Joey Bishop, who deadpanned his way from South Philadelphia to comic stardom and a place in Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, died of multiple causes Wednesday night at his home in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 89.
With his blank expression and dry delivery, Bishop could convey in his signature phrase, “Sonuvagun,” a bemused wonderment that tickled audiences.
His low-key demeanor and understated wit made him the perfect foil to the Rat Pack’s hipster’s row - Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr. - who made their mark during the `60s, starting at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.
Bishop began his show business career as a standup comic and branched out into film and television.
He starred in a sitcom and a talk show during the 1960s, both entitled “The Joey Bishop Show.” Bishop also had roles in films, including “The Naked and the Dead” and “Ocean’s Eleven.”
“He was just the nicest, nicest, funniest guy,” said Philadelphia man-about-town Harry Jay Katz, a friend of Bishop’s since the 1960s.
“He patterned his style after Jack Benny,” said longtime Philadelphia deejay Jerry Blavat, another friend. “Jack Benny used one-liners with double takes. Joey Bishop would do the same thing: throw a line, wait for a laugh, give a look and throw another line.”
Bishop’s talent for one-liners won him Sinatra’s admiration. In a form of improv, Bishop crafted one-liners for Sinatra while Ol’ Blue Eyes was performing onstage, Blavat said.
Bishop treated the Chairman of the Board with a friendly irreverence.
Sid Mark, Sinatra expert and radio host, recalled that Bishop once told him “about when he opened for Frank at the Copa. Frank would be going on, and (Bishop) would say, `They love me. I don’t know how they’re going to be for you.’”
Bishop was born Joseph Abraham Gottlieb at Fordham Hospital in the Bronx, N.Y., on Feb. 3, 1918. The youngest of five born to Anna and Jacob Gottleib, he said he was “the smallest baby ever born there - three pounds.”
Three months after his birth, the family moved to Philadelphia, where his father operated a bicycle shop.
It became clear early that the youngster would not follow his father in the family business.
It also became clear that his life plans didn’t include higher education. He attended South Philadelphia High School, but left a semester short of graduation.
Bishop told the New York Journal American in a 1959 interview, “I tried it, but I didn’t like selling bicycles. So I went to New York to live with an uncle. He got me into an amateur contest, and I lost. He then got me a job in a hat factory at $5 a week, and I left. Then I teamed up with two other guys to form a comedy team called The Bishop Brothers Trio.”
The Bishop Brothers played East Coast burlesque houses in the late 1930s. None of the “brothers” was related and none was named Bishop - the name came from a neighborhood acquaintance who drove the trio to auditions.
When one of the brothers got sick and the other got drafted, Bishop went solo and kept the name.
Bishop played his first gig alone in Cleveland, at a club inauspiciously named El Dumpo, where he performed for a year.
More auspicious was his marriage to Sylvia Ruzga in 1941, a union that endured until her death in 1999.
Bishop was drafted in 1942 and spent four years in the Army. He even thought about making a career of the military. “It was the most security I ever had felt,” certainly more secure than show business, he told the Journal American.
But Sylvia was seriously ill and he needed money to pay her medical bills, so he got out of the Army and went back into show biz.
Bishop’s big break came when Sinatra saw him perform and had him booked into Sinatra’s Riviera club in North Jersey in 1952.
The Riviera appearance launched Bishop on a nightclub career that took him to New York, Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas.
Bishop broke into television in the late 1950s with appearances as a guest and substitute host on “The Jack Paar Show.” He also became a regular panelist on a game show called “Keep Talking.”
He got his own show, the first “Joey Bishop Show,” in 1961. Bishop portrayed Joey Barnes, assistant to a Hollywood press agent. That story line didn’t work well, and in the show’s second season, Bishop’s character became a talk show host. The situation worked well enough to keep the show on the air until 1965.
In 1967, Bishop became a talk show host for real. The second “Joey Bishop Show” was a late-night, ultimately futile challenge to Johnny Carson’s supremacy on NBC. It lasted only until late 1969, but it did give a big career boost to Bishop’s sidekick, Regis Philbin.
Later in his career, Bishop made frequent guest appearances on game shows and talk shows and often subbed for his old rival, Carson.
Bishop had not been much in public in recent years.
Katz said Bishop called him last Dec. 25, Katz’s birthday, as he did every year.
“He would always sing, and he had a horrible voice,” Katz said. “He would sing `Happy Birthday’ and say, `Can you guess who this is?’”
Bishop is survived by a son, Larry.
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