Hand color tinted photo of The Rat Pack in front of the Sands Hotel Marque in February 1960
(L to R) Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford & Joey Bishop
The Rat Pack was a group of actors originally centered on Humphrey Bogart. In the mid-1960s it was the name used by the press and the general public to refer to a later variation of the group, after Bogart’s death, that called itself “the summit” or “the clan,” featuring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, who appeared together on stage and in films in the early-1960s, including the movie Ocean’s Eleven.
Despite its reputation as a masculine group, the Rat Pack did have female participants, including movie icons Shirley MacLaine, Lauren Bacall, Angie Dickinson, Marilyn Monroe, and Judy Garland.
The fifties Rat Pack
The name “Rat Pack” was first used to refer to a group of friends in Hollywood, including the young Frank Sinatra. Several explanations have been offered for the famous name over the years. According to one version, the group’s original “Den Mother,” Lauren Bacall, after seeing her husband (Bogart) and his friends return from a night in Las Vegas, said words to the effect of “You look like a goddamn rat pack. “Rat Pack” may also be a shortened version of “Holmby Hills Rat Pack,” a reference to the home of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall which served as a regular hangout.
The name may also refer to the belief that an established pack of rats will belligerently reject an outsider who tries to join them (“Never rat on a rat”). So called “visiting members” included Errol Flynn, Nat King Cole, Mickey Rooney and Cesar Romero, however.
According to Stephen Bogart, the original members of the Holmby Hills Rat Pack were Sinatra (pack master), Garland (first vice-president), Bacall (den mother), Sid Luft (cage master), Bogart (rat in charge of public relations), Swifty Lazar (recording secretary and treasurer), Nathaniel Benchley (historian), David Niven, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, George Cukor, Cary Grant, Rex Harrison, and Jimmy Van Heusen. In his autobiography The Moon’s a Balloon, Niven confirms that the Rat Pack originally included him but not Sammy Davis Jr. or Dean Martin.
The sixties Rat Pack
The 1960s version of the group included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and for a brief stint, Norman Fell. Marilyn Monroe, Angie Dickinson, Juliet Prowse, and Shirley MacLaine were often referred to as the “Rat Pack Mascots”, a title which reportedly made these ladies feel like “one of the boys”. The post-Bogart version of the group (Bogart died in 1957) was reportedly never called that name by any of its members — they called it the Summit or the Clan. “The Rat Pack” was a term used by journalists and outsiders, although it remains the lasting name for the group.
Often, when one of the members was scheduled to give a performance, the rest of the Pack would show up for an impromptu show, causing much excitement among audiences, resulting in return visits. They sold out almost all of their appearances, and people would come pouring into Las Vegas, sometimes sleeping in cars and hotel lobbies when they could not find rooms, just to be part of the Rat Pack entertainment experience. The marquees of the hotels at which they were performing as individuals would read, for example, “DEAN MARTIN – MAYBE FRANK – MAYBE SAMMY” as seen on a Sands Hotel sign .
On June 20, 1965 Sinatra, Martin and Davis with Johnny Carson as the emcee (subbing for Bishop who was out with a bad back) performed their only televised concert together during the heyday of the pack at the Kiel Opera House in St. Louis, a closed-circuit broadcast done as a fundraiser for Dismas House (the first halfway house for ex-convicts). After being thought lost for thirty years Paul Brownstein tracked down a print of the show that had been sitting in a closet in St. Louis. It has since been broadcast on Nick at Night (in 1998) as part The Museum of Television & Radio Showcase series and released on DVD as part of the Ultimate Rat Pack Collection: Live & Swingin.
Many years later, Martin and Davis appeared together in the movie Cannonball Run, and were joined by Sinatra in the movie Cannonball Run II. This would be the last time that the three would appear in a movie together. (Shirley MacLaine also appears in the latter film).
Peter Lawford died on December 24, 1984 of cardiac arrest complicated by kidney and liver failure at the age of 61. Sammy Davis, Jr. died at the age of 64 on May 16, 1990, of complications from throat cancer. Dean Martin died at home on Christmas morning 1995, aged 78. Frank Sinatra died on May 14, 1998, at the age of 82. Joey Bishop, the last surviving and longest-lived (89) male Rat Pack member, died on October 17 2007.
