07/31/2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
The one subject Linda Hope can't remember her father ever joking about was his own mortality. "He was in Vietnam and had some close calls," she says. "He always said, 'When it happens, it happens.' The only thing he really wanted to do was to live to be 100. His English grandfather had lived to be a month or two shy of that. He would often say, 'I'm going to beat my grandfather.' "
Bob Hope got his wish – and perhaps the last laugh in an extraordinary life and career. On July 27, two months after his May 29 centennial, the ski-nosed, tart-tongued entertainer died of pneumonia, with Linda, 64, a TV producer, her sister, two brothers and their mother, Dolores, 94, at his bedside in his Toluca Lake, Calif., home.
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Till his final days, death was seldom on his mind, says Linda. "He was too busy living life and figuring out a joke for what was going on at the time." Indeed, for more than half a century, the irrepressible Hope was America's nonstop joke dispenser. Through 1,145 radio broadcasts, nearly 70 movies, some 500 TV specials, 18 Oscar-hosting gigs and performances before millions of U.S. troops from World War II to the Gulf War, Hope churned out more gags than anybody – "They once timed me at 44 jokes in four minutes," he boasted.
Among his targets were Presidents from Roosevelt to Clinton. "Clinton loves to make long speeches," Hope said. "In fact, this (1993 inaugural address) will be the first with an intermission." He "leaves a matchless legacy of laughs," says Clinton. Gerald Ford, now 90, a frequent partner in 4-handicapper Hope's favorite pastime of golf, remembers him as "one of the premier entertainers of all time."
Certainly he was among the most influential. His Road
pictures with Bing Crosby paved the way for decades of buddy movies, and his screen persona – "a woman's man, a coward's coward and always brilliant," Woody Allen once said – inspired Allen's own screen image. Years before late-night TV, Hope developed the talk show host prototype, smart and smartalecky. "His monologues – which were always so topical – had an enormous influence on me," says Jay Leno. Former host Dick Cavett agrees: "I not only practiced his lines, I practiced his walk, (even) how he cocked his eyebrows after telling a joke."