"They had him all primed to do a little dialog with somebody, I don't remember who anymore, and he'd looked over the script and was ready to go. So he walks onto the stage, acknowledged the applause, glances down at the script, which has been put on the podium, and they'd rewritten the whole bit, everything, without getting around to telling him. "So what does Bogart do? Well, naturally he isn't bothered in the least. He keeps cool. He speaks clearly right into the microphone: 'What the hell is this?'"
Hope's assignment as master of ceremonies for the Academy Awards presentation Monday marks the 13th time since 1940 that he's presided over Hollywood's most spectacular and least organized extravaganza.
He recalled for The Sun-Times some of the memories he's collected during years of watching the Oscars handed out ("Always to someone else," he observed). "I think one of the most dramatic moments, we'll ever see," he said, "was Elizabeth Taylor's appearance to accept the best actress award for 'Butterfield 8.' That was the year she had been critically ill and it wasn't known until the last minute whether she'd even attend the ceremony.
"Then, when her name was called and she stood up and walked toward the stage, everyone held his breath, waiting for her to collapse, but she made it.
"What a woman," Hope said, remembering. "In fact, she even made it to the party afterward."
Hope conceded that the Oscar show may be overlong and not terribly organized, although in recent years the Academy has made lunges in the direction of a schedule. Despite its traditional length and inevitable hitches, the Oscarcast has consistently attracted enormous audiences. Last year's rating was the highest ever received by a television program. "People don't mind waiting because they know what's coming," Hope said. "I suppose it's long and drawn out and everything, but at the end you got those supreme moments when they name the best actor's and actresses and pictures."
Hope is now as much of an institution on the Oscarcast as Shuffle was on Ma Perkins. But in the beginning, he said, it was his experience as an emcee on Broadway that got him the job. "I did it for the first time in 1940," he said. "Mervyn LeRoy and Frank Capra asked me to. Little did they know.
"But I enjoy doing the show. I figure if I stay around long enough, they may have one left over. Oh, they've given me two Oscars in appreciation for my services. But, oddly enough, never a single one for my acting. And I do my best acting on that program, smiling while the others are winning. I've had that acceptance speech in my pocket for so long . . ."
He claimed he has no trouble at all preparing for the show.
"I just lie on the couch," he said, "and my psychiatrist talks to me. He tells me there's always next year."