Jan. 26, 1922 - March 14, 2014
LOS ANGELES – 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 least one 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.
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, 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. He returned to the AP’s Los Angeles bureau in 1944 and 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. 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.”