A straight man extraordinaire
EmptyJoey Bishop, the comedian and actor who was the last surviving member of the Rat Pack, has died. He was 89.
Bishop had been ill for several months and died Wednesday night of multiple causes at his home in Newport Beach, Calif.
The Rat Packers became a show-business sensation in the late 1960s when they appeared together at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in shows that combined music and comedy in a seemingly chaotic manner. Among its members — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford — Bishop had the lowest profile. Yet Sinatra called him "the Hub of the Big Wheel," recognizing that Bishop often was the originator of the group's comic material.
Bishop's role in their boozing/gambling/womanizing antics was that of comic straight man. Belying his Rat Pack notoriety, Bishop was honored with a citation from Pope John XXIII for his assistance with the Boys' Towns of Italy.
"He was the perfect match for the Rat Pack. He fit right in like an old shoe," Hollywood honorary mayor Johnny Grant said Thursday.
Bishop also was a popular regular on the "Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts." Known for his dour expression and self-deprecating shtick, Bishop's persona was of a befuddled and overwhelmed average Joe. Mumbling "son of a gun" was his signature response to life's overwhelming circumstances.
Bishop guest-hosted "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" 177 times, more than anyone else. From 1967-69, he hosted his own eponymous late-night show, which competed against "Tonight." Featuring an endless parade of Borscht Belt comedians as well as infrequent visits from his Rat Pack buddies, the show floundered. After two years of struggling in head-to-head competition with Carson, Bishop was succeeded by Dick Cavett, a futile attempt to flank Carson with a "brainy" demographic.
"It was the thrill of my life to be chosen by Joey as the announcer for his talk show on ABC back in the '60s," Regis Philbin said Thursday. "It was my introduction to the highly competitive late-night show world. … 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."
Before his talk show stint, Bishop was a popular stand-up comic. He parlayed that popularity into his own sitcom, "The Joey Bishop Show" (1961-65), which also featured Bill Bixby. The show was spun off from Bishop's appearance on "The Danny Thomas Show" as a beleaguered press agent.
Throughout his long career, Bishop was a popular fixture on a number of TV quiz and variety shows, including "What's My Line?" "Toast of the Town," "The Andy Williams Show," "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," "Jimmy Durante Presents the Lennon Sisters," "Match Game" and "The Hollywood Squares."
He also made numerous guest appearances on shows including "Richard Diamond, Private Detective," "Get Smart," "Hardcastle and McCormick" and "Murder, She Wrote."
Bishop was born Joseph Abraham Gottlieb on Feb. 3, 1918, in the Bronx. He got his start in show business as a teenager, singing in a vaudeville trio called the Bishop Brothers (none was named Bishop, and they weren't brothers). He continued the act until the U.S. entered World War II. He served as an Army medic from 1941-45.
After the war, Bishop segued into comedy. Within five years he was earning $1,000 a week at New York's Latin Quarter. Sinatra saw him there one night and hired him as his opening act.
In 1956, Bishop won a movie contract with Warner Bros. and appeared the following year as an Army private in "The Naked and the Dead." His next film was "The Deep Six" (1958) with Alan Ladd and William Bendix. Throughout the '60s, he appeared sporadically in movies, including "Texas Across the River" (1966) with Martin and Alain Delon. He also co-starred in two 1967 films, the Jacqueline Susann potboiler "Valley of the Dolls" and "A Guide for the Married Man."
Bishop co-starred with his Rat Pack chums in "Ocean's Eleven" (1960) and "Sergeants 3" (1962), an irreverent take on "Gunga Din."
The late '90s brought a renaissance of the Rat Pack, with the group depicted in an HBO movie and portrayed by imitators in Las Vegas and elsewhere. "Ocean's Eleven" was remade in 2003 with George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the lead roles and was followed by two sequels.
Before the renaissance, Bishop defended his fellow performers' rowdy reputations in a 1998 interview.
"Are we remembered as being drunk and chasing broads?" he asked. "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."
While most members of the Sinatra entourage treated Bishop gingerly, he had no inhibitions. He would tell audiences that the group's leader hadn't ignored him: "He spoke to me backstage; he told me, 'Get out of the way.' "
When Sinatra almost drowned filming a movie scene in Hawaii, Bishop wired him, "I thought you could walk on water."
WMA chairman Norman Brokaw represented Bishop for more than 50 years. "He was a gifted talent who was able to work not only in motion pictures and television but theater as well," he said Thursday. "And Joey really loved his Rat Pack group. He will be missed."
Much later in his career, Bishop co-starred in Alan Alda's "Betsy's Wedding" (1990) and more ignominiously in Menahem Golan's actioner "Delta Force" (1986). His final was appearance was in 1996's "Mad Dog Time," directed by his son Larry.
Bishop was married to Sylvia Rutza from 1941 until her death in 1999. Larry Bishop was their only child.
A private funeral was planned. In lieu of flowers, the family requested that contributions be made to Children's Hospital of Orange County.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.