Born in the suburbs of London in 1903 - "My parents were English, we were too poor to be British" - Hope grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, as a tough kid disinterested in school. (Though he never finished high school, he would eventually receive 54 honorary doctorates.) In the 1920s he became a traveling vaudeville fixture, first as a dancer, then as a comedian known for his quick wit and rapid-fire delivery. In the 1930s he made the leap to the Broadway stage, national radio, and Hollywood films - decades ahead of his time, he capitalized on the idea of exploiting media synergies to cross-promote various enterprises.

By the time World War II began for the United States in 1941, Hope already seemed to be everywhere. But his wartime tours of military bases and hospitals in the United States and abroad would transform him into a legend, leading to shows for U.S. soldiers covering five wars - World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and Gulf War - and come to define not just his career, but his entire persona. Between 1934 and 1996 he appeared in almost 70 films and numerous TV shows, winning more than 2,000 awards and citations, including the Medal of Merit (the United States' highest civilian honor) from President Dwight Eisenhower, the Congressional Gold Medal from President John Kennedy (who as a World War II officer had watched one of those rainy shows in the Solomon Islands), and even a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth. But it was the 1997 act of Congress that made Hope an "honorary veteran" - the first and only American ever so honored - that gilded his career.

"I've been given many awards in my lifetime," he said. "But to be numbered among the men and women I admire most is the greatest honor I have ever received."