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Last 'Rat Pack' Member Joey Bishop Dies

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JOHN ROGERS | October 18, 2007 07:26 PM EST | AP

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LOS ANGELES — The Rat Pack once was the coolest group of entertainers on the planet _ Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr. Oh, yeah, and a stone-faced comedian named Joey Bishop.

Although not as widely appreciated, it was Bishop with his deadpan delivery, dead-on timing and bottomless pit of jokes, who was "the hub of the big wheel," according to Rat Pack leader Sinatra himself.

Bishop, who also starred on two TV shows throughout most of the 1960s, died Wednesday at age 89. He turned out to be the Rat Pack's last man standing, having outlived Sinatra, Martin, Davis and Lawford.

"People would go see Frank and Dean and Sammy and everybody would think these guys were going to chew him up on stage but that was never the case," fellow comedian Sandy Hackett said Thursday from Las Vegas, where he was to portray Bishop that night in the long-running stage revue "The Rat Pack is Back."

The Rat Packers were a show business sensation by the early 1960s, when they appeared together at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in shows that combined music and comedy in a seemingly chaotic manner.

"In reality, he wrote almost all the jokes they all did," Hackett said. "He'd come up with something funny and they'd go, `That was great, Joey,' and then the next night one of them would use it and he'd have to come up with another joke."

With his clever asides, Bishop was asked by Sinatra to be the master of ceremonies at President Kennedy's inaugural gala, where the Rat Pack performed. When the president arrived, he turned to him and said, "I told you I'd get you a good seat."

The Rat Packers, who worked together whenever they were free of their individual commitments, also appeared in the films "Ocean's Eleven" and "Sergeants 3."

"They were the ultimate in cool," said film historian Leonard Maltin. "I think guys admired and envied them, women wanted to be with them, and I think Joey Bishop's deadpan style of comedy suited that group well. He was a combination straight man and comedian."

Recent years have brought renewed attention to the Rat Pack. The group was depicted in a popular 1998 HBO movie and "Ocean's Eleven" was remade in 2003 with George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the lead roles.

Before the renaissance, Bishop defended his fellow performers' rowdy reputations in a 1998 interview.

"Are we remembered as being drunk and chasing broads?" he asked. "I never saw Frank, Dean, Sammy or Peter drunk during performances. That was only a gag. And do you believe these guys had to chase broads? They had to chase 'em away."

Away from the Rat Pack, Bishop starred in two TV programs, both called "The Joey Bishop Show."

In the first, a sitcom that aired from 1961 to 1965, he played a TV talk show host. In the second, he really was one.

The latter program, which aired on ABC, was started in 1967 as a late-night challenge to Johnny Carson's immensely popular "Tonight" show. Like Carson, Bishop sat behind a desk and bantered with a sidekick-announcer, a young Regis Philbin in his first prominent TV role.

"It was the thrill of my life to be chosen by Joey as the announcer," Philbin said Thursday. "It was my introduction to the highly competitive late-night show world. It was also an introduction to a show business I had never known, the Rat Pack era, the amazing talents of those performers who I probably never would have befriended without Joey."

The show was canceled after 2 1/2 years, and Bishop went on to become a popular substitute host for Carson, filling in 205 times.

He also played character roles in such movies as "The Naked and the Dead" ("I played both roles," he once joked), "Onion-head," "Johnny Cool," "Texas Across the River," "Who's Minding the Mint?" "Valley of the Dolls" and "The Delta Force."

His comedic schooling came from vaudeville, burlesque and night clubs.

While in his teens, he formed a music and comedy act with two other boys. They called themselves the Bishop Brothers.

When his partners got drafted, Joseph Abraham Gottlieb, now known as Joey Bishop, went to work on his own. He was appearing in New York's Latin Quarter in 1945 when Sinatra saw him and hired him as his opening act.

While most members of the Sinatra entourage treated the great man gingerly, Bishop had no inhibitions.

"He spoke to me backstage," he would say. "He told me 'Get out of the way.'"

Born in New York's borough of the Bronx, Bishop was the youngest of five children of two immigrants from eastern Europe.

When he was 3 months old the family moved to South Philadelphia, where he attended public schools before dropping out shortly before graduation. He recalled being an indifferent student, once remarking, "In kindergarten, I flunked sand pile."

Bishop is survived by son Larry Bishop; grandchildren Scott and Kirk Bishop; and longtime companion Nora Garabotti. Sylvia, his wife of 58 years, died in 1999.

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Associated Press writer Bob Thomas contributed to this report.