When Bob Hope moved into television, he lost the opportunity to hold his script in his hand , something he had gotten used to working in radio. The presentation would look too stiff to his audience. He tried to memorize his monologues, but that proved to be too cumbersome of a task and it took away from his golf game. The solution was cue cards, or idiot cards as they are known in the industry. This worked well for the performer, but was hazardous for others. On one of Hope's early NBC broadcasts a well meaning assistant director held up the cards so his star could read them, then tossed them back over his shoulder almost decapitating several members of the studio audience.
Idiot cards are a way for performers to lose the respect of their co-stars. James Caan, Robert Duvall and the rest of the cast of the 1972 classic, The Godfather , were thrilled to meet the star of the movie Marlon Brando. Actor Lenny Montana, who played the thuggish character Luca Brasi was so in awe of Brando he kept fumbling his lines when they both shared the same scenes. Director Francis Ford Coppola made it work by having the character of Luca nervously rehearse what he was going to say prior to meeting the Don, making the situation appear seamless. But if Montana was willing, if unable to learn his lines, Brando was not. In his scenes there were cue cards everywhere, causing Duvall to yell at him,' Marlon, why don't you learn your lines you fat #*^%*@!'
Brando stubbornly refused to change. A year later when performing in the controversial and sex charged Last Tango In Paris he wrote some of his lines on the bottom of his shoe and in a few scenes had to hop around awkwardly to read them.
For some actors, idiot cards are the ultimate security blanket. Shortly before he died the great John Barrymore had a scene where he only had to deliver one line: 'Yes'. Dutifully, his personal assistant stood ready to hold up a cue card. One of the film techs informed the director that Barrymore's helper was standing in the way, they would not be able to light the scene properly. The director waited for his star to arrive. 'Jack, Can I talk to you?' 'Certainly.' 'Would it be possible for you do this one scene without your idiot card?' 'Absolutely Not'. The director sighed,' Jack you only have to say yes, that's it. What happens if I order your friend to leave?' Barrymore looked at him coldly. 'I might say no.' In the end new lighting arrangements were made.