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August 19, 2009

Screen Star Joey Bishop Dies

Last surviving Rat Pack member, TV/film actor and talk show host was 89

By BOB MAKELA
October 19, 2007

The Rat Pack is officially dead.

Joey Bishop, the last surviving member of the legendary group of rowdy show-biz rogues, died Wednesday of multiple causes at his home in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 89.

Bishop was the deadpan comedian who wrote many of the punch lines for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Peter Lawford when the Rat Pack was an early-’60s sensation onstage in Las Vegas and in films such as Ocean’s Eleven and Sergeants 3. After the death of Sinatra in 1998, Bishop was the last surviving member of the group.

Bishop also starred in a pair of television programs, both called The Joey Bishop Show. The first was a sitcom airing from 1961 to 1965, in which he played a TV talk-show host. The second incarnation of The Joey Bishop Show The Joey Bishop Show actually was a TV talk show, launched in 1967 by ABC to compete with Johnny Carson’s successful Tonight show.

The show was cancelled after two-and-a-half years. But not before launching the career of another future talk-show host, Regis Philbin, who bantered with Bishop as the sidekick announcer in his first prominent TV role.

“It was the thrill of my life to be chosen by Joey as the announcer,” Philbin told the Associated Press Thursday. “It was my introduction to the highly competitive late-night show world. It was also an introduction to a show business I had never known, the Rat Pack era, the amazing talents of those performers who I probably never would have befriended without Joey.”

Although Dick Cavett later replaced him in ABC’s late-night slot, Bishop went on to become one of Carson’s most dependable fill-ins, guest hosting The Tonight Show close to 200 times.

At the time of his birth on February 3, 1918, Joseph Abraham Gottlieb weighed 2 lbs., 14 oz. and was the smallest baby ever born at Fordham Hospital in New York City. Bishop’s father, Jacob, was an immigrant from Eastern Europe who later moved his family to Philadelphia, where he worked odd jobs and ran a bicycle shop. From an early age Joey Gottlieb was interested in show business, doing impressions of everyone from Jimmy Durante to Edward G. Robinson.

After dropping out of high school, he worked in vaudeville and performed with a trio called the Bishop Brothers. After the performers were drafted into World War II, Bishop ended up going solo and adopted the surname that had been taken from a chauffeur friend from his early days in show business. While in the Army, Bishop was stationed at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and rose to the rank of sergeant.

Armed with a talent for ad-libbing—Bishop reportedly refused to memorize jokes—the comedian was first spotted by Sinatra in Manhattan at the Latin Quarter in the early 1950s. Before long he was opening for Ol’ Blue Eyes regularly, which ultimately led to Bishop becoming what Sinatra called the “hub of the big wheel” known as the Rat Pack.

Bishop’s friendship with Sinatra also led to the comedian getting asked to be the master of ceremonies at newly-elected president John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball, where the Rat Pack performed. Upon the arrival of the new president, Bishop is reported to have quipped, “I told you I’d get you a good seat.”

For all the fame and fortune that resulted from his association with the Rat Pack, Bishop saw himself as more of a mascot than a bona fide member of the ultra-hip retinue. “But even the mascot gets to carry the ball, too,” said Bishop, who was the subject of a 2002 biography by Michael Seth Starr titled Mouse in the Rat Pack.

After the informal dissolution of the Rat Pack and the demise his late-night talk show, Bishop stayed in the public eye with regular appearances on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts and game shows such as What’s My Line and Keep Talking. In 1981 he replaced Mickey Rooney in the Broadway hit Sugar Babies, even though Sinatra often said Bishop’s singing voice was one “that only Jewish dogs could hear.”

Bishop also played a number of character roles in movies such as The Naked and the Dead, Johnny Cool and Valley of the Dolls.

Despite the Rat Pack’s reputation as cocktail-loving, skirt-chasing lotharios, Bishop was the one Pack member who stayed married to the same woman for most of his life. When his wife, Sylvia, died in 1999 the couple had been married 58 years.

Defending the reputations of his fellow Rat Packers in a 1998 interview, Bishop said, “I never saw Frank, Dean, Sammy or Peter drunk during performances. That was only a gag. And do you believe these guys had to chase broads? They had to chase ’em away.”

Thanks to George Clooney, Brad Pitt and their Ocean’s Eleven remake—and subsequent sequels—Bishop and the Rat Pack have been re-introduced to a whole new generation of movie fans and connoisseurs of cool.

“They were the ultimate in cool,” film historian Leonard Maltin told the Associated Press. “I think guys admired and envied them, women wanted to be with them, and I think Joey Bishop’s deadpan style of comedy suited that group well. He was a combination straight man and comedian.”

Bishop is survived by his son Larry Bishop, an actor turned director and producer; grandsons Scott and Kirk Bishop; and longtime companion Nora Garabotti.

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