In December 1987, at Chasen’s restaurant in Los Angeles, Sinatra, Davis, and Martin announced a 29 date tour, called Together Again, sponsored by Home Box Office and American Express. At the press conference to announce the tour, Martin joked about calling the tour off, and Sinatra rebuked a reporter for using the term “Rat Pack,” referring to it as “that stupid phrase”.
Dean Martin’s son, Dean Paul Martin, had died in a plane crash in March 1987 on the San Gorgonio Mountain in California, the same mountain where Sinatra’s mother, Dolly, had been killed in a plane crash ten years earlier. Martin had since become increasingly dependent on alcohol and prescription drugs. Davis had had hip replacement surgery two years previously, and been estranged from Sinatra because of his usage of cocaine. Davis was also experiencing severe financial difficulties, and was promised by Sinatra’s people that he could earn between six and eight million dollars from the tour.
Martin had not made a film or recorded since 1983, and Sinatra felt that the tour would be good for Martin, telling Davis, “I think it would be great for Dean. Get him out. For that alone it would be worth doing”. Sinatra and Davis still performed regularly, yet had not recorded for several years. Both Sinatra and Martin had made their last film appearances together, in 1984’s Cannonball Run II, a film which also starred Davis. This marked the trio’s last feature film appearance since 1964’s Robin and the 7 Hoods. Martin expressed reservations about the tour, wondering whether they could draw as many people as they had in the past. After private rehearsals, at one of which Sinatra and Davis had complained about the lack of black musicians in the orchestra, the tour began at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on March 13, 1988.
To a sold-out crowd of 14,500, Davis opened the show, followed by Martin and then Sinatra; after an interval, the three performed a medley of songs. During the show, Martin threw a lit cigarette at the audience; this, coupled with his increasingly blasé attitude to the tour and his frustration with Sinatra’s anger over hotel accommodation in Chicago, led to him leaving the tour after only four performances. Martin cited ‘kidney problems’ as the reason for his departure. Eliot Weisman, Sinatra’s representative, suggested replacing Martin with his client, Liza Minnelli. With Minnelli, the tour was called The Ultimate Event, and continued internationally to great success.
Davis’s associate recalled Sinatra’s people skimming the top of the revenues from the concerts, as well as stuffing envelopes full of cash into suitcases after the performances. Eliot Weisman had already been convicted of skimming, the act of taking money before it has been accounted for taxation purposes, after a series of Sinatra performances at the Westchester Premier Theatre in 1976, eventually being sentenced to six years in prison for the offence. In August 1989, after Davis experienced throat pain, he was diagnosed with lung cancer; he would die of the disease in May 1990. Davis was buried with a gold watch that Sinatra had given him at the conclusion of The Ultimate Event Tour.
A 1989 performance of The Ultimate Event in Detroit was recorded and shown on Showtime the following year as a tribute to the recently deceased Davis. A review in The New York Times praised Davis’s performance, describing him as “pure, ebullient, unapologetic show business.”
Concerning the group’s reputation for womanizing and heavy drinking, Joey Bishop stated in a 1998 interview: “I never saw Frank, Dean, Sammy or Peter drunk during performances. That was only a gag! And do you believe these guys had to chase broads? They had to chase ’em away!
Rat Pack films
Some Came Running (1958) (Sinatra, Martin, and MacLaine)
Never So Few (1959) (Sinatra, Lawford, and initially Davis)
Ocean’s Eleven (1960) (Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford, and Bishop)
Sergeants 3 (1962) (Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford, and Bishop)
4 for Texas (1963) (Sinatra and Martin)
Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964) (Sinatra, Martin, Davis, and initially Lawford)
Marriage on the Rocks (1965) (Sinatra and Martin)
Texas Across the River (1966) (Martin and Bishop)
Salt and Pepper (1968) (Davis and Lawford)
Martin and Davis also had roles in The Cannonball Run, and Sinatra joined them in Cannonball Run II, as did Shirley MacLaine.
MacLaine also had a major supporting role and Sinatra a cameo in the 1956 Oscar-winning film Around the World in Eighty Days. MacLaine played a Hindu princess who is rescued by, and falls in love with, David Niven, and Sinatra had a non-speaking, non-singing role as a piano player in a saloon, whose identity is concealed from the viewer until he turns his face toward the camera.