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March 14, 2014

Bob Thomas, Dean of Hollywood Reporters, Dies

Bob Thomas, the longtime Associated Press writer and dean of Hollywood
reporters who covered a record 66 Oscar ceremonies, reported on the
biggest stars, from Clark Gable to Tom Cruise, and filed AP's bulletin
that Robert F. Kennedy had been shot, died Friday. He was 92.

Thomas, a last link to Hollywood's studio age who retired in 2010,
died of age-related illnesses at his longtime Encino, Calif., home,
his daughter Janet Thomas said.

A room filled with his interview subjects would have made for the most
glittering of ceremonies: Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe,
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Groucho Marx and Marlon Brando,
Walt Disney and Fred Astaire. He interviewed rising stars (James
Dean), middle-aged legends (Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson) and elder
institutions (Bob Hope).

Thomas' career began in 1944, when Hollywood was still a small,
centralized community, tightly controlled by a handful of studios, and
continued well into the 21st century. During his nearly seven decades
writing for the AP, Thomas reviewed hundreds of films and television
shows, compiled hundreds of celebrity obituaries and wrote numerous
retrospective pieces on Hollywood and how it had changed.

He was the author of nearly three dozen books, including biographies
of Disney, Brando and Crawford and an acclaimed portrait of studio
mogul Harry Cohn, "King Cohn." He wrote, produced and appeared in a
handful of television specials on the Academy Awards and was a guest
on numerous television programs including "The Tonight Show," ''Good
Morning America" and "Nightline." His biographies of reclusive
billionaire Howard Hughes and the comedy team of Abbott and Costello
were made into television movies.

He is listed twice in Guinness World Records, for most consecutive
Academy Awards shows covered by an entertainment reporter and for
longest career as an entertainment reporter (1944-2010).

In 1988, he became the first reporter-author awarded a star on
Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

But one of his biggest stories had nothing to do with entertainment.

Helping out during the 1968 presidential election, Thomas had been
assigned to cover Sen. Kennedy on the night the New York Democrat won
the California primary. Minutes after declaring victory, Kennedy was
shot to death in the kitchen of Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel.

"I was waiting in the press room for Kennedy to arrive when I heard
what sounded like the popping of balloons in the hotel kitchen,"
Thomas would recount years later.

"I rushed into the kitchen where men were screaming and women
sobbing," he recalled. "I jumped onto a pile of kitchen trays and saw
Kennedy lying on the floor, his head bloody."

He ran to a phone and delivered the bulletin to The Associated Press.

As the son of a newspaper editor turned Hollywood press agent, Robert
Joseph Thomas seemed destined to become an entertainment writer from
his earliest days. In junior high school and high school he wrote
entertainment columns for the campus newspaper, and in college his
favorite reading was the industry trade paper Daily Variety.

But when he joined the AP in Los Angeles in 1943, it was with
aspirations of becoming a war correspondent. Instead, the wire service
named him its Fresno, Calif., correspondent, a job he gave up after
little more than a year.

"It gets so damn hot in Fresno in the summer and nothing much ever
happens there," he once told a colleague.

He returned to the AP's LA bureau in 1944 and was soon named its
entertainment reporter. He was also told that the byline he'd been
using -- Robert J. Thomas -- had to go.

"Too formal for a young guy who's going to work the Hollywood beat,"
he said the AP's bureau chief told him. "From now on your byline is
'Bob Thomas.'"

Soon he would become a ubiquitous presence in Hollywood, attending
awards shows, wandering studio back lots or going from table to table
at the Polo Lounge, Musso and Frank and other favored Hollywood
hangouts of the day. The gentlemanly, soft-spoken reporter with the
wry sense of humor rarely had trouble getting people to talk to him
and enjoyed access to the stars that modern journalists rarely attain,
whether visiting with Nicholson at his home or chatting on the set
with Tracy and Hepburn.

Although he insisted he never became friends with the people he
covered, Thomas did strike up close, long-lasting acquaintanceships
with many, and he had the anecdotes to prove it.

There was the time he tried, unsuccessfully, to match the
hard-drinking Richard Burton drink for drink on the set of the 1964
film "Night of the Iguana."

Another time, he showed up for an interview with Betty Grable armed
with a tape measure. He had been sent, he told the actress, to
determine if her figure had suffered during her recent pregnancy.
Grable good naturedly let him measure her.

"Can you imagine doing that with Michelle Pfeiffer today?" he once
asked. "In those days, it really seemed like a playground."

Thomas even received fan mail from the stars. Soon after her marriage
to actor John Agar in 1950, Shirley Temple wrote: "John and I want you
to know that we are very grateful to you for the manner in which you
handled the story on our wedding."

Some sent telegrams: "Thanks for sending the article to me; I got a
kick out of reading it," Jimmy Durante wrote via Western Union in
1951. "Boy, you're great."

But Thomas also had his share of run-ins.

Doris Day and Frank Sinatra went months without talking to him after
he quoted them candidly in stories, and Tracy cut off contact for
years when something Thomas said about him offended the Oscar-winning
actor. The fiercely private Brando never spoke with him again after
Thomas published the biography "Marlon."

His encyclopedic knowledge of the industry was well appreciated by his
colleagues. A former AP editor, Jim Lagier, would recall that Thomas
had a filing system at his home that rivaled that of any news bureau.

"Because if you call Bob Thomas at two o'clock in the morning and say,
'Bob, Mary Smith has died,' he would say, 'Mary Smith,' and then,
suddenly you could hear the filing cabinets were opening. He would
start dictating the lead," Lagier told the AP in 2008 during an oral
history interview.

Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the AP, worked with Thomas in
the Los Angeles bureau in the early 1980s.

"Bob was an old-fashioned Hollywood reporter and he knew absolutely
everyone," she said. "He had a double-helping of impish charm with the
stars, but back at the office, he was the quiet guy who slipped into a
desk at the back and poked at the keyboard for a while, then handed in
a crisp and knowing story soon delivered to movie fans around the
world.

"Some days, you'd even get a smile out of him before he headed out the
door again."

Through the years, Thomas' enthusiasm for his profession never waned.

"I get to interview some of the most beautiful people in the world,"
he said in 1999. "It's what I always wanted to do, and I just can't
stop doing it."

Thomas is survived by his wife of 67 years, Patricia; daughters Nancy
Thomas, Janet Thomas and Caroline Thomas; and three grandchildren.

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