Joseph Abraham Gottlieb (Joey Bishop), comedian, actor and television presenter: born New York 3 February 1918; married 1941 Sylvia Ruzga (one son); died Newport Beach, California 17 October 2007.
A master of the ad lib, Joey Bishop had a moderately successful career as a stand-up comic, actor, nightclub performer, television host and panellist, but it was as a member of Frank Sinatra's notorious Rat Pack that he found his greatest fame. He was the last survivor of the five core members of the group – Peter Lawford died in 1984, Sammy Davis Jnr in 1990, Dean Martin in 1995 and Sinatra in 1998 – and is credited with having orchestrated their outwardly chaotic performances.
The Rat Pack caused a sensation in the early Sixties with their appearances in Las Vegas and their film vehicles, notably the 1960 comedy heist Ocean's Eleven. They conferred honorary membership on a rising politician, John F. Kennedy, at whose inauguration gala Bishop served as Master of Ceremonies in 1960. The same year the Rat Pack made a historic appearance at the Sands in Las Vegas which was named "The Summit". Though the Rat Pack reputation faded after Kennedy's assassination, it has recently received renewed recognition with a long-running show about the group, and the successful remake of Ocean's Eleven.
The youngest of five children of immigrants from central Europe, Bishop was born Joseph Abraham Gottlieb in 1918 in the Bronx, New York, but was raised in South Philadelphia. He learned to tap dance, do imitations and play the mandolin and banjo, and dropped out of high school to form a song-and-comedy act with two friends, which they called the Bishop Brothers Trio after a friend, Glenn Bishop, who lent them his car.
Joey Bishop went solo in 1941 and was already gaining a reputation for his quick wit when he was drafted into the US Army in 1942. After the war, he became a fairly successful stand-up comic, and achieved a reputation as a quick-thinking television panellist on such shows as What's My Line?
For three years, he appeared on Keep Talking (1958-60), on which players were given a secret phrase that they had to incorporate into a monologue. Bishop was also a regular face on Jack Paar's late-night chat show, and when Johnny Carson took over the slot Bishop became his most frequent guest and occasional substitute, making 177 appearances in 21 years.
Bishop was appearing at the Latin Quarter in Manhattan when he was seen by Sinatra, who asked him to be his opening act at a New Jersey club, and it was the start of a lifelong friendship. Bishop was reputed to be less deferential to Sinatra than the other pack members, able to quip to the audience, "Mr Sinatra will now speak of some of the good things the Mafia has done". He would also inform them, "He spoke to me backstage. He told me, 'Get out of the way'."
For over two years he had his own Joey Bishop Show (1967-69), which the ABC network hoped would dampen the ratings for Johnny Carson on NBC. But, in the week of the premiere, Carson staged a dramatic walkout at NBC, causing news headlines.
Bishop briefly attracted audiences when early guests made some newsworthy confessions – Buddy Hackett admitted a marijuana addiction, George Raft and Gary Crosby revealed that they had been alcoholics – but when Carson returned a few weeks later, most viewers were tuned to NBC to witness the event. Bishop's show ran for another two years, but never achieved high ratings.
Bishop was credited with conceiving much of the Rat Pack's material – Sinatra called him "the Hub of the Big Wheel", but he was less flamboyant than the others. A biography by Michael Seth Starr, published in 2002, was titled Mouse in the Rat Pack.
Bishop made his screen début in The Naked and the Dead (1958) – he told his nightclub audience "I play both parts" – and followed it with small roles in The Deep Six and Onionhead (both 1958). The Rat Pack films Ocean's Eleven and the comedy Western Sergeants Three (1962) were followed by parts in Johnny Cool (1963), produced by Lawford, Texas Across the River (1966) with Martin, and A Guide for the Married Man (1967).
Talking about the Rat Pack in a 1981 interview, Bishop stated, "Are we remembered as being drunk and chasing broads? 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."
Tom VallanceReuse content