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PBS will showcase 'Pioneers of Primetime'

Sid Caesar, left, Mickey Rooney, Carl Reiner, Red Buttons, Rose Marie, Bruce Dumont and William Asher
Sid Caesar, left, Mickey Rooney, Carl Reiner, Red Buttons, Rose Marie, Bruce Dumont and William Asher
Mark Davis, Mathew Imaging

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Bob Hope a television pioneer? Not as far as Carl Reiner is concerned.

In November, PBS will telecast "Pioneers of Primetime," featuring some of the seminal figures of early TV — Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, Red Skelton, Rose Marie, Carl Reiner and many more.

The special also prominently features Bob Hope, whom Reiner — a genuine pioneer himself — feels doesn't really belong in the show. "I never thought of Bob Hope as a pioneer in television because he came to television after it was already established," said Reiner, whose own "pioneer" credits are impeccable — he was a writer and performer on Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" before creating, writing and producing "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Hope was already a huge movie and radio star when he came to television in 1952. "And I'll never forget how nervous he was because he was a radio performer," Reiner said. "I'm only putting it in perspective. Bob Hope was not a television pioneer. The television pioneer was Sid Caesar and Max Liebman and that bunch. (Hope) came along from radio three years later and never took it that seriously."

Reiner never used the word "lazy" when describing Hope as a television performer, but the implication was clearly there. On radio, Hope could read his script, and nobody would know.

On television, he did the same thing. And it's true — if you watch old tapes of Hope in the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, you can see him looking past the other actors instead of at them. He was reading from cue cards. "He was used to reading the script," Reiner said. "He didn't learn his lines. If you don't learn your lines, I don't take you seriously. We never had a card. We never had a thing."

Which is not to say that Reiner is not a Hope fan.

"Are you telling me you're knocking Bob Hope?" interjected Mickey Rooney — another huge movie star whose credentials as a television pioneer are somewhat suspect.

"Not knocking Bob Hope — (just) as a television pioneer," Reiner said. "He was the greatest motion-picture comedian. Every actor, including Woody Allen, said, 'My persona comes from Bob Hope.' We love Bob Hope as a motion-picture actor. He was funny. He was brilliant.

"But on television, he was one of the guys we objected to because in (acting opposite) him, he'd be looking at the cards, because he was used to radio."

Even Rooney admitted that Hope "always worked with cards."

Reiner added, "(Hope) never made it in television for me the way he did as a motion-picture star. He was not a pioneer. He was a pioneer radio performer. And when he went into television, he just took all of that technique. . . . And it wasn't television, it was radio."