1918 – 2007
Only moments ago I was saddened to read about the death of comedian Joey Bishop at age 89. Now Joey Bishop’s death is not just another Hollywood death. It is not just the death of another funny man. Joey Bishop’s death is the true end of a bright and sparkling era from our pop culture journey. Joey Bishop was the last surviving member of the fabled Rat Pack. Sure, he was the most overlooked member, but along with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop helped define cool, elegance and masculinity during the final years of the 1950s and the early 1960s. While some passed the Rat Pack off as a misogynistic boys club, the Rat Pack did set the standard of what it was to be a thinking man’s man. They were the role models for men when it came to what to wear, what to drink, where to go and who to know and that influence is still felt today.
Now I always kind of liked Joey Bishop. He wasn’t my favorite Rat Packer, and he wasn’t the most talented or the most famous of the Pack. I didn’t even find him all that funny really. However, I always found Joey to be a wonderful pop culture oddity. He always seemed to be a bit of an outsider. The guy who didn’t quite fit in. The one who you wondered how he got invited to the party. The guy who often gets left off of the merchandise. The story goes that Joey Bishop, who was already a popular comedian on television and in Vegas, first caught Frank Sinatra’s attention when he attended a Las Vegas roast for the entertainer, only to get seated behind a post that prevented him from seeing the festivities. When Bishop was able to get the chance, he took the podium and instead of doing tribute to Sinatra, he did a satirical self deprecating rant about sitting behind the post. Sinatra thought it was brilliant and spent the rest of the evening talking with Bishop, which led him to offering Bishop a part in the film that he and Peter Lawford were developing. The film was Ocean’s 11. During the filming of Ocean’s 11, after the day at the set was over, Frank, Dean, Sammy, Lawford and Bishop would head over to the Sands and do what has gone into history as a series of legendary performances which was really nothing more then the five of them drinking, smoking and carrying on like a bunch of rich frat boys…but the audience loved it. During these performances Bishop was the straight man to the rest of the guys, but what most people didn’t realize was that much of the material that was actually written for these performances was by Bishop himself. This would lead to a regular stint as Frank Sinatra’s opening act, and of course appearances in the other Rat Pack films.
However, Bishop’s career went beyond that of a standup comedian and Rat Packer. During the 1960′s Joey Bishop, who was also a good friend of Johnny Carson, filled in for the talk show guru more then any other entertainer. This led to Joey’s own talk show during the end of the 1960s which unleashed) a young Regis Philbin on the unsuspecting world as Joey’s co-host. Joey also starred in his own sit-com, The Joey Bishop Show, between 1961 and 1965 which put future TV icons Bill Bixby and Marlo Thomas on the pop culture radar. Joey was also a favorite guest panelist on such programs as Hollywood Squares, Liar’s Club, Password, What’s My Line and Celebrity Sweepstakes. Joey also appeared in such unlikely film projects as Valley of the Dolls, Betsy’s Wedding and even Delta Force with Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin. During his time Joey Bishop was everywhere. One of those guys that you knew, but never really got to know.
Now Joey’s stint with the Rat Pack didn’t end with death or a falling out with Frank Sinatra as the others did. The reason that Joey sort of faded from the group was because he was different in nature then the rest of them. Joey Bishop was not a drinker and not a partier. He couldn’t stay up for nights on end, drinking and smoking. Also, Joey Bishop was one of the rare devoted married men in Hollywood, whose marriage to his wife lasted from 1941 until her death in 1999. Thus Bishop wasn’t out chasing women during these marathon nights of Vegas partying. As a result, Bishop and the rest of the guys just couldn’t relate to each other after a while, and slowly he began to fade from the Rat Pack circle. Yet, he was not forgotten by his fellow Packers who always spoke of him fondly.
But to me, the passing of Joey Bishop is like the final death of the pre-Beatles era of pop culture. Now the Rat Pack joins the other icons of the day – Elvis, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, James Dean and so many others – as being nothing more then a memory. Joey Bishop was holding that torch, but that torch has now been put out.
Hopefully, when he gets to wherever he’s heading, he wont be sitting behind a post.