The 20 Best Bobs in History
By Jake Rossen
What makes for a great Bob? In the history of culture and civilization, the name Bob has been synonymous with the mundane. Bob might be your insurance agent; Bob might be a neighbor obsessed with lawn care. The United States has never had a president named Bob. History is lousy with Bobs that have gone unheralded.
No more. As part of Mental Floss’s 20th anniversary, we’ve gone bobbing for some of the most remarkable short-for-Roberts in modern history. (With apologies to Robert Frost, only people who typically answered to Bob qualify.) A compelling Bob is a metaphor for the kind of information that proves most satisfying—superficially undistinguished, but possessed of a deeper and more fascinating story. “Robert,” after all, comes from the German Hrodebert, or “bright fame.” These Bobs shine more brightly than the rest. In no particular order ...
1. Bob Hoover
Top gun? Try Top Bob. Stories of heroism during wartime are often incredible—“war hero” is, after all, a lofty title—but Bob Hoover more than lived up to his reputation. Hoover was a World War II fighter pilot who flew a total of 58 missions for the Army Air Forces. On February 9, 1944, he took off on his 59th—and was shot down over the ocean near southern France, after which he spent more than a year in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Fleeing to a nearby civilian property, he and a friend acquired a gun and then an abandoned German plane, which they discovered had a full tank of gas. Hoover effectively hijacked it—his friend didn’t want to get on board—and flew to safety, though he later expressed concern Allied forces might want to shoot down an enemy plane first and ask questions later.
Hoover made aviation his life and even piloted the plane that tailed Chuck Yeager when Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. Hoover also flew stunt planes and worked as an instructor, crossing paths with everyone from astronaut Neil Armstrong to Harrison Ford. He died aged 94 in 2016.
2. Bob Barker
From 1972 to 2007, amiable game show host Barker emceed The Price Is Right, CBS’s nearly indestructible daytime hit that charges contestants with guessing the retail price of consumer items without going over. While that’s fine, it was Barker’s ceaseless advocacy for animal welfare that elevates his Bob status. Starting in 1979, Barker began reminding viewers to “have your pets spayed or neutered,” helping normalize what was once an uncommon practice. Barker even donated $1 million to Columbia Law School to fund studies into animal rights.
3. Bob Woodward
Unraveling one of the great political scandals of our times fell into the hands of Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, who, with colleague Carl Bernstein, exposed the break-in at the Watergate complex that led directly to the office of then-president Richard Nixon. Woodward shared in the paper’s Pulitzer Prizes and became synonymous with incendiary investigative journalism. In 1976, he was portrayed by another notable Bob—Redford—in All the President’s Men.
4. Bob Vila
Decades before there were entire cable channels devoted to home improvement, bearded and be-flanneled Bob Vila was our guide to renovations and remodels. Vila got his start caring for old houses in New England when producers asked if he’d like to host a show. This Old House made its PBS debut in 1979 and Vila became a household name. Since then, Vila has headlined a number of shows, endorsed products, and generally made the prospect of ripping out drywall less daunting for the do-it-yourselfer.
5. Bob Marley
There are cool musicians, and then there are musicians that other musicians find cool. Bob Marley was and is the latter, a reggae icon who put his stamp on the ‘70s music scene even when he wasn’t on stage. (Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff” was originally a Marley tune.) His 1984 collection Legend became the best-selling reggae album of all time, a fitting legacy for the late singer, who had passed away in 1981.
6. Bob Kohler
In 2007, the LGBTQ+ community mourned the loss of 81-year-old Bob Kohler, who left behind a legacy of gay rights activism. The World War II veteran was on the ground for the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which pitted patrons of a gay bar in New York City against overzealous police officers. The incident sparked a lifelong commitment to fighting for equality: Kohler founded the Gay Liberation Front and was an active presence in civil rights. Kohler never abandoned the fight: In 1999, when he was in his seventies, he was arrested during a protest of the police killing of unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo. “I do not equate my oppression with the oppression of blacks and Latinos,” he said at the time. “You can’t. It is not the same struggle, but it is one struggle. And, if my being here as a longtime gay activist can influence other people in the gay community, it’s worth getting arrested.”
