Son of a gun?
No, but as son of a bike repairman and his wife, émigrés from central Europe, smart as a buckshot Joey Bishop — better known to his folks and kin when born in New York as Joseph Abraham Gottlieb — used comedy as his vehicle of choice to get him going in South Philadelphia, eventually leading him to become a big wheel and wheeler-dealer in Hollywood.
Using the stoops of his South Philadelphia home as a step up the ladder of understanding what made people laugh — "I'd listen to these stories in the neighborhood and got a good understanding of human nature" — Bishop made his best move on the chessboard that was show business by running with the pack led by a blue-eyed crooner known as the "Chairman of the Board."
As the least likely member of the Rat Pack — whose members, Frank, Peter, Dino and Sammy, packed them in in Vegas and the old 500 Club in Atlantic City, N.J. — Bishop was their errant knight of comedy, the sour-faced comic who brightened their patter with ad-libbed gags for their gigs.
When he died last month at the age of 89, Bishop — who kept the surname of an act he formed, with two other comics, known as the Bishop Brothers — he himself had the last laugh on a career and life that was repeatedly loaded with laughs.
His bio bulged with credits including his own late-night TV talk show in the '60s — seen at the time as a challenge to Johnny Carson's dynasty — and TV sitcom, with a delicious Abby Dalton as his devoted wife, both projects which failed but didn't stop Bishop from becoming a familiar face on the small screen. Indeed, though once a challenger to Carson, he gave up the throne and joined his competitor's court, proving a popular substitute host for the man whose initials would be daunting for any aspiring late-night wannabe.
Bishop also had an eye for talent. When debuting his own talk program on ABC, he introduced a little-known announcer named Regis Philbin as his sidekick. In one of TV's more iconic moments, Philbin came onto the set while Bishop was broadcasting live and interrupted his boss to say he was quitting. Far from part of the skit, felt Philbin, as he said at the time, he was dragging down his host's popularity and chances for success.
An obviously flustered Bishop, caught off-guard, convinced Philbin to stick around albeit the show itself was short-lived without any other histrionics to hamper it.
Over his 60 years in the business, Bishop took a number among the best of the best: The guy who resembled nothing if not a good counterman at the deli sliced into history when Comedy Central named him as one of the top 100 standout stand-ups ever. Okay, he came in at 96, but then again, as Bishop would have interpreted it, it's better than his golf game.
Rolling the Dice
And he was game for much — including a movie career, which roared with the Rat Pack in the original "Ocean's 11."
And when it came to life's roll of the dice, Bishop had a dicey shot at it: If it was worth taking, he took it.
Much honored over the years, he still has family in Philly and always came back to do good, whether taking part in a Federation Allied Jewish Appeal (now the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia) event; emceeing the local Variety Club telethon; hosting the former Continental Bank's Tournament of Stars golf classic; or receiving the Ed Wynn Award from the Convention and Tourist Bureau, handed him by its president and Bishop buddy, Abe S. Rosen.
He had a taste for the city. And how he loved Bookbinder's, booking a table whenever possible while in town. But he eschewed special considerations. Having lunch with him there after he had just appeared on "The Mike Douglas Show," I recalled him being guided to a table at Bookie's and ordering a simple soup and salad.
When brought the wrong choices by an apparently nervously eager-to-please waiter, Bishop patiently returned the order with a smile and a sigh. "They treat me here like I'm some big deal; I wish they wouldn't. They go overboard to treat me nice and, hey, I'm just from the neighborhood."
When he left those stoops, he didn't become stupefied, believing his own great press. He always had a handshake ready for old friends, like broadcast pioneer Lew Klein, or Rosen, whose 80th-birthday celebration in Old City — attended by the high and the mighty and the funny — was highlighted by a West Coast call from Bishop.
When Bishop phoned, Rosen was not yet in the room, and the comedian was asked if he could wait just a minute so they could get the birthday boy. "Hey, I'm calling from my boat. What, you're putting me on hold? A celebrity like me? Only in Philly would they do that!"
His self-deprecating wit and "son-of-a-gun" gimmick triggered a hilarious response among the hundreds seated that day, reminding all that you could take the boy out of South Philly but the soft pretzel remained.
One of Bishop's biggest treats was being dubbed "Philadelphia Ambassador of Mirth" — a title that traveled well, including down the shore, where he brought his "Bet-a-Joke" show to the Claridge Hotel.
One of the bets he made was with himself, and it was one in which he was holding all the cards but for one — bigotry. A proud Jew, married to the former Sylvia Ruzga for nearly 60 years before her death in 1999, and dad to director Larry Bishop, he recalled at one of our get-togethers his regret at sticking with the name Bishop.
"When I first started out in show business, I was told to hide my Jewishness, but never did."
But Bishop's crowning touch was to admit when he made a mistake. "Today," he said of his thoughts on his stage name, "I would probably still stick to the name Gottlieb."