Joey Bishop, ‘Deconstructing the Rat Pack,’ and other cocktails of the moment
Deconstructing The Rat Pack: Joey, The Mob, and the Summit biographers Richard A. Lertzman and Lon Davis exclusively strip back deadpan Jewish comic Joey Bishop’s rendezvous with Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Johnny Carson, the Three Stooges, John Wayne, and unexpected mistress Nora Garibotti. Son of a gun!
The Lon Davis Interview
Who developed the proposal for Deconstructing the Rat Pack?
The book was Rick Lertzman’s idea, and he knew Joey Bishop personally. Sadly, I never met Joey. At the time he considered writing it, Bishop was the last man standing from the Rat Pack [1918–2007]. Rick’s idea was to do a book about the brief reign of that group, and do so from Joey’s perspective. My friendship with Rick goes back to circa 2007 when he contacted my publisher [BearManor Media] about contributing a chapter for Stooges Among Us , which I edited and compiled alongside my wife Debra.
What were your contributions?
There was a rough draft of the manuscript when Rick sent it to me to revise it. I have edited more than 300 books on the performing arts, and I was, naturally, very familiar with this latest project’s subjects. I gave the book its structure, breaking it into sections and titling the chapters. I also extensively rewrote the prose to give them clarity and a sense of smoothness.
There would be no book, however, were it not for Rick’s amazing 45-year backlog of recorded interviews with a veritable who’s who of show business, politics, and even members of the underworld, some of whom are relatives of the Lertzman family. The book pays special focus on these gangsters, who were really responsible for turning a nowhere-little-town of Las Vegas, Nevada, into the entertainment mecca of the world. In all, the story of Joey Bishop and the Rat Pack is based on 85 separate interview subjects. For many, their final interviews.
Give us a sample of your editing résumé.
Some of the early books I edited include the FAQ series for Applause Books [e.g. lengthy volumes on Seinfeld, Robin Hood, Dracula, Joss Whedon, and many others]. I also edited their biographies of Bob and Ray and Ringo Starr. For McFarland & Co., I edited numerous books that originated as professorial theses, including detailed works on directors Martin Scorsese, Robert Wise, Frank Capra, and Stanley Kubrick.
It was Ben Ohmart of BearManor Media who first asked me to edit some of his manuscripts. He had liked the way I had written — along with my wife Debra — my first book, Silent Lives: 100 Biographies of the Silent Film Era. Debra and I have since written King of the Movies: Francis X. Bushman and CHASE! A Tribute to the Keystone Cops. The forthcoming The Egg Came First: Ma and Pa Kettle on Film will be our sixth collaboration and the first-ever volume on the Ma and Pa Kettle film series.
Are you comfortable speaking with the press?
Rick and I have very different strengths. Besides his endless celebrity interview archive, he is a born promoter. He is currently working seven days a week, doing countless interviews on radio, television, and podcasts. Conversely, I am a writer and an editor. I feel most at home when I’m at my laptop, working on a book.
I did multiple joint interviews with Rick, but I didn’t enjoy the experience. It’s possible that I wore out that gene during my years as a standup comic. Even though I was very good at my job, I didn’t care for the lifestyle. In 1981, I chose to become a film historian and writer, prompting outrage from some of my fair-weather friends who liked to reflect in the glow of the spotlight. This even extended to my family, my mother in particular. So incensed was she by my decision that she kicked me out of the house and never spoke to me again.
Forty years have passed since that change in direction, and I have never once regretted it. Although I did occasionally return to performing, I intentionally kept a low profile. The only shows I did were in conjunction with Debra’s work for an upscale retirement community. Debra retired a number of years ago, and has since become handicapped. I, too, have experienced health issues, some quite serious. In 2017, I was diagnosed with submandibular cancer. This led to having my salivary glands removed and undergoing months of radiation. And just last year, I was forced to undergo a quadruple bypass when I was on a business trip in California.
Although my health is quite good now, I have lost some of the amazing stamina I once had. I sleep more than 12 hours a night. Rick, on the other hand, rarely sleeps at all. When I was making joint media appearances with Rick, I found I was too distracted to be able to fully concentrate on my writing and, more importantly, to look after Debra as she convalesces from her recent hip-replacement surgery.
