Born Joseph Abraham Gottlieb, February 3, 1918, in the Bronx, NY; died of multiple organ failure, October 17, 2007, in Newport Beach, CA. Comedian. Joey Bishop, a member of the Rat Pack and sometimes known as Frank Sinatra’s comic, was known for his understated style and his penchant for ad-libbing. Among the singers and actors of the Rat Pack, a group that originally formed around Humphrey Bogart and at its height included Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, and Peter Lawford, Bishop was the sole comedian, and was responsible for writing much of their nightclub act during the 1960s.
Though best known for his years with the Rat Pack, Bishop’s career bridged stage and screen. From nightclub performances to films to television, Bishop appeared in all the mediums available for a comedian during his career. He was the star of a sit-com and was a night talk-show host and rival of Johnny Carson. A rarity in Hollywood, he was a faithful husband who was devoted to his wife, Sylvia Ruzga, until her death in 1999.
Bishop, born Joseph Abraham Gottlieb, was the youngest of five children, the son of Jewish immigrants. Never accomplished at school (according to CNN.com, Bishop once remarked, “In kindergarten, I flunked sand pile”), Bishop used school to test audiences, performing impersonations of actors including Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Durante for his peers. He also learned how to play the banjo and tap-danced. By the time he was a teenager, he had appeared on the radio and had won amateur competitions in entertainment.
After dropping out of high school, Bishop and two friends formed a vaudeville-style music and comedy act. Calling themselves the “Bishop Brothers” after the member of the group who had the car and drove them to their performances, the three worked clubs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Catskill Mountains. When Bishop’s partners were drafted into military service in 1941, the year Bishop married Sylvia Ruzga, he kept the name and went solo.
Bishop had some success as a solo comedian, performing regular gigs in Cleveland, Ohio, before he, too, was drafted in 1942. When he returned to show-business in 1945, his sarcastic style and ad-libbed performances caught the attention of critics. His career changed entirely in 1952 when he was noticed by Frank Sinatra at one of Bishop’s performances. At Sinatra’s invitation, Bishop began opening for the singer, and gained a reputation as “Sinatra’s Comic.” Soon, Bishop was getting higher profile jobs even when Sinatra was not also performing. He began making regular appearances as a guest on television programs, including Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and the game show What’s My Line?
In 1960, Bishop served as the emcee at the inaugural ball of then President-elect John F. Kennedy, whom the Rat Pack had made an honorary member. Bishop’s usual candid and casual sense of humor accompanied him there, as well: According to the Los Angeles Times, Bishop quipped to the Kennedys, “I told you I’d get you a good seat.”
Along with that high-profile event, Bishop began performing regularly with the entire Rat Pack in their stage-show at the Sands hotel in Las Vegas. The show and the first Rat Pack movie, Ocean’sEleven, both premiered in 1960. Though Bishop received last billing in the stage show, he was known to have written most of the material used by the performers. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Sinatra himself told Time that year, “meetings could not have come off without the speaker of the house, Joey Bishop, at the hub of the big wheel.” Bishop had a reputation for being the only member of the Rat Pack who could tease or put-down Sinatra, both in front of an audience and in private, and find himself further in Sinatra’s good graces.
As a popular guest on talk shows, including being the most popular guest host on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show through most of the 1960s, it was only a short time before Bishop was offered his own television program. The original Joey Bishop Show, a sit-com, aired from 1961 to 1965, and Bishop played first a public relations assistant, then a talk show host. In 1967, hoping to compete with Carson, ABC asked Bishop to host his own talk show, also called The Joey Bishop Show. Bishop’s sidekick was the then little-known Regis Philbin, who has become well-known for his own modern talk shows. Bishop’s talk show lasted two-and-a-half years.
Bishop appeared in several movies, including The Naked and the Dead, in which he quipped he “played both roles.’ He also performed on Broadway in Sugar Babies. But after the cancellation of his talk show in 1965, he fell out of the spotlight. Sinatra’s death in the late 1990s rekindled interest in the Rat Pack. Bishop, as the group’s last surviving member, was contacted for a number of interviews and was depicted in television movies. “The secret of comedy is when the audience can’t wait to hear what you’re gonna say,” Bishop said in a 1998 interview with the Dallas Morning News, quoted in the Washington Post. “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.”
“Joey has something going for him that a lot of others don’t,” Carson once said. “He’s likable.” His likeability, talent, and style, though it included a nickname “The Frown Prince” in reference to his dour expressions, earned Bishop praise from comedians including Carson and Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy. In a statement after Bishop’s death, Phil-bin said of working under Bishop, “I learned a lot about the business of making people laugh. He was a master comedian and a great teacher and I will never forget those days or him.”
After years of failing health, Bishop died of multiple organ failure in his home in Newport Beach, California, on October 17, 2007. Bishop is survived by his son, Larry, two grandchildren, and companion Nora Garibotti. Sources: CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2007/SHOWBIZ/Movies/10/18/obit.bishop/index.html (October 18, 2007); Los Angeles Times, October 19, 2007, p. B10; New York Times, October 19, 2007, p. C13; Times (London), October 20, 2007, p. 76; Washington Post, October 19, 2007, p. B6.
—Alana Joli Abbott