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Joey Bishop Dead at 89

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Joey Bishop, the deadpan comedian who was ABC's answer to NBC's late-night talk show king Johnny Carson in the late 1960s and was the last surviving member of Frank Sinatra's legendary Rat Pack, has died. He was 89.

Bishop, who had been in failing health for some time, died Wednesday night at his home in Newport Beach, according to his longtime friend, publicist Warren Cowan. An adept ad-libber with a dry, underplayed sense of humor, Bishop achieved his greatest fame in the 1960s.

He was master of ceremonies for President Kennedy's inaugural gala and joined Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford for the Rat Pack's historic "summit" meetings on stage at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.

Time magazine referred to Bishop as that swinging, fun-loving group's "top banana."

Jack Benny called him "one of the funniest men I've ever seen."

And Danny Thomas was so impressed with Bishop, whose catch phrase was "son of a gun," he had a weekly situation comedy built around him.

For four years, 1961 to '65, Bishop starred in the situation comedy "The Joey Bishop Show." The first season, he played Joey Barnes, a low-level public relations man living with his overbearing mother; Marlo Thomas played his kid sister. But in the second season, the format and supporting cast changed, and Joey Barnes became a married, late-night talk show host in New York City.

It was a fitting fictional occupation for the quick-witted Bishop, who had become nationally known in the late '50s for his regular late-night appearances on "The Jack Paar Show." (Paar once likened Bishop's dour demeanor to that of "an untipped waiter.")

Bishop frequently substituted as host for Paar and later for Carson. In 1967, ABC signed him to host his own 90-minute late-night talk-fest.

"The Joey Bishop Show," with Regis Philbin as Bishop's announcer-sidekick, ran for 2 61/27 years.

In November 1969, with "The Joey Bishop Show" third in the ratings behind Carson and Merv Griffin's new late-night talk show on CBS, ABC told Bishop it was canceling his show at the end of December.

A day later, Bishop shocked his Hollywood studio audience during his opening monologue by saying that he and the network had decided to end the show. After praising his staff, he announced that he was going home to have dinner with his wife. Then he walked off the stage, leaving Philbin to preside over the remainder of that night's show.

Although the network had earlier renewed Bishop's contract, the crucial November national ratings had showed, as ABC's president at the time, Elton H. Rule, later explained, that "the Bishop show simply dropped lower than we could live with."

Guest hosts were used during the last month of the show.

"It didn't bother me a bit," Bishop said of his show's cancellation during a 1998 interview with The Times. "I don't consider success doing a show for 30 years; I'm sorry. To me, you're successful when you graduate from something. I did a series, I did a talk show, I did movies, I replaced Mickey Rooney [on Broadway] in 'Sugar Babies.' You understand?"

In his 2002 biography of Bishop, "Mouse in the Rat Pack: The Joey Bishop Story," New York Post TV columnist Michael Seth Starr painted a picture of a perfectionist who "clashed with his writers, producers, directors and co-stars" on his TV series, among others -- a man who in general could be charming one minute and prickly the next.

"He was very demanding, and I think a lot of that came from the fact he had to work his way up, playing clubs," Starr told The Times a few years ago. "This is a guy who did not have it handed to him on a silver platter. He really went through the school of hard knocks."

Born Joseph Abraham Gottlieb in the Bronx on Feb. 3, 1918, Bishop was the youngest of five children of Jewish immigrant parents from central Europe. When Joey was still an infant, his family moved to South Philadelphia, where his mechanic father opened a bicycle shop.

While growing up, Bishop learned to tap dance, do imitations and play the banjo and mandolin.

In 1936, having earlier won second prize and $3 in an amateur contest by doing impressions of Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Durante and other celebrities, 18-year-old Joe Gottlieb dropped out of high school to pursue a career in show business.

In time, he teamed up with two pals in a zany comedy act that consisted of jokes, impressions and a spoof of the March of Times newsreel series. They called themselves the Bishop Brothers.

Bishop went solo in 1941, the same year he married his wife, Sylvia. He honed his quick wit and flair for ad-libbing in a Cleveland club for nine months before being drafted into the Army in 1942.

