Men behaving badly: Sinatra and the Rat Pack

The classic Vegas Rat Pack line up

Long before rock bands started tearing up hotel suites, The Rat Pack were tearing up Las Vegas playing to packed houses at the Copa Room and partying until dawn. And with Sinatra as chairman of the board, says Andy Round, everyone wanted a piece of the action.

So it would go. Deano would sigh through Memories Are Made Of This before blowing the mood with a bourbon-soaked joke. Sammy would go and wind himself up into a whirlwind of song and dance. Then, of course, Joey and Peter would stamp all over his routine with a relentless stream of abuse.

Still, everyone knew they were playing second fiddle to Sinatra. He was the chairman of the board. The whole Rate Pack concept was his gig, his big idea, his baby.

At the appointed time, when the guys had calmed down, he would saunter centre stage and sing it straight to the heart. In the smoky darkness of the packed Copa Room the faces of the famous would glow.

In 1960, for a month, two shows a night, The Rat Pack ruled the roost at the Sands and by definition the whole of Vegas. Almost 50 years ago the city didn’t need to import its culture in the form of Italian-themed mega resorts, it was just seriously starting to grow into its own mythology of Americana.

And with the help of Sinatra’s hard-living celebrity Rat Pack pals, this neat fringe of small hotels and casinos scattered across the desert was catapulted into the premier division of hedonism.  (Story continues below)

Story published in August magazine

The Summit At The Sands – a joke reference to the summit meeting between Eisenhower, Khrushchev and De Gaulle – represented Sinatra at the height of his powers. He had gone from walk-on parts in films to major leads (including the Oscar-winning From Here To Eternity) and shaken off his teen-pleasing persona to release several classic adult tracks a year.

As his fame grew, his influence spread from Chicago mafia chiefs to White House wannabes. By the late 1950s he represented a heady mix of power, notoriety and glamour. Now all he needed was a crew to join him for the ride.

Sinatra’s first recruit to the Rat Pack was former prize-fighter Dean Martin who was already a superstar crooner and movie lead in his own right. Next up was the multi-talented singer, dancer and comedian Sammy Davis Jr who Sinatra took from all-black shows to white America’s centre stage. With Frank’s stellar input this was the most formidable trio in entertainment at the time.

Still, there was plenty of room in the pack for America’s new aristocracy. Enter Peter Lawford. As the English brother-in-law to President John F Kennedy, his American royal family credentials were impeccable. Plus he looked good on stage. The final ingredient of finely honed wit and performance patter came courtesy of Sinatra’s drinking buddy, Bronx comedian Joey Bishop.

Rejecting his original idea of calling the posse The Clan after it was pointed out that having a black singer-dancer in the group didn’t fit with that bigger more notorious pillow-case-wearing collective, Sinatra stuck with the astonished words of wisdom uttered by Lauren Bacall.

The actress had come home one night to see Sinatra and her husband Humphery Bogart and friends completely wrecked by yet another marathon night of super-human indulgence. Stunned by their appearance, she exclaimed: “You look like a Goddamn rat pack!”

And that was that. Name, crew, captain, everything was now in place. The quintet just needed somewhere to tear up. The Sands in Vegas was the evening venue of choice and the production of a new film, the original Ocean’s Eleven, provided the daytime entertainment.

Inevitably, the film was completely Sinatra’s idea. He reckoned the boys could comfortably perform at night, rip it up until the early hours and then get on with cementing their iconic status on celluloid in the afternoon.

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And so it would go...

The cinematic story of five war veterans who simultaneously rob five casinos on New Year’s Day had roles for all Sinatra’s friends and a good lead for him in the shape of Danny Ocean. He promptly bought the script, set up a production company, negotiated huge pay cheques for his pals (plus an extra US$200,000 for him) and awarded himself a third of the film’s gross.

