Friday, March 14, 2014
LOS ANGELES (AP) — He was the institutional memory for the movies at The Associated Press and a passage for the world to a Hollywood both longed for and long gone.
Bob Thomas, who died Friday at his Encino, Calif., home at age 92, started reporting when Clark Gable was a middle-aged king, Bette Davis was in her big-eyed prime, and Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall were emerging stars. "Independent" movies were a rarity during the studio-controlled era and celebrity gossip was dispensed by rival columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons rather than Internet sites.
Younger reporters knew the names and the credits, but Thomas knew the people and lived the history. He could tell you what Jack Lemmon liked to drink at parties or recall Marilyn Monroe's farcical inability to show up on time, or speak fondly of his times with "Greg" Peck.
Around the country, and beyond, at leastone generation of movie fans learned the latest about Hollywood by reading Bob Thomas. He interviewed most of the great screen actors of the 20th century, among them Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise.
When a story ran, Thomas often heard directly from the stars. Soon after her marriage to actor John Agar in 1945, Shirley Temple wrote: "John and I want you to know that we are very grateful to you for the manner in which you handled the story on our wedding."
A postcard from Rita Hayworth passed on regards from Orson Welles. Bing Crosby shared warm thoughts about Bob Hope. Groucho Marx noted that Thomas' interview with him had been syndicated in 400 newspapers. "But as faithful as I am to you in my fashion, I read them all," Groucho wrote to him.
Thomas worked well into his 80s, covering a record 66 consecutive Academy Awards shows, beginning in 1944. During his nearly seven decades writing for the AP, Thomas reviewed hundreds of films and television shows and wrote numerous retrospective pieces on Hollywood and how it had changed.
Thomas was also the author of nearly three dozen books, including biographies of Walt Disney, Brando and Joan Crawford, and an acclaimed portrait of studio mogul Harry Cohn, "King Cohn." He wrote, produced and appeared in a handful of television specials on the Academy Awards and was a guest on numerous TV news and talk shows, including "The Tonight Show," ''Good Morning America" and "Nightline." His biographies of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes and the comedy team of Abbott and Costello were made into television movies.
He is listed twice in Guinness World Records: for most consecutive Academy Awards shows covered by an entertainment reporter and for longest career as an entertainment reporter (1944-2010).
In 1988, Thomas became the first reporter-author awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and on Friday, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce placed a wreath of flowers on the star, located in front of the Dolby Theatre, home of the Oscars.
Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the AP, worked with Thomas in the Los Angeles bureau in the early 1980s. "Bob was an old-fashioned Hollywood reporter and he knew absolutely everyone," she said. "He had a double-helping of impish charm with the stars, but back at the office, he was the quiet guy who slipped into a desk at the back and poked at the keyboard for a while, then handed in a crisp and knowing story soon delivered to movie fans around the world."
One of Thomas' biggest stories had nothing to do with entertainment.
Helping out during the 1968 presidential election, Thomas had been assigned to cover Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on the night the New York Democrat won the California primary. Minutes after declaring victory, Kennedy was shot to death in the kitchen of Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel.
"I was waiting in the press room for Kennedy to arrive when I heard what sounded like the popping of balloons in the hotel kitchen," Thomas would recount years later.
"I rushed into the kitchen where men were screaming and women sobbing," he recalled. "I jumped onto a pile of kitchen trays and saw Kennedy lying on the floor, his head bloody." He ran to a phone and delivered the bulletin to The Associated Press.
As the son of a newspaper editor turned Hollywood press agent, Robert Joseph Thomas seemed destined to become an entertainment writer from his earliest days. In junior high school and high school he wrote entertainment columns for the campus newspaper, and in college his favorite reading was the industry trade paper Daily Variety.
But when he joined the AP in Los Angeles in 1943, it was with aspirations of becoming a war correspondent. Instead, the wire service named him its Fresno, Calif., correspondent, a job he gave up after little more than a year.
"It gets so damn hot in Fresno in the summer and nothing much ever happens there," he once told a colleague.
He returned to the AP's Los Angeles bureau in 1944 and was soon named its entertainment reporter. He was also told that the byline he'd been using — Robert J. Thomas — had to go.
"Too formal for a young guy who's going to work the Hollywood beat," he said the AP's bureau chief told him. "From now on your byline is 'Bob Thomas.'"
Soon he would become a ubiquitous presence in Hollywood, attending awards shows, wandering studio back lots or going from table to table at the Polo Lounge, Musso and Frank and other favored Hollywood hangouts of the day. The gentlemanly, soft-spoken reporter with the wry sense of humor enjoyed access to the stars that modern journalists rarely attain, whether visiting with Nicholson at his home or chatting on the set with Tracy and Hepburn.
"In those days, it really seemed like a playground," he once said.
But Thomas also had his share of run-ins.
Doris Day and Frank Sinatra went months without talking to him after he quoted them candidly in stories, and Tracy cut off contact for years when something Thomas said about him offended the Oscar-winning actor. The fiercely private Brando never spoke with him again after Thomas published the biography "Marlon."
His encyclopedic knowledge of the industry was well appreciated by his colleagues. A former AP editor, Jim Lagier, would recall that Thomas had a filing system at his home that rivaled that of any news bureau.
"Because if you call Bob Thomas at two o'clock in the morning and say, 'Bob, Mary Smith has died,' he would say, 'Mary Smith,' and then, suddenly you could hear the filing cabinets were opening. He would start dictating the lead," Lagier told the AP in 2008 during an oral history interview.
Through the years, Thomas' enthusiasm for his profession never waned.
"I get to interview some of the most beautiful people in the world," he said in 1999. "It's what I always wanted to do, and I just can't stop doing it."
Thomas is survived by his wife of 67 years, Patricia; daughters Nancy Thomas, Janet Thomas and Caroline Thomas; and three grandchildren.
The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif., or the Bob Thomas Collection at the UCLA Library Special Collections. Funeral arrangements were pending.