The Richard A. Lertzman Interview
When did you realize that you had a knack for pulling the inside scoop out of folks?
I have always had a deep interest in history, particularly in context with show business. Because of that, I learned to be a good listener when interviewing my subjects. Knowing one’s facts and listening intently prompts most celebrities to open up and share information of depth.
Growing up, did you have a relative or friend who had a similar interest in entertainment history?
My dad Ronald Lertzman was an entertainer who got his start on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in the fifties. He went on to work in clubs as a singer and master of ceremonies. Through him, I became acquainted with some mobsters [e.g. Sands Hotel owner Moe Dalitz and Sands Casino President Carl Cohen] who had a hand in the formation of the Rat Pack.
Who was your earliest celebrity interview?
My first major encounter occurred in 1973. Because of a family connection to the Three Stooges, I was invited to stay with Moe and Helen Howard at their home in North Hollywood. During that remarkable five-day visit, Moe took me to the Motion Picture Country Home where I was able to meet Larry Fine [a January 1970 stroke had paralyzed the left side of Fine’s body] and Bud Abbott.
Your fondness for the slapstick trio is recounted in an absorbing chapter of Stooges Among Us. But little is known about your brief Abbott & Costello rendezvous.
Bud was living with his wife Betty in one of the cottages on the campus of the Motion Picture Home. He was old, frail, and suffering from cancer [Abbott passed away a year later at age 76]. He was also quite bitter about the way the I.R.S. took his home and other possessions due to tax evasion. Bud and Lou Costello [a heart attack prematurely silenced Abbott’s chubby, unpredictable comic foil at age 52 in 1959] were not businessmen — they were brilliant comics.
They were also inveterate gamblers. According to Bud, they would be paid for their shows in the casinos and then would gamble their paychecks away. Karen Sharpe, an actress who had appeared with them on their television show [in one of the final episodes, “Honeymoon House,” from April 2, 1954] witnessed her friends losing hundreds of thousands of dollars and was close to tears at the waste of it all.
The thing that truly stood out to me during my visit with Moe and Bud was the intense respect Moe felt for his contemporary. There was no question in Moe’s mind — or in mine, for that matter — Bud Abbott was the greatest straight man in the history of comedy.
How far along is your upcoming bio of Jerry Lewis?
I have a tremendous amount of material to form the basis of the Lewis book. Once the promotional phase of Deconstructing the Rat Pack has cooled down, I will be sending that material to Lon, who will begin the process of organizing it into a solid book.
How mercurial would Jerry Lewis be during your untold interviews?
I first met Jerry in 1995. I received something of an immediate “in” by being a friend of Bob Finkel, who worked with Jerry on some television projects [as far back as 1955 he directed Martin and Lewis on The Colgate Comedy Hour; Finkel also produced The Jerry Lewis Show, an anticlimactic 1967–1969 variety series on NBC]. Jerry loved Bob. I spent time on his boat [Sam’s Place] in San Diego and at his home in Las Vegas. I spoke to him countless times over the phone as well. Sometimes when he would call me, he started out sounding like Dr. Julius Kelp, his character from The Nutty Professor. “Hello, this is Jerry!,” he would say in that wacky voice. I can’t count the number of times he would put in false teeth and make faces.
You never completely knew where you stood with him. Jerry was always Jerry — unpredictable, brilliant, funny, sweet, didactic, and difficult. He could be more than prickly, swearing and expressing bitterness. I was never intimated by him, however, which may be one reason he tolerated me. During the final few years of his life, he had grown rather frail, and his memory was not as incredibly sharp as it once had been.
Did you interview Dean Martin?
I first attempted to contact Dean in the early ’80s, through his assistant. He wasn’t available. I tried again a decade later, but by that time he reportedly was suffering from lung cancer and no longer granted interviews [Martin’s final curtain came on Christmas Day 1995 at age 78; his mother Angela coincidentally died on the same holiday 29 years earlier].
