BOB HOPE had just finished taping his first TV special of the season - based on his bestseller, ``Don't Shoot, It's Only Me'' - airing tomorrow, 10-11 p.m., on NBC. He leaned back in his favorite wicker chair in the family room of his San Fernando Valley home, and slipped his hands behind the back of his head. ``It's a good feeling,'' he said almost to himself. Then, he chuckled. ``If I had my life to live over again, I wouldn't have the time.''
In his career, he has traveled nine million miles, starred in 52 movies, and is currently celebrating his 53rd anniversary with NBC and his 41st year on television. In 1988, at the celebration of his 50 years in radio and television with NBC, he was introduced as ``the 24-carat king of comedy.'' And when President Kennedy awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal, he called Bob, ``America's most prized ambassador of goodwill throughout the world.''
Of all his nicknames, he thinks ``Rapid Robert'' fits him best. ``When I was a boxer in Cleveland, they called me `Packy,''' he says. ``But most of the referees decided `Hope-less' was more accurate. In 1923 when I first stepped on stage, I was frozen with fear. I think someone called out, `Hey, Ski Nose, start moving.'''
Now 87, retirement is not on his horizon. He logs 200 working days each year. ``What's the secret of my energy? I discovered on those overseas flights to take catnaps. Even now, I'll be on my way to the airport, and I'll grab a few ZZZs in the backseat. Or, if I have to wait for a lighting problem on the set to be solved, I'll doze for five minutes. I'll wake up ready to take on the world, or at least half of it.''
Rapid Robert is tack sharp and eager to talk. This is a man who had been in Dallas the day before autographing 400 copies of his book. ``One woman bought 21 copies. I asked her, `Are you opening your own store?'''
He has a one-liner for every situation, of course. ``I was going nowhere in vaudeville and clubs,'' he says, ``until I decided to try something new. The leading columnist in those days was Walter Winchell and he had a rapid-fire style. I decided to hit the audience with one gag after another and not wait for them to laugh. Just keep firing one-liners. It used up lots of jokes. Even today I'm kidded for having the largest writing staff in town.
``My first movie was a little two-reel masterpiece called, `Going Spanish,' which was shot on Long Island. When Walter Winchell asked me if it was any good, I replied, `It's so bad, when the cops catch Dillinger, they're going to make him sit through it twice.'
``The producer read my comments and dropped my option. That's the last time I'll be a film critic. I had some Broadway hits, beginning in 1933 with `Roberta,' then `Ziegfeldck sp Follies,' and `Red, Hot and Blue.' When Paramount put me in `The Big Broadcast of 1938,' my career started to move.''
Hope never had a clue the song from that movie, ``Thanks for the Memory'' would be his theme for the next 52 years.
His trips overseas to entertain the troops are still vivid memories. He remembers doing a special show for a company of Marines, and the commanding general telling him that they were going into battle the next day.
The report came back that 60 percent of the company had been killed. He once got to a beachhead to entertain the troops only minutes after it had been secured.
And, he still remembers waiting at the Saigon airport for the cue card boy, who made it 10 minutes late. The hotel was bombed before they arrived, and the general later showed Bob a confiscated communique found in a disbanded rubber plantation that was decoded. It read: ``Missed Bob Hope and company by 10 minutes due to misfiring of bomb device.'''
``Don't Shoot, It's Only Me,'' co-authored with good friend and comedy writer Mel Shavelson, is his 10th book and is subtitled, ``Bob Hope's Comedy History of the United States - 1938-1990.''
Why did he begin with 1938? ``That's when I moved to Los Angeles and started my radio show. They paid $2,500 a week, and that was for the band, the guests, the writers, the whole thing,'' Hope says
``The show we just taped is one hour, which really means 48 minutes. The monologue runs eight minutes, and that's the last thing we tape; we want it to be timely.''
Tomorrow's special is loaded with film clips, new skits, stars, presidents, and athletes. The writing is all done in the office next door. where Hope keeps all of his trophies. awards, plaques, even his honorary Academy Award Looking around, one isn't surprised he is in the Guinness Book of Records as the ``world's most honored entertainer.''
But, what about those trips with Miss Universe, Brooksck sp Shields, Connie Stevens, Ann Jillian? ``How would you like to be boarding a plane for overseas with the Golddiggers, Miss World, and Raquel Welch, and have your wife come up to the plane bringing your underwear!''
His family is very much a part of his career. ``I was leaving for a Christmas tour of overseas bases, and my son, Tony, was sitting in this very wicker chair I'm sitting in now. He was eight years old, and when I said, `Good-bye Tony,' he looked up and said, `Good-bye Bob Hope.'
``As soon as I returned from that trip, I decided to explain to my kids just why I was away every Christmas. I took Tony with me on the next trip, and then Nora, Linda, and Kelly. ''When my wife, Dolores, came with me, I asked her to come on stage. She sang `White Christmas,' and the soldiers loved it. She sang it in every show we did on that tour.''
Bob and his wife Dolores were married on Feb. 19, 1934, in Erie, Penn. ``George Murphy and I were in a musical on Broadway in 1933 called `Roberta.' He asked me if I'd like to hear a girl singer, Dolores Reade, who was at a nearby club. One look at Dolores, and I was hooked.''
George Murphy, actor/singer/dancer, former US senator from Calfornia, introduced Bob and Dolores. ``I've forgiven him,'' Hope kidded, ``but Dolores still hasn't.''
Hope has already selected the title for his 11th book: ``You Belong To the Public.'' ``I was in Orlando a few weeks ago, and a woman told me, `You look just like you look!' I'll never forget the evening, I was far from home, and took a walk. I stopped at this little all-night cafe for a glass of milk. I sat at the counter, and this waitress kept looking at me, then, she'd look away, she did this three times, until she finally asked, `Which one is you?'
``This new book will be more about me. You have to write these days or your kids will beat you to it.''
Hope has met and told jokes about the past nine presidents of the US, yet he's never been reprimanded. As one White House aide admitted, ``How can you get angry at an American treasure?''