May 15, 1998 12:00 PM

If I could write a book about those times,” says comic Joey Bishop, 80, from his Newport Beach, Calif., home, “it would be titled, Was a Mouse in the Rat Pack. Of all the guys, I was probably the least known. These were big, big stars.”

Actually, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. would have towered over any entertainer ca. 1960, the year the Rat Pack, which also included actor Peter Lawford, ruled Las Vegas. At the Sands Hotel, where the quintet performed twice a night as part of the most stacked marquee in that town’s history, they sang, told jokes—often vulgar—and, at times, ad-libbed with tasteless abandon. One night Davis jumped up on the piano and wouldn’t budge. “Frank had to sing, so I just walked over and picked [Sammy] up,” Martin once recalled. “I went over to the mike and said, ‘I want to thank the NAACP for this wonderful trophy.’ ”

But it was offstage that the Rat Pack established their legacy as the kings of swinging. With the exception of their pal Joey, who was a happily married teetotaler, the four hep cats prowled their neon wonderland in sharkskin suits and skinny ties, foraging for booze and broads until the sun came up. And while the pack had a Bishop, Sinatra went by the nickname the Pope. Frank, Gay Talese wrote in 1966, “was the embodiment of the fully emancipated male—perhaps the only one in America—the man who can do anything he wants because he has the money, the energy and no apparent guilt.”

Indeed, he fashioned his platoon of playboys after the Holmby Hills Rat Pack of the mid-’50s, a cocktailing Hollywood clique formed by Humphrey Bogart for, as he put it, “the relief of boredom and the perpetuation of independence. We admire ourselves and don’t care for anyone else.”

In 1957, Bogie bought “the big casino” (death, in swingerspeak), and Sinatra, a member of Bogart’s original gang, re-formed it with himself at the center. When, in a late ’50s interview, Sammy complained that Frank’s talent did not give” him the right “to step on people and treat them rotten,” Sinatra didn’t forgive Davis’s Rat-finking for months. “That was it for Sammy,” Lawford recalled in Kitty Kelley’s Sinatra bio, His Way. “Frank called him a ‘dirty nigger bastard’ and wrote him out of Never So Few, the movie we were starting at the time. For the next two months Sammy was on his knees. Sammy was lucky that Frank let him grovel for a while and then allowed him to apologize in public a few months later.”

Lawford claimed he too suffered Sinatra’s sting. “I did everything I could to avoid setting off that temper,” he said. Lawford told Kelley that when he dated Ava Gardner, Sinatra’s ex-wife, Frank “threatened to kill me and then didn’t speak to me for five years.”

But it wasn’t really dissension that poisoned the Rat Pack. Although the Kennedys had sought Frank’s help during JFK’s run for the Presidency in 1960—Sinatra’s Mob friends allegedly helped swing the vote in Illinois, which was crucial to Kennedy’s victory—by 1962 the family, concerned about appearances, had decided to keep their distance. When, on the advice of his brother Bobby, the President canceled a planned presidential visit to Sinatra’s Palm Springs, Calif., compound, it was the beginning of the end. In the wake of the assassination, the national focus turned toward war protests and flower children, and the Rat Pack’s shimmering slickness—once so cool—seemed painfully out of date. Of course, there was also television. “Prior to television,” claims Bishop, “if we were working at a club somewhere, Frank could make a call and get us out [to work with him]. He couldn’t get us out of a TV series. That was the beginning of it.” And, adds Bishop, “we got older.”

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