An Unsung Hero Of Hollywood

An Unsung Hero Of Hollywood

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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Comments

Selise Eiseman

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

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

Absolutely right. Glad you said it.

Jody Morgan

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

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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