The Enigma of Joey Bishop

The screening of The Joey Bishop Show this weekend on Antenna TV brought back some memories.

For many years, I heard “Joey” stories from friends who were some of our greatest comedy writers. Some were told at the “Lunches” ( made famous by Donna Kanter’s great documentary of the sane name)at the Valley Inn or Factors Delicatessen which included great writing legends such as Hal Kanter, Ben Starr, Rocky Kalish, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and others. Joey Bishop horror stories ( along with Red Buttons) were commonplace.

Garry Marshall told us more about his ( and writing partner)Jerry Belson’s nightmares with Joey as did stories from Harry Crane (who loved Joey).

Our own experiences with Joey depended on the day. He was usually rather bitter and angry. We kicked around a book idea. However, by that time he was older and living comfortably near Newport Beach he had lost interest in the business. He lived with his mistress and had broken off contact with many of his old friends.

He once called me on my cell phone as I was in line for a prescription at CVS and started screaming at me that he won’t discuss the Rat Pack- which we did not talk about. It was difficult trying to write a memoir with Joey as important elements of his life-especially the Rat Pack and his longtime girlfriend- were off limits.

Here is another viewpoint by LA Times writer Dana Parsons just after Joey’s death in 2007.

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Death ends a ‘feud’ that was both saddening and mystifying
October 20, 2007|Dana Parsons

In 35 years of meeting people on the job, I remember yelling at only two of them.

One was a zoo director in Omaha.

To this day, it amazes and saddens me that the other was Joey Bishop.

How was it possible that a guy who so thoroughly delighted me on various occasions became one of the most exasperating characters I ever met? How was it possible we engaged in an hour-long shouting match over the phone 11 years ago?

I know how it happened, but I still can’t believe it.

And it saddens me because Bishop — a comic star in his own right and the last surviving member of Frank Sinatra’s old Rat Pack — died in his Newport Beach home this week at 89, ending whatever chance we had for a reconciliation. Truth is, there was too much ill will for us to ever reconcile, but his death reminded me of our bizarre relationship and the strange intensity of passions it generated.

I met Bishop on a February afternoon in 1995, just a few days after he turned 77. I told him I just wanted to hang around with him for a while with no real agenda, and he agreed.

For 90 minutes in his home, he regaled me with the dry, sometimes sarcastic comedy that was his hallmark. He told stories about Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart and boxing three rounds for charity with Sugar Ray Robinson. He showed me photos of him emceeing John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural ball and remembered telling JFK, “I told you I’d get you a good seat.”

I was star struck, but the weird thing was that Bishop seemed to take some pleasure in my company, too. I remember returning to his home on a subsequent evening and as his wife, Sylvia, busied herself elsewhere in the house, Joey and I watched Wheel of Fortune. He was highly competitive and threw himself into guessing the puzzle before the TV contestants. We both loved boxing, and, if memory serves, he had tapes of old prizefights that he brought out.

He also seemed to take an interest in my career.

He told me once he didn’t know a lot about journalism, but he knew comedy. He liked my columns that had lighter touches. Eventually, on a few occasions, I’d be surprised by a phone call at home, with Joey offering advice.

“You-mah” he would say, with his Philadelphia inflection. “Use your sense of you-mah .”

The most important thing, he said, was attitude. Rodney Dangerfield made a comedy career out of affecting an attitude, Bishop said. No matter what subject I was writing about, he said, do it with attitude.

Things began to fracture when a documentary filmmaker wanted to reach Bishop for a proposed project on the Friars Club. He’d seen my column on Bishop and asked for help in contacting him. Caught off guard and wanting to help Joey regain some of his former notoriety, I gave out his phone number.

I immediately realized my mistake and phoned Joey minutes later to tell him what I’d done. He wasn’t happy, but when I explained the circumstances and he confirmed the filmmaker’s legitimacy, Joey agreed to let it slide.

His occasional phone calls to me continued, but because they all seemed to center on him reminding me to use “attitude” in my columns, I ran out of ways to say I was trying. The result was that we hit a wall in our communications.

Then, in what I think was probably February of 1996, I sent him a birthday card with a conciliatory note. My mother was visiting at the time and Joey had called during the day to leave a message for me. They had a nice chat (Mom was thrilled), and Joey said he’d call back that night.

Which he did. For 30 minutes, it was like old times. He told jokes, I laughed, and all hatchets were buried. Then, everything seemed to turn on a dime.

He made a reference to the old business of me having given out his phone number. I thought we’d resolved that long ago and got miffed that he was still making an issue of it. The conversation grew heated, but it took me 20 minutes or so to realize that he was talking about a second incident in which a stranger had gotten his number.

It finally dawned on me that Joey thought I’d committed the same crime again. I remember saying, “Oh, now I know what you’re talking about” and assured him I hadn’t done it again.

I assumed that would quell the argument. Instead, it intensified it. Joey said he couldn’t believe I would lie to him about the matter. I said I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t accept my version. He said I’d betrayed him because of resentment of him for giving writing advice. When I said that was ridiculous, it only seemed to make him madder.

After the original 30 minutes of jocularity, the conversation raged on for another 60 minutes — late into a Friday night and long after Mom had gone to bed — and left me drained and furious.

We never spoke again.

Over the years, I referred to it as “my show business feud.” If everyone should have at least one feud in their life, mine was a doozy.

I don’t know if Joey despised me to the day he died. I hope not. I never reached out to him because I couldn’t be sure we wouldn’t lapse into the same pointless argument again.

But on his death, that isn’t what sticks with me.

What sticks is the passion that, for whatever nutty reason, each of us seemed to invoke in the other. What bothers me is that it overshadowed my genuine regard for his comedic gifts — and I know it was important to Bishop that people saw him as a comic giant.

They say that passion or anger means you care.

If so, I guess I really cared about Joey Bishop.

And at the risk of self-delusion, I’ll tell myself that both his encouraging phone calls and screaming tirade meant that he cared about me too.