7. Greyfriars Bobby
There are good boys and good Bobs, and then there’s the best boy of all Bobs—Greyfriars Bobby. The Skye terrier canine is revered in his home of Edinburgh, Scotland, for his unyielding loyalty to his owner, John Gray. When Gray, a night watchman, died in 1858, Bobby spent the next 14 years of his life patrolling and guarding his master’s grave at Greyfriars Cemetery, giving him his nickname. He would leave only to eat. When he passed in 1872, he was buried at Greyfriars, just 75 yards from his best friend’s resting place.
8. Bobby McFerrin
Of all the Bobbys (Darin, Sherman, Rydell, Brown) who had an impact on music, why Bobby McFerrin? While his discography is known to many only for 1988’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” the tune is so infectious, so optimistic, and so memorable that it’s hard to argue he’s been the Bobby most responsible for personifying happiness. Though it sounds like the song has instrumental backing, McFerrin actually performed it a cappella—and it became the first a cappella song to become a no. 1 hit on the Billboard chart. But singling out “Don’t Worry” does a disservice to the talent of McFerrin, who often performs improvisational concerts in which he conducts orchestras and blends his own style with classical pieces off the cuff.
9. Bob Fosse
Dance choreography owes much of its evolution to the work of Bob Fosse (1927-1987), who energized Broadway with shows like 1972’s Pippin and popularized “jazz hands.” Through works like Cabaret (1972) and Chicago (1975), Fosse’s perfectionism always shone through; his blending of dance, humor, and sexuality helped usher in a new era that informed the generation of MTV performers (and viewers) that followed. After all, it’s not often that choreographers become household names, or notable Bobs.
10. Bob Ross
The human meditation machine and painter, Bob Ross (1942-1995) lulled generations of PBS viewers into a drowsy comfort zone with The Joy of Painting (which aired from 1983 to 1994). With each happy little tree, Ross transmitted a kind of serenity that far outstripped his considerable artistic ability: To watch Ross paint was to watch happiness itself unfold. “We don't make mistakes,” Ross once said. “We just have happy accidents.”
11. British Bobbies
In 1929, Sir Robert Peel organized London’s first police force. Peel’s men wore tall wool hats with badges, a short club, and a whistle. The concept of modern policing spread throughout the Western world, and Peel garnered such recognition for his concept that British citizens took to calling them either “Peelers” or “Bobbies” after him.
12. Bob Beamon
In the history of aviation, Bob Beamon deserves honorary mention. The Olympic track and field athlete shattered the world record for the long jump at the 1968 Mexico City Games, propelling himself 29 feet and 2.5 inches—obliterating the previous standard by almost 2 feet. It was so far that it was past the optical beam used by officials to judge distance; someone had to get out a tape measure instead. In sports, where records can disappear in a blink, Beamon’s jump stood until Mike Powell went further in the 1991 Tokyo World Championships by 2 inches. Credit to Powell, but 23 years is a long hang time.
13. Bob Dylan
Some think he’s more mumbler than musician. Others think he’s a musical genius. For over a half-century, the man born Robert Zimmerman has been leading a lyrical life both on and off-stage, personifying the counter-culture of the 1960s with hits like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” The Nobel Committee recognized his contributions to the arts in 2016.
14. Bob Odenkirk
The true test of a performer is whether they can make you like a despicable character. Bob Odenkirk has passed that test for well over a decade. The writer and actor first took up the role of shady lawyer Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad (2008-2013) before taking over the screen completely in the Goodman prequel series Better Call Saul (2015-2022). As Goodman, Odenkirk is conniving, scheming, and comfortable with ethical lapses—yet he’s also strangely loyal to his clientele. While most people know Odenkirk via Goodman, he’s reinvented himself many times over—first as a writer for Saturday Night Live, then as the co-author of his own sketch program, Mr. Show with Bob and David (1995-1998), and then again as an action star in 2021’s Nobody. That certain viewers may not know Odenkirk the comedian as Goodman, or Goodman as the comedian, or the action-movie guy as either points to Odenkirk’s value as the most versatile of Bobs.