A workable script was knocked into shape by a plethora of hired-then-fired writers, including the legendary Billy Wilder, and Lewis Milestone was appointed director. Milestone was a troubled man. After directing the hugely acclaimed All Quiet On The Western Front, his career had crumbled to such an extent that he had been forced to direct episodes of Lassie. He was an easy whipping boy for Sinatra’s monstrous ego.

Sinatra treated the film like a giant joke showing up regularly at 4pm for just one take and one take only. During the 25 days of shooting, Sinatra only spent nine afternoons with a maximum of two hours on set. Following his example, the other guys simply misbehaved. For Milestone it was a living hell. He had to put up with the pack’s clowning and at times was forced to write lines on cue cards or just allow them to ad lib to get some footage in the can. On top of this misery, the pack insisted on dance routines and songs which all had to be incorporated.

Director of the Ocean’s Eleven remake, Steven Soderbergh, puts the Milestone version in perspective. “I always maintain that the original movie is remembered fondly by all who haven’t seen it,” he says. Whether it was the most expensive (and worse) home movie in history didn’t really matter. In 1960 the Rat Pack’s sharp suits, sharp wit and sharp business was box office gold and Ocean’s Eleven became one of the biggest grossing films of the year.

While the boys were beating the casinos at their own game on the big screen, on the stage of the Copa’s Rat Pack Summit, they were taking the whole of Vegas for a ride. Sometimes they would perform together sometimes they would be just two or three on stage. Like Ocean’s Eleven, it didn’t really matter. If the audience were lucky, they’d get the show of their life. The guys couldn’t lose if they turned up or not. Their status was assured they were already living legends. Men wanted to be like them and women wanted the keys to their suites.

At the end of their sets each night the boys would wander out into the casino to follow up with a wild party in a carefully guarded Copa suite. Their behaviour during this period was the stuff of hard-drinking, hard-womanising urban legend. There’s the fight when Frank had his two capped front teeth punched out; the draining of cocktails on bar stools fitted with seat belts and the conveyor belt of beautiful starlets.

Author of Rat Pack Confidential, Shawn Levy, sums up the incredible influence of Sinatra and the gang at the time. “Everyone got rich, but Frank got more. They made movies, Frank was the producer. They cut records, Frank owned the company. They played Vegas, it was Frank’s hotel. They called him the leader, they named their kids after him, their daughters even. Rock’n’roll punks had nothing on them. They couldn’t begin to understand the power and the appetites. This bunch made Nero look like a boy scout.”

Inevitably, it didn’t last long. Four years later The Beatles had stolen the chart-topping crowns from Martin and Sinatra. The Rat Pack had suddenly become old school, something that parents liked. Sharp suits and cologne could no longer compete with long hair and hippy lifestyles.

Still, even if they lost some of their velocity as a group, the guys continued to make their mark individually. Martin’s TV show became a Saturday night must-see; Sinatra continued crooning despite wearing love beads and marrying Mia Farrow amd Davis went psychedelic and released The Candy Man. However, all this didn’t stop the inevitable truth that by the 1970s the Rat Pack, as a concept, was about as fashionable as gout.

It took 20 years for that trend to be reversed thanks to Reservoir Dogs imagery, the film Swingers, lounge-lizard wannabes and a flood of 1960s swing compilation CDs. By the time the 20th century was coming to a close. Sinatra’s legacy was assured. He may have died 11 years ago, but Hollywood and Broadway directors had already been reassessing the legend of both him and his jolly pack of jokers.

A film was released to celebrate the pack starring Ray Liotta; Rat Pack revival shows started storming the West End and Broadway and, most impressively of all, the cream of Hollywood’s 21st century A-list turned out in force – led by George Clooney – to pay tribute to the Rat Pack in the form of 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven, sequel Ocean’s Twelve and the sequel release, Ocean’s Thirteen.

The acting was slicker and the actors’ professionalism undisputed, but some things never change. The lines and outfits were as sharp as ever while the adulation for Pitt, Clooney and Pacino was just as maniac as in Frank’s day. Sinatra and his rat pack would have loved it.

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