He was a member of one of the most iconic show business acts of all-time. He played the top nightclubs of the day, had his own network television sitcom, hosted The Tonight Show more than 200 times, and was the star of his own late night talk show that ran for several years. He also hosted the Emmys multiple times, and appeared in more than a dozen feature films and countless TV shows as a guest star.
He was also, apparently, one of the most hated men in show business.
His name is Joey Bishop, and he’s chronicled by authors Richard Lertzman with Lon Davis in the new book Deconstructing the Rat Pack: Joey, the Mob, and the Summit (Prestige Cinema Books). It’s an unsparing look at how a top entertainment star could fall to earth through very human foibles.
Lertzman and Davis’s well-researched book includes details of mob-run Las Vegas, as well as extensive time spent interviewing Bishop, whose bitter fade started at the relatively young age of 50, leaving him practically forgotten upon his death in 2007 at age 89.
It’s a tale of a man whose talents didn’t adapt well to a changing cultural and entertainment landscape. Combined with a volatile temper and a tendency to scapegoat others, he leaves a legacy that’s a mile wide and an inch deep, at least from the book’s perspective.
Many of the people who worked with Bishop are quoted on the record with extreme vitriol, despising him for various and sundry tantrums and firings, along with a massive ego that erased credit from others. That Bishop’s show business career fell off a cliff isn’t surprising, given the depth of animosity and the many bridges burned detailed in the book. The authors leave the impression that it’s a wonder it didn’t happen sooner.
Bishop’s biggest backer was Frank Sinatra, who used him as an opening act that would warm up a crowd without stealing the show. Bishop’s deadpan delivery and ability to come up with quick retorts were perfect for nightclubs and talk shows. It’s a talent that served him well as a foil for the superstars of the Rat Pack, the magical stage act that featured Sinatra, Bishop, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford. But the US culture was turning away from tuxes and swingers, and Bishop’s abilities had a hard time adapting.
Sinatra eventually tired of Bishop, and his withdrawal from their professional association took away the special glow that was cultivated by Bishop’s association with the Rat Pack and Las Vegas.
Now, 60 years after the iconic Rat Pack epitomized a certain kind of cool and on the eve of Sinatra’s 105th birthday on December 12, coauthor Richard Lertzman answered a few Deadline questions about Bishop and the Rat Pack era.
Q: It seems like Joey Bishop was one of the most hated people in show business. Could he have been as or more successful if he were more likeable?
A: Absolutely yes. Bishop alienated co-stars, writers, directors, and producers. While he was on top, with Sinatra backing him, industry insiders were willing to put up with his hostility. By the time his star had begun to fade, he had burned so many proverbial bridges that no one wanted to work with him. This explains why his career was essentially over when he was still in his early fifties.
Q: You made much of the Rat Pack’s influence on the 1960 election. Do you see any parallels with 2020?
A: There are. Rat Pack followers of the early sixties tended to be right-wing men and women, with old-fashioned views regarding men and the way they treat women. It was a time when misogyny was the norm, and a woman’s place was in the home, or in some guy’s bed. These paternalistic attitudes began to be questioned with the advent of the women’s rights movement. Today, sixty years after the formation of the Rat Pack, there is a large, right-wing renaissance, with seventy million American citizens voting for Donald Trump, a man who adores the Rat Pack, and who has a questionable reputation as someone who subjugates females, including those accusing him of sexual abuse.
Q: Did you like Joey Bishop? I realize you spent a lot of time with him, but did that make him any more likeable?
A: I was quite disappointed during my first meeting with Joey Bishop. He struck me as a hard, intensely bitter, angry individual who felt he had been wronged by the entertainment industry. Although he realized that ongoing legend of the Rat Pack was the cause behind interviewers reaching out to him in his retirement, he resented the fact that the other aspects of his career were being ignored. He didn’t want to be questioned about Sinatra and “that fucking Rat Pack.” Still, when he relaxed, he could be quite funny, in a smart-alecky sort of way.
Q: Why was the assassination of JFK portrayed as the end of the Rat Pack?
