Few entertainers get lucky with a catchphrase or persona that makes them a household name. Jack Benny played on his cheapness and vanity attributes. Bob Hope was Old Ski Nose, Henny Youngman, the King of One Liners and Jackie Gleason- The Great One, just to name a few.
Milton Berle milked the show business lie that he stole other acts material. In fact, he was one of the few who legitimately paid for routines rented from the originators, but not the performers. Another comic may have done a bit in Vaudeville that Berle saw and wanted to revive on his television show. The guy who performed it in Vaudeville would get incensed because he considered it his act. But Berle was smart. He knew that the performer paid a gag writer to put together the bit. The rule was that the bit’s ownership stayed with the writer, not the performer. He would seek that person out and pay him for the use. Nothing wrong with that- that’s why they called it show business.
Joey Bishop was another one who got lucky with a persona as well as catchphrase. He coined the expression “Son of a Gun” when he first used it in a cameo appearance in a movie called Pepe and received such a tremendous amount of fan mail telling him how funny the bit worked in the film. He was also known as having a dour expression, sort of like the look on the face of a headwaiter when called out to listen to the complaint of a dining customer.
Back in the late 1950’s, Joey Bishop lamented about how television was killing his nightclub business. He complained that people who watched Gleason, Benny, Berle, and George Gobel during the course of the week for free on tv were not going to waste their time going to see him and pay through the nose to support his appearance fee. At that point in his career, he was making about five thousand dollars a week working the fancy club circuit.
Rather than fight it, he took a gamble and cut down his club appearances and started to work on television. This gave him such instant recognition throughout the country that by the mid-1960’s he was pulling down seventy-five thousand dollars a week doing Vegas. He no longer lamented television.
Despite his universal comic appeal, Bishop was a difficult man to work with behind the scenes. He was both a perfectionist and a paranoid who believed that the public had a very narrow perception of him. He stepped all over anyone he worked with to ensure that perception was maintained. He was known to hire other actors for his productions amid great praise only to fire them weeks later because he thought they were out to make him look bad. Earlier, he got into a public feud with Ed Sullivan because he felt that Sullivan’s show hurt him more than helped him. This despite being on it several times a few years before he became a household name when he was desperate for any recognition.
You have to be a baby boomer who has already hit the speed limit in age to remember the night in 1967 that Joey had David Janssen on as his special guest. Janssen portrayed the police-dodging anti-hero Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive show for several years. What made the appearance special was at that time Joey’s talk show was telecast live at 8:30pm Hollywood time for viewing on the East Coast and Midwest. Janssen was on to talk about The Fugitive series finale in which the fate of Kimble would be revealed to the nation. 75% of all television sets were tuned in to watch that national special event, much like years later for the end of MASH and “Who Shot J. R. Ewing” shows. However, Janssen had to couch his words because The Fugitive had not yet been shown on the West Coast.
That night would go down as the high point of both Joey and David’s career. Janssen would never again reclaim the fame he experienced playing The Fugitive. In fact, it probably killed his career. Whenever he was in a movie or television show, most people would see him still as Dr. Richard Kimble. This did not stop Janssen and was a workaholic ending up doing over 20 television movies before he succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 48.
Bishop lashed out at critics who panned his talk show that was on the air from 1967-1969. He tried to let his sidekick, Regis Philbin, take the fall for the low ratings at one point by orchestrating Regis’ fake on-air quitting. It almost backfired but Regis came back to the show a week later. Not long after that, the ax fell on Joey himself and he did quit, ala’ Jack Paar, on the air, never to return again. Ironically, in both on-air resignations, singer Vic Damone was each time waiting offstage to come on and do a number.
Although Joey tried to knock Johnny Carson off his perch as king of late night television, there was no hard feelings between the two immediately after Joey’s fall. In fact, Johnny took a macabre delight in agreeing to allow Joey to be his designated guest host for several weeks the following year when Johnny went on vacation. However, other than guest starring on a few benign tv shows or being a panel member of a couple of daytime talk shows, Bishop faded from the limelight secured by a very intelligent approach to investing the fortune he made from club appearances.
Despite whatever angst there was going on in Joey’s mind while trying to run his professional life, in front of the camera he always will be remembered by his fans as Mr. Cool. Son of a Gun!