Encounter With Two Masters Of Comedy


by Bill Monson

Bob Hope's death last week at 100 inspired many stories. I hope you're not satiated with them, because I'd like to add one of my own.

When I was at Armed Forces Radio and Television Service in Los Angeles 1958-1963, I got the opportunity to meet performers of all kinds. This often occurred to record special messages to troops overseas for Christmas or on subjects like safety or absentee voting. As writer-producer of such projects, it was my job to set up an appointment with a celebrity. I'd thumb through "Daily Variety" and "The Hollywood Reporter" to see who was shooting a movie or a TV show, then contact their agent or manager to arrange for a few minutes on the set. Once the appointment was made, I'd try to tailor our generic message for whatever personality we would record.

Sometimes I'd go alone; but more often I took an enlisted man to set up and run the tape recorder while I went over the script with the performer. Our enlisted men loved the job since it meant meeting stars and being in famous studios to see shows being made. (Of course, I loved it, too.) In 1960, I hit the jackpot. Bob Hope was making a United Artists movie with Lucille Ball called "Facts of Life." It was a change of pace movie for both – a sophisticated comedy about two people considering adultery.

Hope was coming off a big 1959 hit "Alias Jesse James," and Ball was still television's favorite comedienne thanks to specials and re-runs of her Lucy character. On the sound stage at Desilu Studios, however, neither seemed anything like their on-screen personas. Ball was reserved, nervous, and smoked as she sat in her canvas chair. A hairdresser fussed with her orange hair, which was more subdued than usual for this Technicolor feature. Hope stood with producer Norman Panama and director Mel Frank, who had also written the screenplay. They were discussing whether the the scene they were about to shoot needed a joke or not. It was just a simple shot of Hope and Ball at an airport passenger gate, but all agreed it needed something better than what was in the script. Panama and Frank turned Hope over to me while they went off with a third man – one of Hope's writers – to see what they could come up with.

In person, Hope was serious, almost somber. I'd sent him a copy of the spot announcement – a ten-second reminder to vote in the upcoming election – but Hope could not remember what had happened to it. I gave him another copy, and he read it quickly and said, "I think we punched this up. Let's go for a take."

The enlisted man started the tape recorder, Bob gave a voice level, then took a deep breath and went through a metamorphosis. Gone was the gloomy, slouching man of a moment before. In his place stood an erect, electrically- charged individual instantly recognizable as the Bob Hope of TV and films. He rattled off the blurb, dropping in an ad-lib or two, and finished with a serious appeal to vote. He looked at me; my stop watch said 12 seconds, which was fine with me. I looked at the EM, who stopped the tape and lowered his headphones.

"Sounded great," the EM said.

Without a word, Hope handed me the script and walked away, slouching back into the dour, moody man of before. "Thank you," I called after him.

He did not respond.

Something similar happened with Lucille Ball. She read from the script I'd sent her – but it took three takes to get it right and I later had to splice parts of two takes together to get the message the way I wanted it. When we finished, I thanked her, and she said, "You're welcome," with a wan smile, her eyes flicking to someone behind me.

It was director Mel Frank with new lines for the scene. She listened without comment, then nodded. Rising, she crossed with him to the partial set where Hope stood waiting. They rehearsed the scene once for the camera without much passion. Director Frank called for a take. Instantly, both Hope and Ball became their characters, alive with energy. The simple scene crackled. After checking with the camera man and the sound recorder, Frank called, "Cut and print." Hope and Ball looked at each other, smiled, and turned off their characters. Without speaking, they went their separate ways to their dressing rooms.

Producer Panama came over to me. "Got what you need?" I said yes and thanked him. He nodded to the Desilu rep who had brought us on the set. Thirty seconds later, we were packed up and outside the sound stage. Comedy, I knew, is hard work – and a serious business. People who perform it are often unhappy, or twisted personalities. Even giants like Hope and Ball had to work hard to be successful. So I wasn't surprised they didn't waste any time or energy on small talk or horseplay. They were doing us and our audience a favor – for free – and went about it as efficiently as they could.

It would've been nice to chat or tell them how much we appreciated all the laughter and happiness they'd brought us through the years – but that would've been an imposition on their time and professional space.

I did, of course, send them thank-you letters later; and in them I spoke what I'd like to have said personally on the set – but couldn't.

As for me, I've never forgotten the transformation that Bob Hope and Lucille Ball went through to deliver their performances of my simple message and two lines by Panama and Frank in a scene. (Happily, the movie was a success; and I still have a copy of the screenplay which I plucked out of a trashcan as I left the sound stage.)