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Joey Bishop: "Anybody tells you you're a good audience, you punch 'em right in the mouth."


Note to readers: There's been quite a demand for this. Shortly after Frank Sinatra's death, I journeyed to Lido Isle, Calif. to interview Joey Bishop, the last surviving member of the "Rat Pack." We got along, sometimes not so famously, during a long and winding interview session at his musty bayside home. Bishop, who died on Oct. 17th at age 89, made it clear that he still harbored considerable bitterness about a lot of things. Originally printed on Aug. 16, 1998, here's the last extended interview with, in his view, the man who made the Rat Pack tick.

By ED BARK
LIDO ISLE, Calif. -- Joey Bishop, pack rat and former Rat Packer, is at home amid his mementos, thumbing through a picture book from John F. Kennedy's inaugural gala, which he emceed.

"Here Frank was saying, 'I didn't know you could sing.' I told him, 'Are you kidding? I hit notes only Jewish dogs can hear.' "

His listener, sharing a sofa with him, summons a perfunctory chortle. It turns out to be less than Bishop expected. Pause, one-two. "Anybody tells you you're a good audience," he retorts, "you punch 'em right in the mouth. Ya hear?"

It's been a long day with the alternately convivial and cranky survivor of times when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and he combined to redefine swagger.

The Rat Pack. Endless recess. Ring-a-ding-ding. But now the bells have tolled:

Peter Lawford -- Sept. 7, 1923, to Dec. 25, 1984

Sammy Davis Jr. -- Dec. 8, 1925, to May 16, 1990

Dean Martin -- June 7, 1917, to Dec. 25, 1995

Frank Sinatra -- Dec. 12, 1915, to May 14, 1998

That leaves Joey, who at age 80 is both a reluctant torchbearer and increasingly a Bishop intent on being remembered as more than a pawn. "I gave them all those lines, man!" he asserts. "Nobody could out ad-lib me in good taste."

As proof, he fetches a 35-year-old Time magazine article that acknowledged his existence back when the Rat Pack held its raucous "Summit" meetings onstage at the now-defunct Sands Hotel.

"Can you read this paragraph right here?" he asks. "You can read it out loud if you'd like."

It reads like this: "Joey's quips are delivered with a warmth that never wounds. Even the self-protective Sinatra loves them. The 'Summit' session at the Sands was made possible . . . "

"Where the hell are you reading?" an annoyed Bishop interjects. "I think I gave you the wrong . . . "

We regroup and finally find Bishop's Rosebud: "The nightly 'meetings' could not have come off without the speaker of the house, Joey Bishop, the hub of the big wheel."

So there. Stick that in your typewriter if you dare. Still, Bishop immediately insists, "I never got any credit. Who was I, with Frank, Dean, Sammy and Peter Lawford up there? Who was I? You understand? Your lack of knowledge of me!"

Bishop did, after all, host his own late night talk show, star in his own prime-time sitcom and record a hit comedy album or two. But reporters keep asking their infernal Rat Pack questions, yearning to lap up all the lore about guys, dolls, booze, Bacchanalia.

Bishop was part of it all and yet apart from it all, he says. Married for 57 years and "I never had a hard liquor drink in my life. In my life! I never went to Vegas without my wife. Without my wife! And if my son (Larry) was not in school, he was there, too."

But the terminally "dishonest" media don't want to hear that, he says. And now that he's the sole survivor . . .

"All I'm doing is either defending the Rat Pack or puncturing lies," he says. "You know what I mean? It's terrible! Would you like for me to name you -- I won't, but I could -- name you male singers -- you hear? -- who had more broads than Frank and Dean and Sammy put together! I could throw in Tom Jones there. Nat King Cole. You understand? I don't hear anything about them! You mean they didn't drink either? They didn't have broads? Who were their best friends? Nuns?"


Wing man: That's Joey way in back, between Sammy and Peter.

The road to Joey's began two days earlier in Pasadena, where a reporter called him cold from an ongoing TV critics "press tour" co-starring networks and their new seasons. Would he agree to an interview at his home? Well, yes, but only if he could talk about the TV Land cable network's repeats of his old sitcom, The Joey Bishop Show. "Not much of that Rat Pack stuff, though. I can't take all the dishonesty."

We agree to an 11 a.m. appointment in deference to his ill wife, Sylvia, who is usually napping at that hour. The 90-minute southward journey from Pasadena runs through Anaheim and Santa Ana to one of California's ends of the earth, posh Newport Beach. From there, it's a short jaunt across a bridge to Lido Isle, where Joey and Sylvia have lived within diving distance of Newport Bay for the past 28 years.

