Johnny Carson’s Unexpected Night With Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack

One night in 1965, beloved Tonight Show host Johnny Carson filled the shoes of a missing Rat Pack member for a live telecast event. What led to his appearance alongside icons Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin that night? And what cause did both Carson and Sinatra hope to benefit with their presence and talent?

Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson perform on stage in 1969
(l-r) Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson | CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Johnny Carson stepped in for Joey Bishop

Three years into Carson’s Tonight Show run, he proved his clout when he joined Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin for an entertaining fundraising benefit telecast live to 10 major cities.

The audience didn’t expect to see the late-night host there, so he explained his appearance to them by joking that entertainer Joey Bishop hurt his back in Sinatra’s presence and was therefore unable to attend. Bishop’s injury led to Sinatra asking him to join them, which “delighted” him.

Impressively, Carson not only emceed for the evening, he sang Davis’ song, “Birth of the Blues,” along with the Rat Pack. They were also accompanied by the Count Basie Band conducted by Quincy Jones. And for interested fans, a clip of that musical moment is available to watch on YouTube.

Carson even joined the others in singing “Happy Birthday” to one lucky attendee — Sinatra’s daughter, Tina, who turned 17 that day.

Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra believed in the same good cause

Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra perform together in 1965
(l-r) Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra | CBS Photo Archive

Sinatra organized the 1965 event to raise funds for the Dismas House of St. Louis, now listed as the oldest “halfway” house for ex-convicts in the U.S.

The Dismas House website notes that it had been the dream of founder, Father Clark, to build the home but he originally couldn’t fund it. Furthermore, there was vehement opposition from within the community. Despite the setbacks, the Dismas Halfway House was opened in 1959.

And having big names like Carson and Sinatra advocate for the project seemingly helped the cause. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the event raised more than $300,000.

“I was delighted to come out here for this because I believe in it,” Carson said of making the trip to Missouri to St. Louis’ Kiel Opera House.

Notably, the home has given refuge to over 10,000 clients since its opening, according to the website.

Johnny Carson joined Frank Sinatra for a presidential ‘premiere’

Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson discussing stage instructions in 1981
Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson | Gary Fine

In 1981, Carson again joined Sinatra when asked, this time for Ronald Reagan’s presidential inaugural gala. According to the Washington Post, the Tonight Show host said of the event, “Well, this is the first administration to have a premiere.”

Sinatra produced the show and once again called Carson to help with entertaining. The crooner took the chance to toot his own horn a little when he called it “the greatest collection of talent America could offer to any audience” just before he started singing.

Carson, on the other hand, used his time on the stage to make sharp quips about Sinatra and Reagan. Of course, that’s probably what they were hoping he would do.

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