I had seen Dean perform live more than once at the original MGM Grand in Las Vegas before it burned down in 1980 [since renamed Bally’s], so it must have been in the mid-’70s. Dean was the ultimate in cool. He owned the stage without even trying. There’s no one like him today.
I was also in Chicago when Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dean were on the first leg of their aborted Rat Pack reunion tour, “Together Again,” in 1988. It was a sad affair. All three of these once-great entertainers were past their prime by then, Dean especially. He couldn’t remember the lyrics to his songs, and it wasn’t just an act. I prefer to remember him when he was still in command of his abilities.
Did Joey bond with Dino? In the aftermath of the Rat Pack’s demise Joey continued teaming up with Dino in the rollicking comedy western Texas Across the River  as well as various episodes of The Dean Martin Show and The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast through 1980.
Joey was not close with any members of the Rat Pack. His friends were a group of Eastern-based comics who later moved to the West Coast [e.g. Phil Foster, Dick Shawn, Corbett Monica, and Buddy Hackett]. Occasionally, he and Dean played golf together, but there was no deep friendship there. When they made Texas Across the River, the director [Michael Gordon] was constantly asking for multiple takes of a scene. Dean made a point of saying, “Joey and I aren’t actors — we’re performers.”
Dino’s tongue in cheek endorsement on the rear jacket of Joey’s Sings Country Western [1968, ABC Records] is a riot. According to Dino, “My pal Joey called me to say that he was going to record an album of country and western songs. I laughed so hard I dropped the phone. Then, just a couple of weeks ago, he brought the album over to my house. I threw him out…” Chapter 25, “The Catastrophe of Success: Joey Hits Bottom,” leads off with the vinyl cover. I was kinda disappointed that you didn’t devote any ink to Joey’s one and only LP. Joey seemed to take the sessions seriously, recruiting Sinatra and Dino’s frequent arranger Ernie Freeman and Wrecking Crew engineer Chuck Britz. Even half the songs are Hank Williams standards. Who convinced Joey to go into the studio?
Joey was stationed in Texas during World War II, and while there he developed an affection for country music, particularly the songs of the great Hank Williams [the Hillbilly Shakespeare did not distribute his first A-side until 1947; that summer, proto-rock ‘n’ roll fifth single “Move It On Over” earned a Top Five placement on Billboard’s C&W chart]. Joey knew better than anyone that he had a horrible singing voice. He often said, “The way I sing, some of the notes I hit, only Jewish dogs can hear me.”
Still, during the ’60s, it was common for those in show business, including such diverse personalities as Password game show host Allen Ludden [Sings His Favorite Songs], Mae West [Way Out West, Wild Christmas, and Great Balls of Fire], and Regis Philbin [It’s Time for Regis!, 1968], to record their own album. One of Joey’s former co-stars, comic Guy Marks, had a decent-sized hit with the novelty song “Loving You Has Made Me Bananas” [№51 POP, №17 Adult Contemporary, №25 UK April 1968]. Ironically, Dean Martin wrote the liner notes for Guy’s album, too. Joey must have thought, ‘What the hell? I’ll do it.’ The results speak, or sing, for themselves. If you must approach it, do so with extreme caution.
John Wayne moved to Newport Beach in 1966 and lived there until his death 13 years later. Did he and Joey bump into each other?
It’s unlikely. Joey lived in a gated community. I hardly think they would have allowed someone riding a horse to enter it [Bishop met the Duke on at least three occasions. Wayne was promoting his directorial epic The Alamo on November 13, 1960, when he dropped by the New York set of What’s My Line? to be a mystery guest with Bishop serving on the panel. In the spring of 1968 Wayne and Bishop guest starred in two first-season episodes of the runaway hit comedy Laugh-In. Admittedly, their scenes may not have been filmed on the same day. Later that summer the True Grit Oscar recipient was interviewed on The Joey Bishop Show].
In the category of stupid decisions, which writer[s] should Joey not have let go?
