his own entertainment brand and man of the world. He was on friendly terms with every president from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to George W. Bush and crossed paths with the likes of W. C. Fields, General George S. Patton, Nikita Khrushchev, Lenny Bruce, Winston Churchill and the Hilton Sisters, the Siamese twin act featured in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).
Zoglin — Time’s theater critic who was AJC television critic from 1978 to 1982 — doesn’t idolize Hope. He is frank about the comic’s flaws, relentless womanizing — everyone from Ethel Merman to Doris Day — and the decline of his reputation toward the end of his career.
Yet Zoglin’s respect and admiration for his subject’s talent and achievements are never in doubt. Hope, the most comprehensive and richly detailed portrait of the man yet, makes a compelling case for the showbiz icon as the most important and influential entertainer of the 20th century as well as the founding father of contemporary stand-up comedy.
Zoglin, who will appear at the Margaret Mitchell House on February 11, spoke with ArtsATL from New York.
ArtsATL: How long did Hope take from start to finish?
Richard Zoglin: About five years. I had a full-time job for a good part of that. I was still an editor at Time [assistant managing editor for the magazine and website, Time.com]. Now I’m a contributor; I was able to spend full time on the book after I left the staff. I spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress going through Hope’s papers. When I set out, if someone had told me it would take five years, I might have been scared off because I didn’t think of spending that much time on one project. But it definitely needed that time and preparation.
ArtsATL: When did you approach the Hope family about the book?
Zoglin: I had already gotten the contract from Simon & Schuster before I had assurance that I was going to have approval or get cooperation with the family, which looking back on it now was a little bit of a gamble. I did sit down with Linda Hope, who is the keeper of the flame in the family, and laid it out for her. She’s very protective of the legacy and wanted to hear what I wanted to do. She had obviously read some of my [work] and knew what I had done.
She basically said “OK, I’ll cooperate.” She gave me carte blanche to go through all the papers and opened the doors for me. It’s hard for me to imagine how I would have done the book without her cooperation or permission. It would have been a different kind of book, and it wouldn’t have been as good, I know that.
ArtsATL: The vaudeville and early Broadway period of Hope’s career was particularly fascinating, and I wonder how his comedy style would have developed if he had concentrated on the stage and not radio and film.
Zoglin: The Broadway career was really interesting, but I think that radio and movies were more important to the development of his comedy. He was a good Broadway performer, but it seemed a little bit of an aberration in terms of his style. As he himself said, he was a different kind of a performer on Broadway: he didn’t ad-lib at all; he was very stylized and a kind of romantic leading man type.
It was when he got into radio that he really developed his stand-up comedy style. And movies where he developed that kind of brash coward character that he became identified with. [But] the New York experience had a major effect on his career and personality. It made him stand a little apart when he went out to Hollywood, and his love of doing live performances helped him develop his stage presence.
ArtsATL: Hope didn’t seem to have a lot of rivalries with fellow performers or feel intimidated by the success of other famous comedians.
Zoglin: That’s true. First of all he was really guarded publicly about other performers. He would never bad-mouth another performer in public. He was polite. In private he may have had some problems with some of them, but he was very respectful of everybody in public. Also, he didn’t feel like he had any rivals. He rose above the rest of the Hollywood crowd very quickly with his work entertaining the troops and his special relationship with the presidents. He just thought of himself as his own genre, a performer with no peers. He didn’t play Las Vegas like the other comedians. He really did feel he was on a level above everyone else.
ArtsATL: It’s curious that he never worked with a celebrated film director when you consider what a major movie star he became.
Zoglin: He never worked with a major director, particularly directors of comedy like Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder. Even Jack Benny did a film for [Ernst] Lubitsch. Hope was making films at Paramount at the same time Preston Sturges was the top comedy director there, and although Sturges was one of the scriptwriters for one of [Hope’s] early films [College Swing], Hope didn’t do a film for him.
I would love to have seen what a collaboration like that would have been like. My guess is that a director like Billy Wilder knew that Hope controlled his own films and it would have been too much of a clash, and I don’t know if Hope would have allowed himself to be bossed around by Billy Wilder.
ArtsATL: Hope’s reputation, began to suffer in the late 1960s and early ’70s, especially with younger audiences, due to his close ties with Nixon and his out-of-step jokes about the counterculture and feminism. For someone who isn’t familiar with Hope or thinks he doesn’t like him, which of his movies are the best places to begin?
Zoglin: The first thing I would watch is one of the Road pictures. The four best are Road to Zanzibar, Road to Morocco, Road to Utopia and Road to Rio. You see what a great, natural comedic performer he was. He was terrific with Crosby, and those films really hold up. They seem very modern because there’s a lot of breaking the fourth wall and stuff than even today looks pretty hip.
For a solo film, I like My Favorite Blonde. Or if you want a different side of Hope, Sorrowful Jones shows that he could really act. That film has a bit of a dramatic side to it . . . and a little more depth and sentiment.
ArtsATL: What are your favorite memories of Atlanta from your days here?
Zoglin: I generally loved it. I’m from the Midwest, Kansas City. I went to school in California and moved to New York, and then I got hired as a TV critic for the Constitution, and it was just a great experience. It was the first time I ever worked for a newspaper. There was a really nice, tight-knit literary and journalistic community there. I remember the Old New York Book Shop [run by] Cliff Graubert. Whenever an Atlanta author had a book come out, there would be a book party there. That was a great little tradition for the Atlanta writers. Folks who were in the journalistic crowd would go. That’s where I got to know everybody.
It was also great being the TV critic at the Constitution in those years because I covered the start-up of CNN and Ted Turner’s whole empire. I interviewed Turner several times. Jimmy Carter was president, so a Georgia guy was in the White House. I did stories on the Carter media crowd, Gerald Rafshoon [the White House communications director under Carter] and that sort of thing. Atlanta was also the center of the cable industry — Scientific Atlanta and Cox Cable — so it was a great place to be covering media.
Bill Tush had a Saturday Night Live–type show for TBS for a year or two. That’s where Jan Hooks got her start. She was an Atlanta girl [born in Decatur], and I remember reviewing the show and interviewing her. A few years later she was on Saturday Night Live, so I can say I knew her when.