Comedian Joey Bishop, 89, last of 'Rat Pack'
LOS ANGELES - 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, died Wednesday at his Newport Beach home. He was 89.
Mr. Bishop, who had been in failing health for some time, was an adept ad-libber with a dry, underplayed sense of humor.
He achieved his greatest fame in the 1960s, as master of ceremonies for President Kennedy's inaugural gala and a member of the famed Rat Pack that also included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford. The five frequently appeared onstage at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.
Time magazine referred to Mr. 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 Mr. Bishop, he had a weekly situation comedy built around him.
For four years, from 1961 through 1965, Mr. Bishop starred in the situation comedy "The Joey Bishop Show," whose character, Joey Barnes, was changed from a low-level public relations man living with his mother during the first season to being a married, late-night talk-show host.
It was a fitting fictional occupation for the quick-witted comic, who had become nationally known in the late '50s for his regular late-night appearances on "The Jack Paar Show." (Paar once likened Mr. Bishop's dour demeanor to that of "an untipped waiter.")
Mr. 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 Mr. Bishop's announcer-sidekick, ran for 2 1/2 years.
In November 1969, with his show third in the ratings behind Carson and Merv Griffin's new late-night talk show on CBS, ABC told Mr. Bishop it was canceling his show at the end of December.
A day later, Mr. 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.
"It didn't bother me a bit," Mr. Bishop said of his show's cancellation during a 1998 interview with the Los Angeles 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 Mr. 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. "He really went through the school of hard knocks."
Born Joseph Abraham Gottlieb in the Bronx, N.Y., on Feb. 3, 1918, Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
Resuming his show business career after his discharge in 1945, Mr. Bishop soon gained a reputation as a promising young comic known for his pointed and sarcastic observations.
In 1952, he 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.
Mr. Bishop continued to open for Sinatra in New York and occasionally on the road, his relationship with the powerful Sinatra paying big career dividends.
He appeared in 14 films, joining Sinatra and fellow Rat Packers in "Ocean's 11" and "Sergeants 3."
It was in 1960 while Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford, and Mr. 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 Mr. 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."
On stage, Mr. Bishop was never at a loss for words.
While opening for Sinatra at the Copacabana in New York in 1954, he was in the middle of his act when Marilyn Monroe walked in wearing a floor-length ermine coat. Mr. Bishop waited for her to be seated before saying, "Marilyn, I told you to wait in the truck."
Mr. Bishop, whose wife died of cancer in 1999, leaves a son, Larry; two grandchildren; and longtime companion Nora Garabotti.