It was dumb of Joey to fire virtually any writer, especially when it was they who put every word into his mouth. If one writer stands out, it would probably be Milt Josefsberg, a veteran who had worked for Jack Benny for years. Benny was Joey’s idol, and Josefsberg was a brilliant conceptualist. It was he who wrote the script for one of Joey’s best sitcom episodes, the one in which he played his own twin brother. Rehearsals were promising, as everyone thought Joey was at the top of his form playing the dual roles. But Joey took Josefsberg aside and began to rail against him for the script. When the writer asked what was wrong with it, Joey said, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it — the brother is getting all the laughs!”
[Author’s Note: Josefsberg did not pen any teleplays for The Joey Bishop Show, but he served as a script consultant and eventual producer between 1962 and 1964. Bishop played dual roles in two episodes — as himself in season one’s “Double Exposure” and “Double Time.” The latter aired on January 5, 1963, midway during the second season and fits the timeline of Josefsberg’s tenure as script consultant. Late night TV host Joey Barnes [Bishop] performs stand-up for NYC prison inmates. Turns out the bespectacled Light Fingered Louie is an exact doppelgänger who sees opportunity to plot his third escape attempt. Sam Denoff supplied two scripts for The Joey Bishop Show, both in the third season after Bishop’s outburst occurred. He is the source of the anecdote as relayed to biographer Michael Seth Starr].
Joey, in general, looked down on his writers, in some cases out of jealousy. He used to call Fred Freeman “college boy” because he was an educated man. Once, when Freeman referred to him as “the protagonist,” Joey, unfamiliar with the word, punched him in the mouth! [Freeman submitted six scripts in the first and second season of The Joey Bishop Show, 1962–1963].
What are the odds of Joey’s second TV series, also titled The Joey Bishop Show, resurfacing? Loaded with classic Hollywood interviews and musical performances, the 90-minute late night programmer was broadcast live from the West Coast and gave Regis Philbin a nationwide platform as Joey’s effusive sidekick. Originating in 1967, it unsuccessfully battled The Tonight Show in the ratings before being replaced by The Dick Cavett Show, which also failed to topple Johnny Carson.
There was little-to-no sense of preservation on the part of the networks 50 years ago. Once a show had aired, it had no commercial validity, or so they thought. As a result, many talk shows, including early Tonight Shows and Merv Griffin, were simply erased. Fortunately, some Joey Bishop episodes still exist, but not many [about 80 out of 700]. ABC does not own them. They are licensed from Joey’s estate by Retro Video, with whom I have been in contact. Thus far, there is no discussion to make the surviving tapes available although a few stray, unrestored clips have found their way to YouTube.
When did Joey quit kissing showbiz ass?
Joey was one of the biggest ass-kissers in show business during his prime — it was a main reason for his mega success. But when his career began to fade in the late sixties [i.e. the cancellation of ABC’s late night contender The Joey Bishop Show in December 1969 after a 33-month run], he knew it. Now financially secure due to shrewd investments, Joey must have realized that there was little to gain by continuing to play up to his contemporaries. Besides, he had burned far too many bridges by that point in his career.
What were some of Joey’s “shrewdest investments”?
Joey had attorney Ed Hookstratten [Elvis Presley and Johnny Carson were also clients] investing for him, resulting in some valuable property deals. But to show you the kind of guy Joey was, he had a broker who died suddenly at a young age. “That son of a b — ch!” he yelled to no one in particular. “Here he was making so much money for me and then he up and dies!”
How do you reconcile the fact that Joey could be so bitter and prickly and engender hatred among his colleagues, yet in the blink of an eye give you a guided tour of his home, let you spend hours asking questions, and treat you like a king?
I don’t know if I’d say he treated me like a king. I took his picture once and he retorted, “F — k you. I said, ‘No pictures.’” Joey, like most former celebrities, had a terrific need for attention. I was well informed about his career and I made sure to laugh at his jokes, regardless of how many times he repeated them. When it wasn’t I who was there stroking his ego, some other interviewer was.
After being a late night rival of Johnny Carson, how did Joey stay in the King of Late Night’s good graces and continue guest hosting The Tonight Show well into the ‘70s?
