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On the Sunny Side : An Ill Wind Blew the Joey Bishops to Lido Isle, and They've Been There Ever Since

November 26, 1987|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | For The Times

Joey Bishop is apologetic. Tugging at a blue cap, the comedian and former talk-show host says he's not looking his best. He slipped and fell the other day and had to have 20 stitches sewn on his head and his nose bandaged.

But you'd never know he took a tumble. Or, for that matter, that he is pushing 70 years old. Tanned and fit, with dark hair flecked with gray, a bare-chested Bishop straddles a lawn chair on his waterfront patio and sips coffee from a porcelain cup brought by his housekeeper.

"I love it here," says the 69-year-old resident of Lido Isle, Newport Beach. "I'm mesmerized by the water. But my main reason for living here is, the tour boat goes by and announces me every day. And what I like is he doesn't even say comedian . . . he says 'screen actor.' "

It was 15 years ago that Bishop, a Beverly Hills resident at the time, encountered stormy seas on a return trip from Mexico with his wife, Sylvia, on their 38-foot Laguna schooner. Seasick and frightened, the couple sailed for 11 1/2 hours in 60-knot winds and 16-foot swells until they reached Newport Beach, where they sought shelter at the Balboa Bay Club.

The next morning they looked around and fell in love with Lido Isle. That day they bought the house they've lived in ever since.

Blue water slaps the patio's edge as Bishop stretches his lean legs across the chair. "You know, Buddy Hackett was here one day and, looking out at the water, said (Bishop puckers his lips and slips into Hackettese) 'Boy, look at the size of your backyard.' "

Unlike his early Rat Pack image, Bishop is a homebody married to the same woman for 46 years. The couple live an hour from their son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons in Hollywood Hills--about as close to L.A. as the Bishops care to get.

"There's a quaintness to it here," Bishop says. "You can still walk into a store and people still say, 'Hello, how are you? May I help you?' And my wife, who is a black-belt shopper, she loves it here."

His favorite haunts tend to be daytime attractions (the Bishops retire early and don't drink) located close to the sea: Fashion Island, Lido Isle, Balboa Island, the Newport Beach Country Club and the Balboa Bay Club.

"My favorite place is a little Italian Restaurant on Newport Boulevard. It's like going to someone's house for dinner. It's called Grillo's; you should try it. They make their own pasta . . . and you feel like you're visiting an Italian family for dinner. Lots of Jerry Vale in the background."

The area's casual style attracts Bishop as much as the sea breezes. He shops in shorts and often heads for dinner straight from the golf course.

"I love the attitude. It's great to be able to walk around in shorts; you know, it's casual."

All the things Bishop loves to do are in the neighborhood--golf, boating, jogging paths--but his real passion is games: cryptograms, crossword puzzles and TV game shows. He's hoping to launch a TV comeback soon by being host for a new game show, tentatively called "Just Jokin'." Rehearsals began this month, but he's uncertain what direction the show will take. "All I know is the consolation prizes will be free dinners at restaurants recently closed and a bicycle seat built for four. No bicycle, just the seat."

The little guy with the big ears didn't begin his career as Frank Sinatra's sidekick in "Ocean's 11." His show business debut came more than 20 years before he joined the Rat Pack in the early '50s. Born in the Bronx the youngest of five children, Bishop arrived prematurely at 2 pounds, 15 ounces in 1918, a time when three-pounders rarely survived.

"An Italian woman in the tenement told my mother, 'Annie, just put him on the fire escape and every time he opens his mouth stick a bottle in it.' I guess it worked."

His family later moved to Philadelphia where, when he was 10 years old, he began performing as a mimic on "The Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour" on radio.

From Philadelphia the young comedian drifted to the Borscht Belt, then New York City, where during a show at the Latin Quarter he was discovered by Frank Sinatra, who asked him to perform with him. At the same time he was being wooed by ol' Blue Eyes, he was appearing on the Jack Paar show.

From there it was motion pictures ("The Deep Six," "Onionhead," "The Naked and the Dead," "Sergeants Three," "Valley of the Dolls," "Guide for a Married Man"), TV shows, White House inaugural shows and stand-up acts. Bishop worked with Chuck Norris last year in "Delta Force" and three months ago boxed former lightweight champ Danny Lopez for charity. Despite his long and varied career, he is probably best known as the host of "The Joey Bishop Show" during the 1960s.

Bishop's appearance hasn't changed much in the 20 years since America stopped tuning into his talk show. The ears still protrude boyishly, the lips are still full and he has all his hair. But his style has changed. The new breed of brainy comics has raised comedy from its slapstick roots to a more cerebral humor. And Bishop wants in on the fun.

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