Sandy Hackett has built a sort of show business empire bringing the music, charisma and comedy of Las Vegas’ most enduring showmen back to the stage. And still, it is particularly uncanny when he says “Hello” in his father’s voice.
“I might slip into Buddy at any time,” he said of the iconic inflection belonging to the late comedian and star of screens large and small. “We’re rehearsing.”
The production in prep — “My Buddy,” a one-man show starring Sandy Hackett as his father, and directed by Sandy’s wife and producing partner, Lisa Dawn Miller — will open with previews in Los Angeles at the end of the month, prior to the launch of its official run in Ohio in late October.
The homage, Hackett said, was born backstage, as he and his crew from “Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack” — which comes to Strathmore on Friday — would gather to exchange stories of old Hollywood.
“I’d say, ‘Here’s another story about my dad, [and] here’s another one,’” Hackett mused. The time, he said, was right.
The Rat Pack revue, in fact, now in its fifth year and about to embark on its 2013-14 national off-Broadway tour, owes its heart and soul to dear old dad.
“Buddy was a part of that group,” said Miller about those sultans of self-assured swagger, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. “He performed with them and hung out with them.”
Rat Pack tributes are a dime a dozen, but what makes Hackett’s show a particular penny from heaven, said Miller, is that he knew them — each of them — personally.
“Sandy has a history with these guys. Joey Bishop was Uncle Joey to him,” she said about the funny man and longtime Hackett family friend. “... Who better to convey that [chemistry] to an audience than someone who grew up with them?”
To a preteen Hackett, the lauded Kings of Cool ripping it up on the Las Vegas strip were more akin to pals over to the house for poker night, not the indelible “Ocean’s 11” symbols practically synonymous with the game.
“When you’re a child, you don’t know they’re anything special,” he said. “They’re just your dad’s friends. It’s only as you get older you realize, ‘Oh, my friends’ dads aren’t doing this stuff.’”
“I have a 7-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son,” Hackett continued. “And right now they’re just becoming cognizant of what their mother and I do.”
Miller, too, is the daughter of industry royalty. Her father, famed Motown songwriter Ron Miller, is perhaps best known for penning a number of hits for Stevie Wonder, including “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday,” “Someday at Christmas,” and “For Once In My Life,” the latter, not incidentally, having been covered by crooners from Old Blue Eyes to Tony Bennett.
For the show, a sampling of approximately 390 previously unreleased songs by the elder Miller, recently discovered, join American Songbook and nightclub staples such as “Drink to Me Only,” “Come Fly With Me,” and “What Kind of Fool Am I” in a narrative finding the pallies placed back into contemporary rotation by the main announcer, God (a voiceover by Buddy Hackett, who recorded the role prior to his passing in 2003). The production, Miller said, attempts to recreate the seemingly effortless, boozy charm conjured in the halls of the Sands Hotel and Casino all those years ago; that lightning in a bottle of bourbon, or gin or bubbly that corkscrewed throughout a dining room filled with clinking glasses, glamour and laughter as Frank crooned, Dean swooned and Sammy showed up show business with a winning smile.
Miller even gets in on the act, portraying a version of actress and one-time paramour of the Chairman of the Board, Ava Gardner, in “Frank’s One Love.”
“A lot of tribute shows want to do a caricature of what [the era] was, and they bring out Marilyn Monroe,” Miller said. “But there was only one woman who truly captured his heart and was a huge part of his life, and that was Ava Gardner.”
“It was really fire and ice,” Hackett said of the tumultuous relationship and subsequent marriage. “But in my opinion, it was the one true love of his life.”
Also taking a more central role in Hackett’s love letter is his portrayal of friend and mentor Joey Bishop.
Bishop, who appeared in several films with the trinity, and was the last surviving member of the order, historically took more of a behind-the-scenes role during the group’s onstage antics, penning jokes and considered by some a mascot.
Here, he’s an ad-libbing engine for a two-act locomotive that does not pause for a breath, said Hackett.
Upon arriving in town, Hackett scours the local newspapers for headlines to incorporate into the evening’s proceedings, in an effort to avoid pat “How did all of these people get in my room?” routines.
“Like Joey Bishop, he allows for whatever is happening to become a part of the show — to be in the moment,” said Miller. “He’s the thread that holds the show together.”
“A lot of people forget just what he did,” said Hackett. “If you look at those other shows, none of those shows have a Joey. No one seemed to understand what he did. But I understand what he did. Because I grew up with him.”
Indeed, it was Bishop who planted the idea for the show with a single phone call.
“The story is that one day Joey called Sandy up and said that HBO was doing a movie about The Rat Pack and he thought Sandy would be perfect to play him,” Miller recalled. “Sandy said, ‘Great, who do I call?’ And Joey said, ‘I dunno. Nobody called me.’”
While Bishop’s influence on the 1998 HBO project was nil (the role ultimately went to Bobby Slayton), the fact that one of Hackett’s idols had hand-picked him sparked a concept, and then a creation, that continues this weekend in North Bethesda.
But — Miller and Hackett are both quick to stress — it is not a tribute show, a term that, to them, calls to mind pale, impersonal imitation.
“The focus [of our show] is on the essence, the camaraderie and the cohesiveness of what they did,” Hackett said. “... We’re trying to give you the savoir-faire and the charisma of these performers. You can’t be those guys. Those guys were those guys.”
Asked if he’s gleaned anything new about Bishop and his father while stepping into their shoes, Hackett pauses.
“They were just people,” he said. “With extraordinary talent.”
“People think the Rat Pack era lasted a few years,” he continued. “It didn’t. It lasted 30 days. They were shooting a film called ‘Ocean’s 11’ on the Las Vegas strip, and Frank said, ‘We’ll shoot the film during the day and perform at the hotel at night and this is going to be fun.’”
“And that’s what it was.”