By Rick Bentley

Tribune News Service

TV spotlight

“American Masters: This is Bob Hope” Available to stream on PBS

John Scheinfeld has put together intimate looks at numerous iconic figures during his lengthy career as a documentary filmmaker, including the Marx Brothers, The Bee Gees, Jonathan Winters, Bette Midler, Peter Sellers and John Coltrane. One of his most recent productions, “American Masters: This is Bob Hope,” is a “thanks for the memories” to the comedian who provided laughter to audiences around the world for eight decades.

It wasn’t a gift of a camera or a passion for film that provided the spark for Scheinfeld to devote his life to making such visual histories. It all began with a comic book.

As a 12-year-old growing up in Milwaukee, Scheinfeld was an avid collector of comic books. An advertisement in one offered recordings of two old radio shows — “The Shadow” and “The Lone Ranger” — for a dollar. He got the tape and became fascinated with radio dramas.

“I started to collect recordings of old radio shows — all kinds. Dramas. Comedies. You name it,” Scheinfeld says. “It not only gave me a real appreciation of storytelling and performance and writing and pacing. All of the elements of what I do now.

“Also, I will embarrass myself and my mother by saying there is a photograph of me when I was 7 or 8, sitting on the toilet reading a volume of the World Book. I was always fascinated by history. What happened. Why it happened.”

His collection of old radio shows included a tape of Hope radio broadcasts. Scheinfeld vividly recalls how impressed he was that Hope was ad-libbing so many funny lines that Bing Crosby laughed too hard to deliver his dialogue. Scheinfeld’s appreciation of Hope continued to grow through the comic’s movies and TV shows.

All that background went into the proposal Scheinfeld gave to “American Masters.” His plan was to spotlight Hope both as a massively successful global entertainer and as the comic icon who continued to work years beyond after his comedy career began to fade. That approach got him the OK and production started a year ago.

Scheinfeld had to make two versions of his documentary. An abridged version of the film aired on public television as part of the programming for pledge breaks in November. The director’s full cut of “This is Bob Hope” that includes 35 additional minutes of material was telecast in late December.

Both films cover Hope’s career from vaudeville to Broadway to film and television. There’s also plenty of time spent examining the charity work done by Hope and his commitment to entertaining troops through his USO tours, even when it meant going to dangerous locations. What Scheinfeld was able to do with his director’s cut is take more time to examine the highs and lows of Hope’s career. Scheinfeld laughs and adds that Hope was so successful that there was so much more he could have included even with an extended version.

Scheinfeld says, “Alongside an examination of Bob Hope’s extraordinary career achievements is a portrait of a gifted man with enormous personal contradictions. Even in the longer cut, I barely scratched the surface of his huge impact and influence.”

Some of his influence is seen through interviews with Woody Allen, Dick Cavett, Margaret Cho, Linda Hope (Bob Hope’s daughter), Kermit the Frog, Leonard Maltin, Conan O’Brien, Tom Selleck, Brooke Shields, Connie Stevens and biographer Richard Zoglin. Hope’s personal writings are voiced by Billy Crystal.

It was a good thing Scheinfeld had some knowledge of Hope because he had to deliver both versions of the documentary in nine months.

“It worked beyond endurance to get this done but I have to say it was a real pleasure. It was a lot easier because a lot of the preproduction time was spent screening TV and radio shows looking for the right clips to use in the film,” Scheinfeld says. “I had spent the previous 18 months working on my feature documentary on John Coltrane.

“That was a serious, thoughtful, intense experience. It was nice to follow that up with a project where I got to laugh every day.”

Over the years, Scheinfeld has turned his cameras on a wide variety of subjects including the 2006 release, “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” that showed the transition of the legendary singer/songwriter from musician to political activist. Along with being superstars in their chosen professions, the people he decides to document have one thing in common. The same passion to learn more about people, places and things that made him send a dollar to get two radio dramas or read the encyclopedia while in the toilet goes into each film he makes.

“We don’t make the kind of money you make for doing episodic television or a feature film. My philosophy always, when it comes to documentaries, is that if you are going to spend nine to 15 months with a project, you better love it,” Scheinfeld says. “If you look at every doc I have done, there is not one that I am not proud to have done.

“They are either a hero of mine or someone whose work I admire.”

Hope fills both categories.

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