Joey Bishop, who died Wednesday, was the last surviving member of the Rat Pack — and as such the last of that clan’s link to the Kennedy years.
Bishop emceed Kennedy’s pre-Inaugural ball, a gala that Sinatra produced, below right, and performed nine shows at the White House. Once, when Kennedy introduced him at a press conference by saying, “I made you a promise, and I want to apologize. I promised you I would not allow Catholicism to mingle with politics. And wouldn’t you know it? The first time I’m introducing someone to the press, it’s a bishop?”
Why do I know this? Because in 1998, shortly after Frank Sinatra died, I was assigned to do a story on Bishop, as the last surviving member of the Clan. He was approaching 80 then, and living in a bayside home in Newport Beach with his wife, Sylvia. It was not a typical interview, to say the least. He shouted at me one minute, then was perfectly friendly the next.
Naturally, I had many questions to ask him about those years, particularly about politics, but with Bishop you kind of had to go with his agenda. He plucked his one-liners out of the past and could recite them verbatim. Some were indeed funny, showing off his sharp wit back then; others were from another era.
He was still scrappy — and still holding many grudges and slights from many decades earlier, as if he was still fighting for his place in the show business pantheon. He held a big grudge against Regis Philbin, apparently because he felt his former sidekick on his 1960s talk show hadn’t paid him enough respect. And he was still upset with Johnny Carson over a joke that he had told some 30 years earlier, when Bishop was in the hospital for a back injury. He even remembered the joke. Carson: “Joey Bishop is in the hospital, in traction. He threw out his back bowing to Sinatra.”
Finally, after an entire afternoon of listening to old routines and watching tapes of his old shows, and as it was getting dark, we got to politics. He would campaign and write various jokes for candidates including Hubert Humphrey and Kennedy.
“I remember one time Bobby Kennedy was late, he was with Sinatra in the car, and he was late getting some place, and he called me by phone and said, ‘Give me some kind of excuse.’ I told him to say, ‘Sorry you’re late, and you were speeding to get there, and a cop pulled you over, and you would have gotten a ticket, but Frank was in the car.”
His talk show on ABC — a direct competitor to Carson — frequently featured candidates like Humphrey and Richard Nixon. Bishop said that when the latter was on the show, and in the bathroom in his dressing room, he knocked on his door.
“What is it?” Nixon said.
“Could I please come in?” Bishop said.
“I’m sorry, I’m using the toilet,” Nixon said. “Why would you want to come in?”
“Years from now, they’ll ask me if I knew Nixon. I can say, I peed with him.”
Bishop actually campaigned for Bill Clinton, to the point where he was upset with Jay Leno for all of his Monica Lewinsky jokes. Clinton, in fact, asked Bishop to campaign in his old neighborhood in Philadelphia for him.
“So I went there, and there were about 40,000 people in the streets, south side, my old neighborhood. And I told them, ‘I didn’t come here to campaign for Clinton, I came here because this is my old neighborhood. And somebody in this crowd last year stole my hubcaps. I’d like to have them back.”
The interview ended — some four or five hours later. He grabbed from a stack of photos of himself and the Rat Pack and signed, under his picture, “It was a real pleasure.”