There are many definitions, quibbles, and theories about the Rat Pack, but according to Sandy Hackett, son of the late great comedian Buddy, it was mostly one brief shining moment. “It was all in a 30-day period in 1960 when they were together shooting Ocean’s 11,” he said. “And at night they would perform at The Sands.” And forget any disputes about who constituted the notorious Pack. “It was five guys: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop,” he said authoritatively. “Other people hung out with them, other guys and women, too. But that was the Rat Pack.”
Hackett knows this because he knew them all — particularly Joey Bishop. “He lived down the street from us, and I used to hang around with him,” said Hackett. Inspired by the proximity, Hackett created a tribute show to the original hip gangstas — and a Christmas spin-off, which comes to town December 8-9. But most of the reason Hackett’s Rat Pack show exists is because of his relationship with Bishop growing up. “When HBO was doing their movie about them, Joey called me up and said I would be the best one to play him. Now it was a movie, and the filmmakers had a different idea; I get that. But after that, I started putting together this show, and in it I play Bishop.”
Is it hard, I wondered, to play a comedian whose most salient feature was his featurelessness? Bishop was famously deadpan. “Did he just insult me?” Hackett asked his wife, Lisa Miller, also on the phone from their Woodland Hills home. Before she could reassure, Hackett laughed and said, “I have my own stand-up style, and it was different from Joey’s, so, yes, I’m acting.”
Hackett, who grew up between Las Vegas and Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s, worships his famous father, Buddy. “He could do anything — tell stories, jokes, improvise; he acted in movies and on television. I’ll tell you a story about him and Joey Bishop, though,” said Hackett Jr. “My dad and Joey were golfing when Bishop threw out his back on the 17th hole. They didn’t know what to do because [Hackett] drove a Corvette, and they couldn’t get him in the door of it. So my father strapped Joey onto the back of the car and drove to the hospital. When they pulled in, people asked what happened, and my dad said, ‘A deer shot him.’”
That Hackett humor got packed into his tribute show, which ran for five years in Vegas with the cumbersome title, The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey and Dean. Both shows have theatrical, funny, and scripted aspects but also provide room for improvisation, which is how Hackett met his wife, Lisa Dawn Miller, the daughter of the great American composer Ron (“For Once in My Life”) Miller. She had come to see the show and was admiring the guy playing Joey Bishop from her front-row seat. But she was also in the throes of a bad breakup and got a call during the show, and decided to go outside and take it in the lobby. “When she came back, she got another call,” said Hackett, “So I jumped off the stage, sat in her lap, and took her phone away.” Not only did she not scream, but she also fell for the showstopper and became vitally important to the show’s musical content, providing songs of her father and also composing tunes of her own. “All of this is absolutely true, crazy as it sounds,” said Miller.
The Christmas show plot is also crazy. “God sends the Rat Pack back to Earth,” explained Hackett, who neatly dodges the dubious prospect that Sinatra and pals end up in heaven. So with godly omniscience, they riff on current events, mixing up humor with stories and songs and jokes. Sandy and Linda also brought a new role to the play: their daughter. “After he jumped in my lap that night, I got pregnant,” laughed Lisa.
“And I even had a tuxedo on,” said Hackett.
Hackett prefers the old Vegas to the new. “I’ve been in both,” said Sandy, “and I can tell you for sure, the old one was better. What have you got today? Cirque de [Expletive.]. It’s fun, but it never gives you emotions, no tears in the heart. What the new Vegas is missing is the human touch. The old one had a lot of that.”
I asked Hackett if he could leave me with a favorite joke from those days, and he jumped in with something he thought was better — a story. Joey Bishop was playing in 1960 every night to a sold-out show, he said, and one night there was a crowd commotion, and a waiter came in carrying a chair. “Joey wondered what was all this about; he couldn’t wait to see who it was that they let in during a sold-out show, and who comes walking up to the front row but Marilyn Monroe. And Joey looked at her, and he said, “I told you to wait in the car.’”
“What Sandy will never tell you,” said Lisa, “what he would never say [is that] people come up to him and say, ‘Your father would be so proud.’ They laugh hard at Sandy’s shows. They pee, they laugh so hard.”
Rat Pack Christmas plays Tuesday-Wednesday, December 8-9, 7:30 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). For tickets, call (805) 899-2222 or see granadasb.org.