Bishop was assigned to Special Services at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, where he was promoted to sergeant, became director of recreation and won the welterweight boxing championship of the Eighth Service Command.

Resuming his show business career after his discharge in 1945, Bishop soon gained a reputation as a promising young comic known for his pointed and sarcastic observations.

"I call it an open mind," he once said of his onstage attitude. "I just go out and talk. I don't have any mental file of jokes. If I did, I wouldn't ad-lib. It's usually based on adversity. My own adversities or those of others."

In 1952, Bishop was earning $1,000 a week at the Latin Quarter in Manhattan, where he caught the eye of Sinatra, who asked him to open for him at Bill Miller's Riviera in nearby Fort Lee, N.J.

Bishop continued to open for Sinatra in New York and occasionally on the road, his relationship with the powerful Sinatra paying big career dividends.

When President-elect Kennedy asked Sinatra to produce his inaugural ball, Sinatra in turn asked Bishop to emcee the star-studded gala. (Glancing over at John and Jacqueline Kennedy that night, Bishop said, "I told you I'd get you a good seat.")

Bishop appeared in 14 films, including "Onionhead," "The Naked and the Dead," "A Guide for the Married Man," "Who's Minding the Mint?" and "Valley of the Dolls."

He also joined Sinatra and fellow Rat Packers in "Ocean's 11" and "Sergeants 3," as well as "Texas Across the River" with Martin.

It was in 1960 while Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford and Bishop were in Las Vegas filming "Ocean's 11," a crime comedy about a scheme to rob five casinos in a single night, that they performed nightly at the Sands Hotel in what was dubbed "the Summit."

Theirs was a freewheeling show in which Davis might mash a cake in Bishop's face and Martin would lift up Davis and hand him to Sinatra, saying "This is an award that just arrived for you from the NAACP."

In 1998, the same year Sinatra died, the Rat Pack's glory days underwent a revival of interest with the publication of several books and an HBO movie, "The Rat Pack," in which comedian Bobby Slayton played Bishop.

Those events, along with Bishop's old sitcom turning up on cable's TV Land, spurred a succession of reporters to pass through the then-80-year-old comic's waterfront home in Newport Beach to talk to the Rat Pack's sole surviving member.

Bishop, who wrote most of the material for the Rat Pack's stage act, was quick to remind those who weren't around at the time of the important role he played. And he always had proof within reach.

He'd pull out a copy of a 1960 Time magazine article that said, "Theoretically, Joey has bottom billing -- fifth man after the show's four stars. But happily as soon as he starts talking he's recognized as the top banana in the newly assembled comedy act that is breaking up Vegas."

The magazine quoted Sinatra himself as saying that the nightly "meetings could not have come off without the speaker of the house, Joey Bishop, the hub of the big wheel."

Bishop scoffed at those Rat Pack books and articles written by the Johnny-come-latelies. Instead, he would reach for journalist Richard Gehman's 1963 book "Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack." He knew which page to turn to:

"Bishop is the only member of Sinatra's gang who can tell the leader what to do with himself and not only get away with it, but actually and incredibly enough become more firmly entrenched in favor."

Indeed, Bishop could get away with delivering the line: "Mr. Sinatra will now speak of some of the good things the Mafia has done."

On stage, he was never at a loss for words.

While opening for Sinatra at the Copacabana in New York in 1954, Bishop was in the middle of his act when Marilyn Monroe walked in. As all eyes turned to the blond sex symbol in a floor-length, white ermine coat, Bishop waited until she was seated and told her: "Marilyn, I told you to wait in the truck."

Bishop, who made a 10-day USO tour of Vietnam during the war, was involved with fundraising and other efforts for disabled children for many years. In the early '60s, he also received a citation from Pope John XXIII for raising millions of dollars for Boys' Towns of Italy.

Bishop, whose wife of 58 years died of cancer in 1999, is survived by his son, Larry; two grandchildren; and longtime companion Nora Garabotti.

Services will be private.

Instead of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the Children's Hospital of Orange County.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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