L.A. Times interview from the archives: Bob Thomas

Contributing editor to Opinion, director of the JSM+ New Media Lab

Even though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has broken with the past and moved its annual Oscar awards show from Monday evening to Sunday, the gathering tonight at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion will be no less a grand exercise in tradition. As always, fans will gather in bleachers outside the Music Center to catch a glimpse of the stars as they arrive. Veteran Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd will be posted strategically along the red carpet, greeting the Hollywood elite and coaxing them to share a few remarks with the fans before heading into the hall. The press corps will be out in force and in formal wear: Tuxedos and gowns are an Academy requirement, even among those who toil in the backstage pressrooms.

Among those hundreds of uncharacteristically well-groomed scribes, one remarkable gentleman will be covering his 56th consecutive Academy Awards. Acclaimed throughout the industry as the dean of Hollywood reporters, Bob Thomas has been writing about the movie business for the Associated Press since the days when Hollywood was run by the men who founded it: Jack Warner, Darryl F. Zanuck, Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer. Through six decades, he has witnessed the demise of the studio-contract system, the blacklists of the McCarthy years and the corporate takeover of the movie factories. Today, at 77 years old, he’s still observing, turning out three or four stories a week that are published in hundreds of AP-subscribing newspapers across the globe.

In a business known for backstabbing, it’s hard to find anyone with a discouraging word to say about Thomas. In fact, he’s such a fixture in the film business that he has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. When he received it, in 1988, he remarked, with characteristic low-key humor, “This is 100% better than attending your own funeral.” Respected by fellow journalists and beloved by stars and publicists, he goes about his work without a lot of flash and with seemingly no ego. Along with miles of column inches for AP, he has produced an astonishing 30 books. Many in the film industry credit his 1969 biography of producer Irving G. Thalberg as sparking their interest in pursuing a career behind the scenes. Other Thomas biographies include Joan Crawford and Marlon Brando, as well as a series of books on Walt Disney.


Thomas is full of fond memories of the old days, but he seems just as enthralled by today’s “Shakespeare in Love” as he must have been a half-century ago by Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet.” The father of three daughters who have given him three grandsons, he lives with his wife, Patricia, in Encino and works mostly at home, though he still makes it into the AP offices downtown at least once a week, “to let them know I’m still kicking.” In a conversation over breakfast at DuPar’s Restaurant in Studio City, he shared his memories of Hollywood past, talked about famous contemporaries like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and pointed out the sharp contrasts between today’s studio heads and the movie moguls of old.


Question: What do you remember about the first Oscar ceremony you covered?

Answer: At that time, the Oscars were usually held at the Ambassador Hotel. But because of the war, they decided a big dinner would be inappropriate, so they held it at Grumman’s Chinese Theater. There was no formal wear--men were in business suits and women in dresses--and it was very straightforward and brief. At that time, it wasn’t quite the hot story it is today, so I could sit in the audience, take in the whole show and then go to a phone and call in my story. Nowadays, I’m backstage, watching the TV monitors and putting new leads out every half-hour. Let me tell you, it was a lot more enjoyable to just sit out in the audience.

I remember the awards two years later in 1946, when Joan Crawford won best actress for “Mildred Pierce.” Joan wasn’t there, she was supposedly ill, but I think she just had a case of the nerves. She also knew, I think, that it would be a bigger story for her to receive the Oscar in bed.


Q: Today, there is a great deal of emphasis on covering personal lives of stars and also on box-office grosses. How would you characterize the flavor of Hollywood reporting back then?

A: I wrote lots of feature stories, covered births and weddings. I think I may have reported on at least several of Lana Turner’s weddings. And, of course, obituaries--it was always hard to write about the deaths of people you had come to know and had interviewed many times. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons did mostly gossip about who was having a baby, or who was dating whom, so I stayed away from that. But at that time, print was the only medium. There wasn’t much news about Hollywood on radio, and, of course, television was yet to come.

The studios had huge publicity departments, and it was really a delight to be a young reporter at that time. Everything was very well-organized, and no star ever refused to do interviews. Everyone was available, because the studios insisted on it. So it was great fun. You could go out to MGM and watch Gene Kelly dancing on the set and visit with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in the commissary. You could just walk from table to table, picking up an item here and an item there.

But that all ended with the demise of the studio contract system in the 1960s. And with that came the rise of the independent publicity offices. In time, you had these big publicity organizations, such as PMK, who assembled a huge list of box-office stars.

And this was a new generation of stars. They loved to quote Humphrey Bogart, who said, “The only thing I owe my public is a good performance.” But what they didn’t know is that Bogart gave a great performance in interviews. He loved publicity. He would call me up in the middle of the night and say, “Hey, Thomas, let’s touch a nerve,” and he’d have some crazy idea.