A: The Rat Pack was so associated with JFK that for a time it was known as The Jack Pack. JFK, a noted womanizer, was a natural fit for a group of middle-aged men who perceived themselves as playboys. So, when he was killed, and so brutally, it took the wind out of the sails of the mindset established by the antics of Sinatra and his cohorts. At the time of the assassination, in late 1963, a new era in pop music was being ushered in, courtesy of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the drug culture. In contrast, five puffy nightclub performers in tuxedoes became the very antithesis of cool.
Q: What did the public like about Joey Bishop that others more intimately familiar with him did not?
A: Joey was an average-seeming guy, whose approach to comedy was not unlike Fred Allen, a cynical (but brilliant) humorist of an earlier time. This carefully calculated image, which earned Bishop the moniker “The Frown Prince of Comedy,” caught on with the public. He was also low-key enough to sustain a talk show for two years, taking a backseat to his more dynamic guests. The fact of the matter is that Joey Bishop was perfect as an opening act. Unlike his contemporaries Don Rickles and Shecky Greene, he did not project the type of energy needed to sustain a ninety-minute performance. Sinatra used him as his opener for years for the simple reason that Joey was dependable, and he did not wear out an audience before the headliner came on. When his fame skyrocketed in the early sixties, Joey was thrust into the headliner position, starring in his own sitcom. It was an uneasy fit. Well into his career, at the dawn of the eighties, he was back to opening for performers like Lola Falana. The circle was complete.
Q: Who is Joey’s parallel in today’s show business world?
A: Perhaps someone like Tom Dreesen, who has been a standup comic for decades. Dreesen even opened for Sinatra in the crooner’s sad, final years as a performer. The style that Joey Bishop had, however, would seem very dated in these harder-edged times.
Q: In the book, you hint at something that happened with Frank Sinatra that ended their friendship. What happened with Frank? Any theories?
A: Frank had just been through a very rough patch: his son, Frank Jr. had been kidnapped in December 1963. It was at that time that he asked Joey to fill in for him at the Cal Neva Lodge (of which Frank and Dean were part owners) during the summer of 1964. Joey said he would, but he began making demands on Frank, like providing him with a private jet and other amenities. Frank, who had been responsible for Joey’s success in the first place, was incensed. And once the Chairman was offended, that was it. Joey was no longer part of the Rat Pack.
Q: If Joey objectively read the book and didn’t take it personally, do you think he would have done things differently?
A: No. As Joey makes clear in his lengthy conversation with comedian Larry Wilde (who was kind enough to grant us permission to reprint that 1968 interview from his book, The Great Comedians Talk About Comedy), he had no sense of perspective on what made him a success. In our many discussions, Joey never took responsibility for his career upheavals—it was always the “cheap bastards” at the network, or some other scapegoat.
Q: What sort of venues would the Rat Pack be playing today? Would it be confined to casinos, or would we have seen something like the Sinatra tour with Dean Martin taken to stadiums?
A: More than likely, they would have their own HBO special. As to the preferred venues, that is hard to say. Dean Martin made it clear that he was uncomfortable playing the stadium venues that Sinatra favored late in his career. After dropping out of the tour soon after it was launched, he went back to performing in casinos. Obviously, it was the quest for the most possible profits by playing before twenty thousand fans (many of whom were not even around during the Rat Pack’s original run) instead of the more relaxed environment of a Las Vegas showroom. In addition, when the “Together Again” tour made its debut in 1988, Frank, Dean, and Sammy were past their prime. Dean had recently lost his son, Dino Jr., leaving him deeply depressed. Frank’s voice was weak, at times, and his memory lapses were becoming more frequent. Sammy would soon be diagnosed with throat cancer and would be gone within two short years. Joey, still on Sinatra’s blacklist apparently, was not even considered as a member of the tour. The sad fact is, their era had passed, and there was simply no going back.
Q: The book is extremely well-researched. What was the Holy Grail of items that you discovered along the way?
A: Thank you for saying that. Much of the information in the book comes from the eighty-five individuals I interviewed over a more-than-forty-year period. Also, it was while researching the archives that I found proof that it was Sands’ Hotel promoter Al Freeman who crafted the blueprint for what later became known as the Summit (ed: Sinatra’s preferred name for the Rat Pack).
Richard Lertzman is the author of several books, including The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney and Beyond Columbo: The Life and Times of Peter Falk.