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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Last of the Pack Can't Understand Why No One Calls

July 24, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

A few weeks ago, a Rat Pack television special more than 30 years old drew tremendous ratings for a family-oriented cable channel.

And ever since Frank Sinatra's death, a Rat Pack infestation has been growing.

There are new Rat Pack books all over the shelves. There are two Rat Pack films being made, one of which will be seen soon on HBO.

A renewed fascination exists with the lives and times of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and the lone survivor of the pack, Joey Bishop, who could have explained a few things and corrected a few errors for the authors and artists, having actually been a part of that scene.

If only someone had asked.

"I guess you wouldn't want somebody with the facts coming in," Bishop says. "You'd rather go with the hearsay."

He was there. He knows what really happened and what didn't.

Sinatra was no myth to him. Frank was someone Joey was close to, someone with whom he is inextricably linked in life.

At the funeral, he could have shared a few of those memories when Frank's friends began being brought up before the mourners to say a few words.

If only someone had asked.

*

A 9 1/2-hour marathon of "The Joey Bishop Show" will run on the TV Land rerun network Saturday, featuring episodes that aired between 1961 and 1965.

As would Jerry Seinfeld years later, Bishop had an NBC sitcom in which funny people would drop by his apartment.

Like when Buddy Hackett brings over a baby gift. Bishop deliberately kept himself in the dark so his reaction would be spontaneous when he opened the door.

"All I knew was that Buddy was bringing a baby present. I didn't know he'd bring a baby elephant."

In another episode, Leo Durocher has to listen to Phil Foster, a comedian and rabid Dodger fan, bellyaching about the team leaving Brooklyn. It was back in the days that, in his Vegas stage act, Bishop would invite Don Drysdale of the Dodgers up to sing, then replace him with the relief pitcher Ron Perranoski for the final note.

Quite apart from his Rat Pack ties, Bishop had a stature of his own. His late-night talk show ran opposite Johnny Carson's. He also guest-hosted "The Tonight Show" itself an astounding 207 times.

At a 1960 inaugural ball, which he emceed, Bishop recalls asking John F. Kennedy, "To what do you attribute your success?"

"All you've got to do is get the facts," JFK replied.

That stuck with Joey, who can't understand why Rat Pack historians would rather print or film the lies than learn the truth.

He likes to needle them. Once, when Kitty Kelley's tell-all about Sinatra came out, Bishop appeared on Phil Donahue's show and shocked the audience by saying he was happy with the book. With an expert's comic timing, Bishop added, "I've known Frank since 1952. She divulges all the women he's been with. Until I read the book, I always thought Frank was gay."

Bishop takes pride in timing. He was lauded by the likes of Stan Laurel and Jack Benny for his. Higher praise there isn't.

But the timing of all this Rat Pack revisionist history he could do without.

"The actor playing me on HBO called to ask for some photographs. I signed one: 'Please become a big star, so I can play you someday.' "

Now 80, Bishop was at home in Newport Beach on the night Sinatra died.

He remembers, "I fell asleep with the TV on. They must have announced on the news that he'd died, but I thought that I was dreaming. In my dream, I got dressed and I went over to Frank's house, where I found him alive. I said, 'So, another of your practical jokes, Frank?' "

At 7:30, Bishop went outside in his pajamas to get the morning paper. He found around 35 media people there, camped out, waiting for him. Then he knew Frank's death was no dream.

*

On stage, Joey Bishop was no mere mouse among giant rats. He was a big part of the act.

He can't understand why people diminish that. It reminds him of a show he missed because he was in traction. Carson, filling in, ascribed it to too much bowing to Frank.

"The joke's OK," Bishop feels. "All Johnny had to do was add, 'Get well, Joey.' "

It was a slight, like not being asked to say a few words at Frank's funeral. As the last of the pack, Joey says, "Don't you think you'd be at least acknowledged?"

What's done is done, though.

"Oh, well," he says. "I've got a Viagra joke. Want to hear it?"

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237- 7366.

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