Sorry, Mr. Bishop

Joey Bishop (Columbia Broadcasting)

Joey Bishop (Columbia Broadcasting)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Nearly a decade ago, back in my days at the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, a co-worker and I were working late. His phone rang and he picked up.

The caller was screaming. My fellow editor kept saying, “Yes, Mr. Bishop. Sorry, Mr. Bishop.”

Sure enough, it was the Joey Bishop.

If memory serves – the Web is of no help on this one – we had published a reader’s letter complaining that Bishop didn’t stick with his given name, Joseph Abraham Gottlieb. The letter writer suggested that the Rat Packer, who died last week in Newport Beach, Calif., at 89, must have been embarrassed by his Jewish roots.

The hell he was, Bishop let my fellow editor know.

Bishop was one of two Jews in the Rat Pack, the other being Judaism’s most famous convert since Ruth, song-and-dance-man Sammy Davis Jr. Best known for their movies and Las Vegas appearances, the group’s five singers and comedians epitomized the relaxed machismo of the early 1960s.

A low-key standup comedian, Bishop was in the group by dint of his friendship with Frank Sinatra, who often was the brunt of Bishop’s jokes.

“They know you can sing,” Bishop would tell Sinatra. “Why don’t you tell them about some of the good things the Mafia has done?”

Singer Dean Martin and Peter Lawford, the actor and in-law of the Kennedys, rounded out the group.

Bishop, a TV star in the ’60s who for a while had his own late-night talk show, was born in the Bronx in 1918. His parents, immigrants from Eastern Europe, later moved the family to Philadelphia. Bishop caught the bug for entertaining from his father, who taught him Yiddish songs.

And in reality, even after he hit the big time, a Jewish sensibility informed his act. Roasting his rival and friend Johnny Carson, Bishop said he would reveal a secret about the phlegmatic Nebraska-born talk-show host: “Johnny Carson is Jewish,” he said, and pulled a yarmulke out of his pocket, placing it on Carson’s head.

So, one last time: Sorry, Mr. Bishop.

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