Bob Thomas, a Los Angeles-based reporter and columnist who covered entertainment for the Associated Press for more than six decades, writing compelling, human and often humorous stories about Hollywood’s glittering and glamorous, has died. He was 92.
Thomas, who also wrote biographies of many of the stars and studio chiefs of Hollywood’s Golden Age, including Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, William Holden and Walt Disney, died Friday of age-related causes at his home in Encino, his daughter Nancy said.
The son of a film industry publicist, Thomas began his Hollywood assignment for the AP in 1944. Over the decades, he became a fixture at the Oscars — he covered a record 66 consecutive Oscar ceremonies — and on the studio backlots, churning out as many as six columns a week for the wire service as he wrote about the movie business and the lives of its luminaries, including their marriages, deaths, births and scandals. (The first trial he covered was the paternity lawsuit against Charlie Chaplin.)
Thomas, who continued working until 2010, outlasted most of his entertainment journalism competitors, including Army Archerd of Daily Variety and Vernon Scott of UPI, with whom he enjoyed a fierce but friendly rivalry. In 1945, Thomas had given Archerd his first break, hiring him to compile items for Thomas’ AP entertainment column.
Over the course of his career, Thomas witnessed and chronicled the end of the studio-contract system, the blacklists of the McCarthy era and the acquisition by corporations of Hollywood’s storied movie studios. He also covered the occasional non-Hollywood news story.
Called upon to help out on an election night in June 1968, Thomas was waiting in a makeshift press room for Robert F. Kennedy when the Democratic presidential candidate was gunned down at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel.
“I heard the shots and ran into the kitchen and saw that ghastly scene,” Thomas told the Los Angeles Times in a 1990 interview. “Rosey Grier, I think it was, was holding Bobby’s body.” Thomas quickly found a phone and called in a lead, giving the AP a 10-minute jump on the tragedy.
Mainly, though, he told stories, thousands of stories, about Hollywood, launching his career in the 1940s when the studios granted reporters almost unfettered access to the stars and ending it in an era of much tighter controls.
“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,” Thomas said in a 1999 Times interview, speaking fondly of that earlier period. “You could just walk from table to table, picking up an item [for the column] here and an item there.”
Thomas said then that he had no plans to retire: “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.”
The writer often said his favorite interview subjects were Crawford and Humphrey Bogart. “They always had something to say, and Bogie loved to be controversial,” Thomas told The Times in 1990. “He’d call me up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Let’s touch a nerve.’ ”
Marilyn Monroe was also high on his list, not least for her sense of humor, he maintained. “She was a great interview, just terrific. And funny,” he told the Los Angeles Daily News in 1997. “You’d ask her, ‘What did you have on when you posed for the calendar?’ And she’d say, ‘The radio.’ Or, ‘Chanel No. 5.’ ... But in those days, there wasn’t any star that wasn’t available for an interview.”
That more familiar age was also evident in anecdotes told about — and by — Thomas. Seeking to engage celebrities in ways that would bring out their personalities, he surprised actress June Haver one day with a kiss, saying he was checking the preferred height for a leading lady. He also famously measured the waistline of pinup queen Betty Grable when she returned to work after childbirth. She enjoyed the stunt, he said.
Robert Joseph Thomas was born in San Diego on Jan. 26, 1922, one of six children of George H. and Marguerite Thomas. He grew up in Los Angeles, where his father, a former newspaperman, worked as a publicist for a series of studios, including Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount and Columbia.
Thomas credited his father, publicity director at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, with creating the press junket, hatching the idea for a glittering, cross-country train trip that allowed stars of the 1933 film “42nd Street” to promote their movie to local reporters. Bob Thomas later benefited from a number of such junkets, he said, although the AP has a policy of paying its own way.
During World War II, Thomas was in his senior year at UCLA when his reserve army unit was called to active duty. He served stateside but was discharged early because of a prewar injury, then joined the Associated Press, hoping to become a war correspondent. Instead, he was assigned to cover Fresno, but the AP soon brought him back to Los Angeles, where he launched his entertainment column.
In 1947, he married Patricia Thompson, who survives him along with daughters Nancy, Janet and Caroline and three grandchildren.
His books, more than 30 in all, include biographies of most of Hollywood’s founding studio chiefs, among them Harry Cohn and David O. Selznick, as well as Howard Hughes, Marlon Brando, Bing Crosby and others.
In 1988, Thomas was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, directly across from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which he said was among his favorite childhood haunts.
“I was a movie-crazy kid,” he said at the ceremony, according to UPI. “And I feel like a movie-crazy kid still.”
Trounson is a former Times staff writer.