Joey Bishop, 89; last of Rat Pack

Times Staff Writer

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 '60s. 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 that he had a weekly situation comedy built around him, which Thomas' production company sold to NBC.

For four years -- from 1961 to 1965, first on NBC and then CBS -- Bishop starred in the "The Joey Bishop Show," whose character, Joey Barnes, was changed from a low-level public relations man living with his mother the first season to a married, late-night talk show host.

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 filled in 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 1/2 years.

"It was the thrill of my life to be chosen by Joey as the announcer for his talk show," Philbin said Thursday in a statement to The Times.

"I learned a lot about the business of making people laugh. He was a master comedian and a great teacher, and I will never forget those days or him."

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 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.

"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 other people during his career -- a man who 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. "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 he 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. At 18, he 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. They called themselves the Bishop Brothers.

Bishop went solo in 1941, the same year he got married. 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.

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

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

Bishop appeared in more than a dozen films, joining Sinatra and fellow Rat Packers in "Ocean's 11" and "Sergeants 3," as well as making "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 comedy about a scheme to rob five casinos in a single night -- that they performed nightly at the Sands 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.

The renewed interest in the Rat Pack continued when "Ocean's 11" was remade into a star-studded, sequel-spawning 2001 hit starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, et al.

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. Bishop, who wrote most of the material for the Rat Pack's stage act, was quick to remind visitors 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 would also 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 wearing a floor-length, white ermine coat. Bishop waited for her to be seated before saying, "Marilyn, I told you to wait in the truck."

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

Services will be private.

Instead of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center of Orange County in Huntington Beach.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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