A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker
THERE'S ALWAYS HOPE
Bob Hope didn't need me. Not by a long shot. But I needed him.
I had just been appointed my newspaper's television critic, replacing a Living Legend on the beat who had passed away, and I was a little overwhelmed. No, I take that back. I was a LOT overwhelmed. There was so much to learn about an industry that dominated the American cultural landscape. I had to learn about ratings. I had to learn about advertising. I had to learn about cable. I had to learn about public television. I had to learn, for Pete's sake, who shot J.R.
More than anything else, however, I had to learn how to interview celebrities. As a newspaper reporter, I had done tons of interviews. But mostly I had talked to regular people who, for one reason or another, were in the news. Interviewing celebrities is different because they usually have an agenda. They want to use you to promote their show. You have to figure out how to get the information you need without allowing yourself to be manipulated.
On my second day on the job the phone on my desk rang. I picked it up and heard a familiar voice: "Joe, this is Bob Hope."
I froze. I knew that my predecessor had a long and friendly relationship with Mr. Hope. There was still a photograph of the two of them together pinned to the bulletin board above my desk. A sweet note of condolence reflecting that relationship had been read at my former colleague's funeral just a week earlier. I didn't know what to say. So . . . I said nothing.
"Joe? Are you there?"
"Uh, yes, Mr. Hope," I stammered. "I, uh . . . gosh . . . I'm a little . . . uh . . ."
I'm sure he could sense my discomfort and my lack of preparation. I wouldn't have blamed him if he had quickly terminated the conversation. I was obviously inexperienced, and I represented a relatively small and inconsequential media market. There was no reason for him to waste much time on me. But without missing a beat, he gently began guiding the conversation.
"Joe, I understand you're taking over for Howard. I just wanted to wish you luck and see if there is anything I can do to help you."
"Gosh, Mr. Hope, thank you," I said, still flustered. "It's so kind of you to call."
I couldn't think of anything else to say. I mean, this was Bob Hope – Mr. USO, Mr. NBC, Mr. Academy Awards, Mr. Showbiz. I didn't know where to begin. But he did.
"Well, I don't know if you noticed that I have a special coming up on NBC," he said. "It's going to be terrific. We have some wonderful guests . . ." And he went off on the show for about five minutes, with some glib one-liners that had me laughing even as I was furiously scribbling notes.
His voice, his pacing, his trademark delivery of a punch line made the conversation feel natural and relaxed. It was like talking to an old, trusted friend. By the time he came up for air I was feeling comfortable enough to ask a few questions, which he managed to turn into straight lines for his impromptu humor.
"Well, it's been wonderful talking to you, Joe," he said after about 10 minutes. "You're going to do a great job."
"Thank you, Mr. Hope," I said. "It was an honor to talk to you."
"Honor?" he asked, whimsically. "You must be confused. I'm Hope – not the Pope."
He was right, of course. He WAS Hope – for millions of American G.I.'s at military installations all around the world, for audiences in search of light-hearted entertainment in a sometimes dreary and depressing world, and for a fledgling TV critic trying to find his voice.
His life was his message: there's always Hope.
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Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through www.Amazon.com.