Joey Bishop, the cool-cat comic who worked in nightclubs, television and movies but became most famous as a member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, has died. He was 89.
Bishop died Wednesday night of multiple causes at his home in Newport Beach, publicist and longtime friend Warren Cowan said Thursday. He’d been in poor health for some time, Cowan said.
Bishop was the last surviving member of the Rat Pack, the hipster-entertainer group that also included actor Peter Lawford and singers Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. (However, Angie Dickinson and Shirley MacLaine were considered unofficial Rat Packers.)
Known for his dry humor and quick retorts, Bishop got his start as a comedian and performer at East Coast nightclubs in the early 1940s. Sinatra caught his act and hired the dry comic as his opening act in the early 1950s.
In the 1960s, Bishop made two stabs at TV stardom, both times in vehicles dubbed “The Joey Bishop Show.” He first starred in a sitcom that underwent numerous cast and format changes, even jumping networks from NBC to CBS in its fourth and final season in 1964-65. In 1967 he began a two-year run in latenight on ABC in a bid to compete with NBC’s “Tonight Show” juggernaut and Johnny Carson. Regis Philbin played the Ed McMahon role to Bishop on the Hollywood-based latenight show.
Philbin stressed in a statement Thursday how much he learned about showbiz in general and comedy in particular from his years with Bishop. Although the two were known to have strained relations at times, Philbin emphasized how generously Bishop opened doors for him, introducing him to the Rat Pack crowd, among others.
“We walked every day before the show up Vine Street to Hollywood Boulevard and back to our studio for nearly three years. I learned a lot about the business of making people laugh,” Philbin said. “He was a master comedian and a great teacher, and I will never forget those days or him.”
Despite his reputation for being temperamental at times, Bishop was respected for his work in comedy circles.
“He was a friend for so many years and a great innovator when it came to comedy,” Don Rickles said in a statement Thursday. “When he performed, his ‘attitude’ was an absolute joy to listen to.”
Indeed, many pointed to Bishop as a key comedic anchor of the Rat Pack. The Sinatra-led outfit became a showbiz sensation in the early 1960s, appearing at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in shows that combined music and comedy in a seemingly chaotic manner.
Sinatra termed the comedian “the Hub of the Big Wheel,” with Bishop coming up with rapid-fire one-liners and beginning many jokes with his favorite phrase, “Son of a gun!”
The quintet lived it up whenever members were free of their own commitments. They appeared together in such films as 1960’s “Ocean’s Eleven” and 1962’s “Sergeants 3.” They proudly gave honorary membership to the nation’s New Frontier-cool commander-in-chief, John F. Kennedy. Bishop served as master of ceremonies at Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural.
Bishop never made a dent in Carson’s ratings during his time in latenight. But he became a frequent guest on TV variety shows, gameshows and as substitute for vacationing talkshow hosts. He filled in for Carson on “The Tonight Show” more than 200 times.
On the bigscreen, Bishop played character roles in a range of pics, including 1958’s “The Naked and the Dead,” 1963’s “Johnny Cool,” 1966’s “’Texas Across the River,” 1967’s “Who’s Minding the Mint?” and “Valley of the Dolls” and 1986’s “The Delta Force.”
Born Joseph Abraham Gottlieb in the Bronx, Bishop was the youngest of five children raised by Eastern European immigrants. His comedic schooling came from vaudeville, burlesque and nightclubs.
Skipping his last high school semester in Philadelphia, he formed a music and comedy act with two other boys, and they played clubs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They called themselves the Bishop Brothers, borrowing the name from their driver, Glenn Bishop. During these early years he developed his style: laid-back drollery with surprise throwaway lines.
After 3½ years in the Army, Bishop resumed his comedy career in 1945. Within five years he was earning $1,000 a week at New York’s Latin Quarter. Sinatra saw him there one night and hired him as opening act.
In 1941, Bishop married Sylvia Ruzga and, despite the rigors of a show business career, the marriage survived until her death in 1999.
In his later years, Bishop invested in a business that marketed greeting cards that featured short audio recordings from Bishop’s comedian friends, including Don Rickles and Milton Berle. He spent most of the past decade living in the upscale Newport Bay area of Newport Beach.
Bishop is survived by his son, actor-director Larry Bishop, and two grandsons.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)