He was born Leslie Townes Hope on May 29, 1903, in Eltham, England, the son of stonemason William Henry Hope and Avis Townes Hope, a former concert singer.
At 19, he was teaching dance classes, and two years later he was booked by Fatty Arbuckle into a show called "Hurley's Jolly Follies." It was the beginning.
Hope sang, danced, did comedy bits and doubled on the saxophone, an experience, he reminisced years later, that gave him the poise that was his trademark in stand-up comedy.
From "Follies," he went on to vaudeville in Detroit and then to a part in the show "The Sidewalks of New York." After it folded in 1927, Hope, until then not a soloist or comedy specialist, discovered that he was both.
He had a dance act with partner George Byrne, and they were doing a vaudeville show in New Castle, Ind. Hope was asked to introduce the next week's act, a Scot named Marshall Walker, and he did so with humor.
"I know Marshall well. He saves everything. He got married in his backyard so the chickens would get the rice. He had a sunstroke playing golf and counted it."
The audience loved it, and Hope became a solo act. He went back to Cleveland for a year to develop the comedy style that varied little over the years — topical one-liners fired with a pixie leer — and then tried to sell it in Chicago.
Hard Times for Struggling Performer
They weren't easy times. He lived mostly on coffee and doughnuts and once got by on a nickel's worth of beans a day for four weeks, an experience he recalled later when he was making up to $50,000 for an hour's performance.
"I was in debt and had holes in my shoes," he said. "When a friend bought me a steak, I'd forgotten whether to cut it with a knife or drink it from a glass."
Finally, through a friend, Hope was booked into Chicago's Stratford Theatre for three days—a booking that stretched into six months. He was a smash.
From there, it was back to New York and Broadway. There was "Ballyhoo" in 1932, but the show that ultimately put Hope on the trail to international stardom was Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach's "Roberta" the next year.
Then he was invited to appear on "The Rudy Vallee Show," a radio network variety program, and that was followed by other guest appearances even as Hope performed on Broadway in "Ziegfeld Follies of 1936," in which he introduced the standard "I Can't Get Started," and "Red, Hot and Blue!" in which he and Ethel Merman sang "It's De-Lovely."
He appeared in "Smiles" in 1938.
That was Hope's breakout year. Pepsodent gave him his own radio show, which began his six-decade association with NBC, and he made his feature film debut in "The Big Broadcast of 1938."
"Big Broadcast" more than anything else elevated the comedian to stardom and gave him his theme song, the Academy Award-winning "Thanks for the Memory," which he had sung in the movie.
He really hit his stride in movies with 1939's horror comedy "The Cat and the Canary."
"I turned into box office," Hope told The Times in 1991. "When 'Cat and Canary' came out, [people] started running into the theaters. Then Paramount came to my dressing room with a contract for seven years. So I signed for seven years."