I was saddened to hear of Bob Thomas’ death on Friday at the age of 92—as a lifelong fan, admirer, and friend. His health had been failing in recent years, and he filed his last story for AP in 2010, I’m told. I doubt that anyone will ever come close to his “service record” in years to come, whether they’re covering Hollywood or any other news beat. Bob Thomas was a first-rate reporter and biographer, and a truly decent man. To commemorate his passing, I’m reprinting a tribute I wrote in 2009, without any changes or updates. Hollywood is poorer for his passing.
You’ll see lots of people clutching awards at this time of year but I
was particularly happy to see Bob Thomas honored at the annual Publicists Guild
luncheon for his long service to the community. He’s been covering the
Hollywood beat for the Associated Press since 1944—and he’s still on the
payroll. He even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I met Bob when I was
16 years old and publishing my fanzine Film Fan Monthly. He had just written
the best movie book I’d ever read, King Cohn, the landmark biography of
Columbia Pictures foul-mouthed founder Harry Cohn, and his publisher arranged
for me to interview Bob during a book tour in New York City. We hit it off,
stayed in touch, and I wound up doing research for his subsequent biographies
of David O. Selznick and Irving Thalberg. Bob was uncommonly kind and generous
to me when I was just getting my feet wet. In recent years I’ve turned to him
as a first-hand source of Hollywood lore and he’s never let me down. (His
father, George Thomas, worked for producer Thomas Ince at the time of his death
and said the stories about him being shot on his yacht were preposterous. The
elder Thomas was also responsible for launching one of the most famous junkets
in Hollywood history when he sent out a trainload of Warner Bros. stars on the
42nd St. Special)
his early days at AP Bob thought he would stand out from the crowd if he did
“participation stunts” that also enabled him to provide an exclusive photo with
each column he filed. He ran a tape measure around Betty Grable’s waist after
she returned to work from maternity leave, for instance, and (as you can see
from this still) had Jack Carson demonstrate how to take a pie in the face on
the set of The Good Humor Man, receiving the approval of director Lloyd Bacon.
When I made my first trip to Hollywood in 1968 Bob was the only person I knew here—and he enabled me to meet one of my heroes, that wonderful comedic actor Billy Gilbert. Billy was one of the few show-business figures Bob stayed in touch with because, as he explained, he learned early on that although he knew a great many people he understood that they were not his friends. I’ve never forgotten that simple wisdom. (The one person he did count as a friend was comedian and home-movie entrepreneur Ken Murray.)
Bob Thomas’ books fill an entire shelf. He’s written novels, ghost-written star memoirs, and even collaborated on a book back in 1957 called Get In the Swim with Esther Williams. King Cohn is a classic, as is Walt Disney and the Art of Animation, the first book I ever read on the subject. I especially recommend Winchell, Golden Boy: The Untold Story of William Holden and his revelatory biography Building A Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire.
So here’s to you, Bob. I hope the AP continues to call on you for the straight story for many more years to come.