Frank Sinatra’s Good-Time Gang
The Rat Pack was the name given to a few choice friends of Frank Sinatra who performed and caroused with him in the early 1960s.The Rat Pack was never an official title — the name is said to have been borrowed from a group of drinking buddies of Humphrey Bogart who were dubbed a “rat pack” by Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall. But the name stuck to Sinatra’s gang, and nostalgia for the Rat Pack only seems to increase as time goes by.The Pack’s high-water mark came in 1960, when the group hit Las Vegas to make the spoofy heist film Ocean’s Eleven. Sinatra and chums filmed during the day, did two live shows nightly at The Sands, and drew crowds and publicity wherever they went.Here’s a quick review of the Rat Pack membership.
FRANK SINATRA was 44 and had been up, down, and up again by the time Ocean’s Eleven came out. He was a crooning sensation during World War II, only to see his career go in the tank late in the same decade. By 1960 he was back on top, having rebuilt his career with an Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity and a series of comeback albums. So strong was his charisma (and arrogance, some said) that he was nicknamed ‘The Chairman of the Board.’ He was the leader of the pack.
DEAN MARTIN is now so closely tied to the Rat Pack that it’s easy to forget he had already been part of an even more famous showbiz act. Martin and Lewis, his pairing with wacky comedian Jerry Lewis, was a smash hit in the early 1950s, with Martin playing the handsome straight man to Lewis’s goofball. After their acromonious split, Martin hooked up with Sinatra and became the Rat Pack’s unofficial vice-chairman.
SAMMY DAVIS, JR. was the most talented song-and-dance man of the group, an expert hoofer with a powerful stage presence. He was also an African-American, which made his chummy friendship with Sinatra rather daring for that era. Onstage the group took things further by joking directly about Davis being black; Sinatra and Davis often duetted on “Me and My Shadow.”
JOEY BISHOP was a sardonic standup comedian from Philadelphia who opened for Frank Sinatra in the early 1950s and stayed around for the Rat Pack years. Bishop was something of a stone-faced straight man for the group, though he wrote many of the laugh lines they used onstage. Bishop also became a regular on Jack Paar‘s edition of The Tonight Show.
PETER LAWFORD was the Rat Pack’s official pretty boy, a silver-haired heartthrob with a British accent. He also was part of an even more powerful “pack”: the Kennedy Clan. Lawford was married to Pat Kennedy, the sister of John F. Kennedy, and facilitated the friendship between JFK and Sinatra. (Sinatra recorded a special version of the tune “High Hopes” as a campaign song for Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign.)
SHIRLEY MacLAINE was a special friend of the Rat Pack, with status somewhere between kid sister and love interest. At age 26 she had already been nominated for a best actress Oscar for 1958’s Some Came Running, in which she starred with Sinatra and Martin. MacLaine spent time with the Rat Pack in Vegas and had a cameo in Ocean’s Eleven. The same year she joined Sinatra, Davis and Lawford in leading the national anthem at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.
ANGIE DICKINSON played Frank Sinatra’s estranged wife Beatrice in Ocean’s Eleven. A year earlier, Dickinson had starred with Martin and John Wayne in the western Rio Bravo. Like MacLaine she was considered one of the Pack’s favorite “dames” and (having survived most of the Pack) she’s often interviewed when it’s time for a Rat Pack retrospective.
(Photo: Angie Dickinson in a PR photo from the early 1970s.)
LIZA MINNELLI became an honorary Rat Pack member in 1988, when Sinatra, Martin and Davis reunited for for one last live performance tour. Minnelli’s credentials as an old-style entertainer — and the fact that her mother, Judy Garland, had been a good friend of Sinatra — made her a sentimental choice to fill in for Dean Martin when he fell ill. (Sidelight connection: Minelli’s father, Vincenti Minnelli, directed MacLaine, Sinatra and Martin in Some Came Running.)
(Photo: Liza Minnelli performs at Wembley Arena in 2002. Credit: WENN)
By 1964 the Rat Pack’s golden years were over. JFK had been assassinated, The Beatles had arrived, and the national mood had changed.Martin went on to play swinging secret agent Matt Helm in a series of films spoofing James Bond. Bishop got his own late-night talk show which briefly rivalled The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Lawford and Davis starred in the 1968 spoof Salt and Pepper, and Davis had a surprise #1 hit with his 1972 pop single “The Candy Man.” Ocean’s Eleven was remade in 2001 by director Steven Soderbergh, with George Clooney and Julia Roberts in the Sinatra and Dickinson roles.Frank Sinatra continued singing and drawing crowds for decades. In an ironic twist of events, the former swingin’ Kennedy supporter became a close friend of conservative First Lady Nancy Reagan, famously lunching with her in the White House. Sinatra died in 1998, leaving Bishop as the last male survivor of the Rat Pack glory days until his own death in 2007.