Last of the Rat Pack, TV star, comedian

The Baltimore Sun

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.

Mr. Bishop, who had been in failing health for some time, died Wednesday night at his home in Newport Beach, Calif., according to his longtime friend, publicist Warren Cowan. An adept ad-libber with a dry, underplayed sense of humor, Mr. Bishop achieved his greatest fame in the 1960s.

He was master of ceremonies for President John F. Kennedy's inaugural gala and joined Mr. 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 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, whose catch phrase was "son of a gun," he had a weekly situation comedy built around him.

For four years, 1961 to 1965, Mr. Bishop starred in the sitcom The Joey Bishop Show. The first season, he played Joey Barnes, a low-level PR man living with his overbearing mother; Marlo Thomas (Danny Thomas' daughter) played his kid sister. But in the second season, the format and supporting cast changed, and Joey Barnes became a married, late-night talk show host in New York City. It was a fitting fictional occupation for the quick-witted Mr. Bishop, who had become nationally known in the late '50s for his regular late-night appearances on The Jack Paar Show.

Mr. Bishop frequently substituted as host for Mr. Paar and later for Mr. 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 The Joey Bishop Show third in the ratings, 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, leaving Mr. Philbin to preside over the remainder of that night's show. Guest hosts were used during the last month of the show.

"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 1952, Mr. Bishop was earning $1,000 a week as a young comic at the Latin Quarter in Manhattan, where he caught the eye of Mr. Sinatra, who asked him to open for him at Bill Miller's Riviera in nearby Fort Lee, N.J. Mr. Bishop continued to open for Mr. Sinatra in New York and occasionally on the road, his relationship with the powerful Mr. Sinatra paying big career dividends. When President-elect Kennedy asked Mr. Sinatra to produce his inaugural ball, the singer in turn asked Mr. Bishop to emcee the star-studded gala.

Mr. Bishop appeared in 14 films, including Onionhead, The Naked and the Dead, A Guide for the Married Man, Who's Minding the Mint? and Valley of the Dolls. He also joined Mr. Sinatra and fellow Rat Packers in Ocean's Eleven and Sergeants 3.

It was in 1960 while Mr. Sinatra, Mr. Martin, Mr. Davis, Mr. Lawford and Mr. Bishop were in Las Vegas filming Ocean's Eleven, 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 Mr. Davis might mash a cake in Mr. Bishop's face, and Mr. Martin would lift up Mr. Davis and hand him to Mr. 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 Mr. Sinatra at the Copacabana in New York in 1954, Mr. Bishop was in the middle of his act when Marilyn Monroe walked in. As all eyes turned to her wearing a floor-length, white ermine coat, Mr. Bishop waited until she was seated and said: "Marilyn, I told you to wait in the truck. "

Mr. Bishop, whose wife of 58 years, Sylvia Ruzga, died of cancer in 1999, is survived by his son, Larry; two grandchildren; and longtime companion Nora Garabotti. Services will be private.

Dennis McLellan writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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