En route, it's easy to imagine a foreboding, Col. Kurtz-like figure waiting at the end of a modern-day Heart of Darkness. Would he greet his guest with open arms or at arm's length? And might the mere mention of the Rat Pack send him glowering into silence?

Sylvia answers the door and summons her husband, who barely resembles the Joey of old. His hair, mostly white, balloons at the sides as though it's just been suctioned by a mini-vac. He wears a brown V-neck shirt with a La Quinta logo and noticeably stained pants of roughly the same color.

The family cat, 12-year-old Misty, lies on her favorite, well-clawed living room chair. Bishop proudly notes how she covers her eyes with a paw to ward off sun- or lamp light. He then offers a soft drink before we head upstairs through a gauntlet of plastic plants, one for each step.

It's here, in his combination study/museum, that Bishop houses more than ample proof of his past stardom. There are framed autographed pictures of every president from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton. In the HBO film The Rat Pack, Kennedy is portrayed as a vacuous playboy who slept with mob moll Judith Campbell after being introduced to her by Sinatra. Ever happen?

"How would I know?" Bishop replies. "if I don't see a guy doin' it with a broad, I ain't gonna say yes or no. But what does it matter? (Franklin D.) Roosevelt had a broad. (Dwight D.) Eisenhower had a broad who drove a jeep for him. I didn't hear anything about that."

He then volunteers an odd story about Richard Nixon, who guested on Bishop's late night talk show in the late 1960s.

"I knocked on the men's room door and asked Nixon, 'Can I please come pee with you?' He said, 'What?' I said, 'Well, years from now people will ask me how well I got to know you. And I'll say, 'How well? We peed together!' But he wouldn't let me in! He thought I was serious!"

Plaques from numerous service organizations cite Bishop's unwavering generosity. His comedy charity bouts with boxing greats are commemorated with pictures of Sugar Ray Robinson ("he was a sweetheart") and Rocky Marciano ("the greatest fighter that ever lived, ya hear?"). And over on the left, "that's Vietnam there. I took whatsername with me. From the movie The Birds."

Tippi Hedren?

"What's it, Tippi? Tippi Hedren," he replies. "There she is right there. That's us in Vietnam. See it?"

There are numerous reminders of the Rat Pack as well, including a priceless poster advertising the fivesome's 28-night engagement at the Sands. Frank, Dino, Sammy and Peter are labeled the "four kings." Joey is "the most regal joker, who shuffled the king's men in the wildest shows ever dealt from any nightclub."

Bishop wants this underscored. "Shuffled the king's men. See?" he says. "But I never got any of this credit. Because who's Joey Bishop?"


With Dino in the 1966 comedy western Texas Across the River

Throughout our almost four-hour meeting, he keeps running up his credit card. Whatever the question or subject, Bishop invariably steers it toward something he did to steal the show, break up the house or make someone else look good. Frank, for instance. He begins singing one of Sinatra's old tunes while interjecting the one-liners he deployed to keep everyone in stitches. It was pure Rat Pack humor and it went like this:

"I'm not much to look at," sang Frank (You can say that again, opined Joey.) "Nothing to see" (If you stand sideways they'll mark ya absent.) "I'm glad I'm livin'." (Dean, he thinks he's alive!) "And happy to be. I've got a woman." (He found a broad!) "Who's crazy 'bout me." (She must be nuts.) "She's funny." (She's queer.)

"Ya see, I could get away with carte blanche," Bishop says. "Frank liked it so much that he told me to do it every night. I didn't have to ask if it was all right."

There was that night with Sammy, too.

"I'll tell you the funniest line I think I ever did," Bishop says. "He was doing a benefit for the NAACP in Atlantic City. And he had a team called Stump and Stumpy. They were great dancers and very good comedians. but they couldn't make it that night, and Sammy called me. There were 6,000 black people there. I looked out at the crowd. then I looked back at him and I said, 'Jewish crowd, my ass.' You never heard black people laugh that hard."

As for Dean, "I gave him the funniest line a performer ever had. When he came onstage, I told him the band would vamp for 10 seconds. Then he would walk over there and ask, 'How long have I been out here?' He had just walked out! You never heard a laugh like that. I helped Dean a lot."

He seizes the moment to tell his interviewer what's funny, what's not. And why he was.

"The secret of comedy," Bishop says, "is when the audience can't wait to hear what you're gonna say. I see them doing comedy now so loud. My conception of true comedy is to be overheard, not heard. That's what made the Rat Pack so great."

He later plays an old interview with comedy legend Stan Laurel, who told a biographer that Bishop was his favorite because "he's very natural. He's not loud and he's very, very witty."

