It's amazing to think that, until a few days ago, there was still a living member of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack. The news might as well have read that one of Lincoln's generals had just expired, so remote does that bygone era seem to us who were born after Frank and his cronies ruled the world in the early '60s. And even now, the question remains for a lot of us who weren't there: Who the heck was this guy, anyway?
I'm an obsessive Frank Sinatra fan. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. I've seen a bunch of Peter Lawford's films, which pop up on TV from time to time. But I know next to nothing about Joey Bishop. According to people who saw him onstage or on TV, he was a hilarious, acerbic comic genius. But except for his name, Joey Bishop seems to have disappeared from the pop culture landscape.
Bishop's not featured in any of the officially released Rat Pack recordings. One of the few surviving videos of the clan onstage features Johnny Carson subbing for Bishop, who was injured that night -- "he hurt himself backing out of Frank's presence." He was one of the most successful comedians of the '50s and '60s, but you can't buy a CD of his shtick. His early '60s sitcom is nowhere to be found in syndication (although you can find it on DVD, but it's not particularly good). His performances in the Rat Pack's early '60s films (Ocean's 11, Sergeants 3, etc.) aren't much more memorable than the films themselves. He had his own talk show in the late '60s, and was a substitute host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show over 200 times, but good luck ever seeing one of them. Even his reputation as "Sinatra's favorite comic" was usurped by Don Rickles, who palled around with Ol' Blue Eyes for years after Bishop's career had wound down.
For the last decade or so, Joey Bishop was best known as the lone surviving member of the Rat Pack, and while I know people who spoke with him in recent years, he never milked his tangential fame on the talk show circuit or with the publication of a tell-all book (although he did have a title for it -- "I Was A Mouse In The Rat Pack"). Now that he hasn't even got not-being-dead to distinguish him, how will future generations remember him?
In the end, I suppose, Joey Bishop will be best known for who he palled around with more than for anything he actually did. But considering the company he kept, perhaps that's enough.
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