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An Unsung Hero Of Hollywood

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by Leonard Maltin
March 17, 2014 6:28 PM
5 Comments
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Photo Courtesy of Matt Sayles/Associated Press

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)

In 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.

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5 Comments

  • Selise Eiseman | March 17, 2014 5:19 PMReply

    Bob Thomas was a treasure. His knowledge about the film industry was truly remarkable. One of his many endeavors was as the editor of ACTION, the official magazine of the Directors Guild of America and the edited collection published as a book, Directors in Action: Selections from Action, the Official Magazine of the Directors Guild of America with an introduction by Frank Capra, 1968. In it he had wonderful articles about the directors and assistant directors working at their craft and creating an art form. This was originally used as a textbook for film schools. I had a chance to know Bob when I worked at the DGA. He was always enthusiastic and never said a bad word about anyone. An excellent writer and an equally good editor. I'll miss you.

  • Nat Segaloff | March 17, 2014 4:09 PMReply

    When they say that someone is "a friend of the industry," they usually mean someone who has been bought. Not Bob Thomas. He knew the rules (hell, he made half of 'em) and always sided with the pubic and film history. And I understand from mutual friends that he never knew how good he was, or how much he was loved and respected. His accurate, perceptive coverage has enriched me and my writing for decades.

  • Bruce Kawin | March 17, 2014 4:00 PMReply

    Absolutely right. Glad you said it.

  • Jody Morgan | March 17, 2014 9:18 AMReply

    I found King Cohn at a second-hand book store several years ago and bought it because a quick flip-through promised a fun, informative, well-written book. Bob Thomas did not disappoint. Thanks for this tribute; I'll have to keep an eye out for his other books, particularly those about the Disneys.

  • Justin | March 17, 2014 8:57 AMReply

    I have his awesome biography on Walt as well as the 1991 version of his "Art of Animation" book. I hope to find and read his biography on Roy.

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