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Thomas covered Hollywood heyday

By HILLEL ITALIE and JOHN ROGERS Associated Press

LOS ANGELES - He was the institutional memory for the movies at The Associated Press and a passage for the world to a Hollywood both longed for and long gone.

Bob Thomas, who died Friday at his Encino, Calif., home at age 92, started reporting when Clark Gable was a middle-aged king, Bette Davis was in her big-eyed prime, and Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall were emerging stars. "Independent" movies were a rarity during the studio-controlled era and celebrity gossip was dispensed by rival columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons rather than Internet sites.

Younger reporters knew the names and the credits, but Thomas knew the people and lived the history. He could tell you what Jack Lemmon liked to drink at parties or recall Marilyn Monroe's farcical inability to show up on time, or speak fondly of his times with "Greg" Peck.

Around the country, and beyond, at least one generation of movie fans learned the latest about Hollywood by reading Bob Thomas. He interviewed most of the great screen actors of the 20th century, among them Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise.

When a story ran, Thomas often heard directly from the stars. Soon after her marriage to actor John Agar in 1945, 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."

A postcard from Rita Hayworth passed on regards from Orson Welles. Bing Crosby shared warm thoughts about Bob Hope. Groucho Marx noted that Thomas' interview with him had been syndicated in 400 newspapers. "But as faithful as I am to you in my fashion, I read them all," Groucho wrote to him.

Thomas worked well into his 80s, covering a record 66 consecutive Academy Awards shows, beginning in 1944. During his nearly seven decades writing for the AP, Thomas reviewed hundreds of films and television shows and wrote numerous retrospective pieces on Hollywood and how it had changed.

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, Thomas became the first reporter-author awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and on Friday, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce placed a wreath of flowers on the star, located in front of the Dolby Theatre, home of the Oscars.

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.

He returned to the AP's Los Angeles bureau in 1944 and was soon named its entertainment reporter.

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.

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