But the new stars didn’t want to do publicity, and their press agents became what I call, “suppress agents.” Mostly they say, “no,” and try to keep their clients out of print. If they’re in print, they might say the wrong thing, set off some sort of controversy, and that might put the publicist under the gun. So the only time you will ever get an interview with a star these days is when they have a movie to promote, or something specific to sell.


Q: Some younger Hollywood reporters are critical of the way journalism was done in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Do you think that newspeople covering Hollywood in those days were too much on the inside to be able to do any critical reporting?

A: Things were a little clubbier back in the so-called Golden Years. I never considered myself a friend of the stars, but we were business acquaintances. We understood that we had a mutually beneficial relationship.

When I was starting out, Hedda and Louella were pretty much in the pocket of the producers. If Rita Hayworth was causing trouble all over Europe with Ali Khan, Harry Cohn would call up Hedda and say, “What the hell is she doing over there making a bad name for herself when I’ve got a picture coming out?” Hedda might write how Rita is bringing shame to our fair Hollywood. And in return, she would get a big story: Somebody is pregnant, something that would make a good picture.

If some young, enterprising reporter began writing about something that was seen as damaging to a star, he might be barred from the lot, but it usually wasn’t permanent. Nowadays, if you were to get barred by one of these big publicity companies, you’d be in real trouble. There is no recourse. You can’t go to the head of the studio and plead your case. There are a thousand outlets now, and you’re just one of the many.

For instance, in the ‘50s there was a group of fan-magazine photographers who were coddled by the industry. They were invited to all the big parties, treated very well, and Joan Crawford would have them all out for tea. The stars would know them all by name--”Hey, Art, Hymie, Jack”--and pose happily. But today, with the paparazzi, the stars have to be very careful. Some of these photographers are semicriminals. They try to stage fights, race around in cars chasing people and invade their privacy. It’s no wonder today’s stars are gunshy.


Q: That’s clearly changed the way stars relate to journalists. But isn’t a lot of Hollywood reporting, then and now, primarily just about the public’s fascination with beautiful, famous people?

A: I began working at a time that has been called the “era of wonderful nonsense.” One of my first stories was taking a tape measure out to the studio and measuring Bette Davis, who was supposed to have a perfect figure, after she returned to work from having a baby.


Q: And she actually let you do it?

A: Oh, she loved it. Can you imagine doing that with Michelle Pfeiffer today? In those days, it really seemed like a playground. Today, it’s a real business. One major change was when they started revealing the weekend box-office grosses. Suddenly, decisions about what pictures were being made, and about whose reputations rose and fell, depended on how much money a picture made the weekend it opened. Stars can now make $20 million for a single movie, when Clark Gable didn’t make that much in his entire career. People like to read about millions being made or lost.


Q: You’ve also watched Hollywood change from being run by colorful individuals like Harry Cohn and Jack Warner to being managed by corporate executives who worry that if they say the wrong thing it might negatively impact the stock price. Are there any people out there who remind you of the moguls of old?

A: I think, certainly, the Weinsteins [Harvey and Bob] of Miramax are a throwback to the old crapshooting moguls who were willing to take a chance. Happily, the Weinsteins take chances on very worthy projects. Without them, we’d have a pretty dull Academy Awards.

But the old studio heads were literally great gamblers. All day long they’d take chances on movies, on stars and directors, and then they’d play high-stakes poker at night. Coming, as so many of them did, from Eastern Europe, and many of them from out of the ghetto, they were close to the film audience. They knew what entertainment meant to people, and they used that understanding as a creative force.

Today, these neat businessmen who run Hollywood are pretty good at floating stock issues, and sometimes they even take a risk, but I don’t think any of them would admit to being a creative force. All the creative power is now outside the company: It comes from the directors and producers with the talent and initiative to put together a project. The studio just says yes or no, or these days maybe says, “We want to share the project with Paramount.”


Q: Having covered so many Academy Award shows, are their any special moments that stand out in your memory?

A: I remember the year that Marlon Brando won for “On the Waterfront.” He came backstage with Grace Kelly, and the two of them were standing next to each other. A photographer hollered out, “Hey Grace, would you kiss Marlon?” And she replied, “I think it would be better if he kissed me.” That was Grace, playing prim to the end.


Q: So how long are you going to keep going? Do you have any plans to retire?

A: My wife may, but I don’t. I get to write a glamorous story that might be on the front page of any newspaper in the world, so why quit? The scene is always changing; I get to interview some of the most beautiful and exciting people in the world. It’s what I always wanted to do, and I just can’t stop doing it.