It got down to one word — ratings. When Johnny was away from his desk, which was extremely common during the ’70s and ’80s, he wanted the guest host to keep his audience from changing the channel. Joey was a host who did not take attention away from Johnny, and who kept the ratings up. In fact, Johnny had Joey on as a special guest on his 10th anniversary show [October 2, 1972]. Also on the couch were Don Rickles, Jerry Lewis [even Dino submitted a cold open], and Jack Benny, the latter being the comic idol of both Joey and Johnny.
Joey’s career was “essentially over when he was still in his early fifties.” Did any comeback opportunities materialize?
Perhaps the biggest chance for Joey to reestablish himself in the business was when he was offered the lead in the Broadway hit Sugar Babies during Mickey Rooney’s absence. Unfortunately, his range of talents was so limited that he could not fill the bill — or the seats [midway through a projected four-week February 1981 residency Bishop was suddenly replaced by flamboyant nightclub act Rip Taylor].
Why did Joey not seize the publicity surrounding The Delta Force  and accept more film work? Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin lead an elite US Army squad tasked with rescuing hostages that were hijacked midair by Lebanese terrorists. Joey lends gravitas as a persecuted Auschwitz concentration camp survivor.
Joey was not an actor and there was no call for his services. Had he been offered more roles, no doubt he would have taken them. This would not have been the case in prior years, when he was making $50,000 a week in Las Vegas. Films paid nothing compared to that.
Based on the quality of his performance, what Joey film or TV role deserves appreciation?
Joey is ideally cast in the “Deny, Deny, Deny” segment of Gene Kelly’s directorial effort A Guide for the Married Man , costarring Walter Matthau. In that brief skit, he plays the husband of Ann Morgan Gilbert [Millie Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show] who, although he is caught red-handed with another woman in bed [Sharyn Hillyer], ingenuously employs a non-flustered reaction to convince his hysterical wife that nothing had happened. It’s hilarious.
Probably the most terrible film he ever made was his son Larry’s Mad Dog Time , in which Joey and an ailing Richard Pryor make an appearance as a mortician and grave robber, respectively [Bishop’s final movie gives him a sole line of dialogue — “hello”].
What did Michael Seth Starr exclude from his 2002 biography Mouse in the Rat Pack: The Joey Bishop Story, that you remedied with your book?
Michael did a fine job of documenting Joey’s life. He is a good guy, as well. He granted us a great interview, during which we compared notes on our visits with the embittered comedian. Michael has been a great source.
Michael did not have the benefit of knowing about Joey’s late-in-life affair with young assistant Nora Garibotti. To be fair, no one did at that time. Even I did not learn about it until the story was broken by former Los Angeles Times reporter Brianna Bailey [seven months after Bishop’s death]. My research also allowed us to give a detailed description of how the Rat Pack was conceived.
Why did Joey’s son Larry not contest his will when seemingly everyone else — i.e. his rabbi, attorney, financial advisor, and mistress — did?
Try as we might, we never were able to interview Larry Bishop for the book. Had we done so, we would no doubt have asked him that very question. But, since we did not, anything we conclude would be pure speculation, something we assiduously avoid.
You dedicated Deconstructing the Rat Pack to your late wife, Diana Christina Lertzman, who faced a three and a half year war with cancer until drawing her last breath at age 61 in 2019. What did your “shining light and guiding star” do for you?
Diana was a wonderful woman, and the best support a writer could ask for. She also knew how to put me in my place, something we all need from time to time.
What’s a Joey joke that would kill these days?
As with everything related to comedy, it depends upon who is telling the joke, and the audience to which it is being told. Joey’s jokes have the same rhythm as most monologists of his era, the one-line Henny Youngman/Milton Berle approach. One joke he routinely quoted is still amusing. It goes like this:
We were very poor when I was a kid. I remember one winter it snowed, and I didn’t have a sled. I used to slide down the hill on my cousin. And she wasn’t bad.
Actually, that might qualify as a three-liner, but you get the point.
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© Jeremy Roberts, 2021. All rights reserved. The Richard A. Lertzman and Lon Davis interview was edited and sequenced for clarity. To touch base, email email@example.com and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.