Asked when the interview was recorded, Bishop briefly becomes agitated. "You notice how you didn't make a single comment?" he asks in turn. "You didn't say anything. You didn't say, 'Geez, that's quite a compliment.' "

Then he reads another compliment from an old magazine article. This one praises him for being "the only member of Sinatra's gang who can tell the leader what to do with himself."

Did that mean he knew Sinatra well enough to know his moods?

Bishop bristles anew at any insinuation he was subservient.

"I didn't know Frank well. I knew me well. What you're saying is I was catering to him. You're saying I knew Frank well enough so I knew how to handle him. No, I knew me well enough, how to handle me. If he didn't like what I said, it's still me. Do you understand the dishonesty in your particular business? I don't know if you understand it."

But it's time for lunch. Bishop makes himself a chocolate milk shake to go with a hard-boiled egg and chocolate pudding from a sealed plastic cup. At Bishop's suggestion, his guest has a ham sandwich and pudding. Misty the cat sits on the kitchen table and watches us eat.

Joey, who says he's never had much of an appetite, still works out on a punching bag in his garage. It might help if he'd affix a picture of Johnny Carson, Jerry Lewis or Regis Philbin. Bishop doesn't care for any of them. His disdain for Carson dates to 1965, when Frank, Dino and Sammy did a benefit in St. Louis for St. Dismas House. Johnny stood in for an ailing Joey.

"I was in the hospital and I'll never forgive Johnny for saying that I hurt my back bowing to Sinatra. He was way out of line. If he wanted to say that, he could have also said, 'Joey, get well.' Johnny didn't know his place that night. I knew my place, you understand? And he had a great deal of respect for me, Frank did."

Bishop says he unequivocally "despises" Lewis for supposedly "making a stooge out of Dean" during their famed comedy partnership. And he still considers Philbin "an ingrate" for walking off their late night talk show during a salary dispute and then later bad-mouthing Bishop in a book.

"In the Hebrew religion, ingrate is the worst," he says. "I once told an interviewer that Regis is terrific. He gives lots of hope to people who have no talent."

Bishop says his favorite comedians were humanitarians as well. Danny Thomas. Bob Hope. Jack Benny. George Burns.

"In my view, in addition to being a great comic, you had to be a great human being," he says. "I didn't care how funny a guy was if he was not a nice person. It always seemed to me that his humor was false. I can't explain it any other way.

"Frank was Frank," he adds. "There was no phoniness . . . When we were playing at the Fountainbleau Hotel in Miami Beach, I went to my suite and saw a 19-year-old girl ready to jump off the balcony if she didn't get to meet Sinatra. It was 2:30 or 3 in the morning, and she had given the bellhop 10 bucks to let her in. I told her I'd see what I could do for her. I went to Frank's suite, but he was already in bed. Joe DiMaggio was playing cards with some people, though, so I told them. But Frank overheard what was going on and said he'd be right over. He came with flowers and a picture and invited her to the show with her mother and father. 'Joey, take care of the reservations,' he said. "That's Frank Sinatra.


Joey in late night and prime-time. "Ingrate" Regis Philbin is at left.

Bishop didn't attend the funerals of either Martin or Davis. "Funerals are too phony," he said in a previous interview. "I hate phoniness."

But he went to Sinatra's last rites, even though he emphatically answers "No" when asked whether the Rat Pack leader's death hit him hard.

"They had a thousand gardenias on the casket," he says. "One thousand gardenias on the casket! And I visualized him being in there and couldn't believe that he was dead. And yet I was grateful that he wasn't suffering anymore. If anybody liked to live, it was Frank. And to deprive him of living -- that's not living for him, being in a bed. You understand?"

We wind down our visit by watching a tape of Bishop's old sitcom, an episode in which the late ventriloquist Edgar Bergen guest-starred. Bishop watches approvingly, obviously enjoying his comedic timing and ways with words.

"Have you noticed how conversational this is?" he asks rhetorically. "Not punching or trying to sell to an audience."

He earlier has declined to watch a tape of HBO's Rat Pack movie, in which he's barely a bit player. As usual, the other four members get the lion's share of attention while Joey, played by comedian Bobby Slayton, is reduced to hapless one-liners such as, "Hey, Frank, no part for a brilliant comic who never knows when to shut up?"

"Shut up," HBO's Frank retorts good-naturedly.

The real-life Joey Bishop prefers to remember the time he fed John F. Kennedy a great opening line tied to his controversial Catholicism.

"He said to me, 'Joey, I have to introduce you. Could you tell me what to say?' I reminded him that he promised not to allow his Catholicism to in any way affect his political positions. So I told him he could say, 'Wouldn't you know, with my luck, the first speaker I'm introducing is a Bishop.' "

"He hugged me. He kissed me. You understand?"

"And he got such a hand when he said that."