15. Bob the Cat
There are undoubtedly many cats named Bob who have made a difference in their owners’ lives, but we single out Bob the Cat for his documented support of musician James Bowen, who was struggling with drug addiction and credits his adopting of Bob in 2007 as an act that helped to save his life. Bob provided emotional support and later reached others as part of the promotional push behind The Big Issue, a magazine that helped fund efforts to assist people experiencing homelessness in the UK. (Putting Bob on the cover would spike sales of that issue.) Bowen related their story in his 2012 memoir, A Street Cat Named Bob, and reiterated the feline’s influence after Bob passed in 2020. “Bob saved my life,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
16. Bob Moses
Equality and education. Those were the two tenets in the life of Bob Moses (1935-2021) since the 1960s, when he was working as a civil rights activist in Mississippi demanding under-privileged community members get out to vote. After majoring in philosophy at Harvard, in 1982 Moses went on to initiate The Algebra Project, which recruits poorly-performing students in math and provides them with a four-year program to turn their numbers—and potentially their lives—around, perpetuating the idea that education is as much a civil right as any other.
17. Bob Mackie
No Bob has ever had more of an impact on fashion and costume design than Bob Mackie, who’s spent decades outfitting some of the biggest icons in pop culture. Mackie sketched the dress worn by Marilyn Monroe when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy. He’s dressed Diana Ross, Joan Rivers, and Elton John. And it was Mackie who paved the way for fashion-as-theater, with the increasingly outlandish looks of Lady Gaga and Cher influenced by Mackie’s sartorial work. Cher once described Mackie’s genius this way: “Bob’s sketchbook is a magical unending universe.”
18. The Bob Cut
Hairstyles only rarely achieve timelessness, but the bob might be an exception. This sensible ‘do, which usually features a short cut that frames the face, was downright scandalous when ballroom dancer Irene Castle showed off her cut in 1915. (French actress Polaire may have been the first public figure to sport it circa the 1890s.) Women were expected to wear their hair long; chopping it was a potent rejection of gender norms. In fact, some stylists initially refused to facilitate the look, forcing women to visit barbers instead. When they finally caught up to the times, the beauty industry exploded, with salons going from 5000 in 1920 to 21,000 by 1924. For its radical trendsetting, the bob makes the cut. (An honorable mention to the bobby pin, so named for its ability to keep a bob cut fixed in place.)
19. Bobbi Brown
In the beauty industry, no Bob stands taller than Bobbi Brown, the make-up artist behind the enduring cosmetics brand that bears her name. Brown got her start by bucking the excess of the 1980s, opting for natural hues over loud colors. Brown knew flourish—she had gotten her start as a theatrical make-up artist—but correctly predicted that the glamour of the decade would soon give way to minimalist looks. When she first moved to New York City in 1980, few knew her name. Thanks to her gregariousness, she built relationships with cosmetics makers, buyers, and magazine editors, and even solicited the opinions of strangers to perfect her line. By 1995, when she sold her Bobbi Brown Cosmetics company to Estée Lauder for upwards of $70 million, things had changed. For her entrepreneurship and artistry, Bobbi stands alone.
20. Bobby Sliwa
Patrons entering Bobby’s Hideaway Café in Carlsbad, California, find themselves in Bob heaven. Owner Bobby Sliwa decided to reinvent the familiar diner tradition of having signed photos of celebrities on the wall by mandating he would only put up notable Bobs and Roberts—Robert Conrad, Robert Wagner, Bob Saget—and even a replica Bob’s Big Boy mascot. You'll even find a poster of the 1991 Bill Murray comedy What About Bob?