Comedian Des Bishop had always wanted to tell the story of his father’s colourful life as an actor and model. But when Bishop senior was diagnosed with cancer, the story took on a whole new urgency. The RTÉ Guide’s Alan Corr meets the Irish New York comic to hear a heartbreaking and heart warming tale.
We all have ideas about our fathers when we’re growing up, childhood fantasies that turn ordinary dads into heroes and, occasionally, villains but comedian Des Bishop has a story that trumps them all. Put simply, his father, Mike, was nearly James Bond. Des’s dad was a model and jobbing actor who tried out for the role of 007 in the late sixties only to lose out to a colleague by the name of George Lazenby.
“It’s hard to remember exactly when I found out,” says Bishop. “It was my cousin Ira really. I loved Ira. He sold TVs so he must have been a bit of a movie buff and he told everybody that my dad had had an audition for James Bond and then I used to tell the story. I didn’t believe it for a long time and when I decided to do this stand up show and documentary I had to do a bit of research to confirm it and it’s completely true!”
Bishop stretches out his long legs and cracks one of his trademark grins. The Irish-American comedian has carved out a successful stand up and TV career over the past seven years, teasing out the differences and similarities between his homeland and Ireland, the country he first came to as a 14-year-old tearaway from New York.
Recently Bishop has been turning his comedy to something even closer to home than being a native New Yorker with an Irish ancestry. In his new stand up show and documentary, My Father Was Nearly James Bond, he sets out to tell the colourful life story of his dad, the former male model and actor who gave up a life of glamour and potential fame for a job in retail and life with his wife Eileen and their three unruly boys in the chaotic New York borough of Queens.
With a life story like that, Des had been planning to tell his dad’s tale for years but when Mike was diagnosed with terminal cancer just over a year ago matters became even more urgent for the ever-urgent comedian. Bishop the younger has always had a quick-fire and loud stage presence born of New York but My Father Was Nearly James Bond is pitched at a whole different temperature.
“I had thought of the idea for this show a good while back but I never thought about how I was going to do it,” he says. “It’s a story about my dad regretting what might have been all his life and me not being that crazy about those regrets. He brought me and my two brothers up to be successful men but maybe he was thinking there was some greater achievement he lost out on. I wanted to do something about that but I never knew how to do it. Then my dad got sick and those regrets, the things that were going to drive the original idea for the show, well, he dismissed them outright.”
It became a different kind of story, one no longer about a son’s frustration with his father but one about how his father was facing up to both his past and his impending death. The show and documentary is a long love letter using a stand up format but drawing on archive footage of Mike’s bit part roles in such movies as genuine classic Zulu (he plays a dying man on the surgeon’s table), cult classic The Day of The Triffids (he plays a airplane pilot who is blinded) and many tv and print ads for clothes and cigars.
Mike Bishop, who was born in England and moved to Midleton, Cork when he was a child and then back to UK, features prominently in Thursday night’s documentary. He worked as a physical fitness instructor in England but when he broke his back on a trampoline he had to find a new job. “Somebody suggested he become a model – he was a very good-looking guy – and then acting became his ambition,” says Des. “Dad was always the charmer, always the performer. People always loved dad, they gravitated towards him. He was a unique character. Funny accent particularly depending on who he was talking to – he could be a bit more Irish, a bit more English or a bit more American. He was a bit of a chameleon really.”
Mike is now a well spoken 74-year-old who has made his peace with the world with dignity and humour. In My Dad was Nearly James Bond we see him and Des and the rest of the family (wife Eileen, sons Mike and Aidan and grandson Kieran) at home in Queens. “Cancer is like a sniper – it’s so camouflaged you don’t know where it is but it’s still trying to take you out,” he says at one point. “But I’m pretty good at eliminating it from my mind, the thought that I’m not going to be around.”
When his time comes, Mike wants his ashes spread around a certain hill in Ballycotten in Cork where he used to play as a child. But there may be another dimension to his story – ten years ago, Des himself battled cancer and Eileen has also beaten breast cancer. “When dad was diagnosed it was immediately different,” he says. “I had testicular cancer and really that’s nothing and my mother had breast cancer. My mother’s such a tough lady. She didn’t even let us help her out, she just dealt with the whole thing herself. It was deal-able in that way because she didn’t really need to admit defeat, she didn’t have to get chemo. She was diagnosed early; she didn’t even have a mastectomy. With dad it was different. My dad’s older and he’d had it a while and he was aging anyway. It was immediately different and it was immediately terminal.”
For the first time in their lives, Des and his brothers have essentially become the parents of their parents. “A lot of the revelations I’m having, I’m having as a man who’s experiencing the responsibility of looking after people for the first time,” he says. “I’m sad that I will not be able to present a child to my father or that my dad will not be able to make a speech at my wedding if that ever comes. I lived away from home for twenty years and the only focus I have now it the welfare of my parents.”
My Dad Was Nearly James Bond is not a story about regret. Forget about Bond: Des Bishop sees this as a story of the real heroics of giving up your ambitions to be a father. Mike has deteriorated since the documentary was completed and has decided to quit chemo for good. “He stopped just this week,” says Des and exhales deeply. “He’s decided he’s had enough so he has actually accepted that he hasn’t long but he had great acceptance when he was first diagnosed. We don’t get into the details but he’s not having chemo when the documentary is being shot but he’d had a lot of it. He had months and months of it but before he got it, he really felt as though he was dying. He had a great acceptance but the chemo got him back into living and he’d lost that acceptance – he didn’t want to die but the last couple of weeks he’s gotten really weak. I think it’s instinctual in human beings. You just know.”
Is Des ready to say his last goodbye? “When he first got sick I had an acceptance of it. I could see how ill he was and I didn’t want him to suffer and then when he got chemo, I always thought I had a handle on that. But last week when the chemo went, the crutch was gone too. It just feels different. This is it. Even subconsciously you can’t console yourself with the thought that maybe he’s going to live longer . . . “
See www.desbishop.com for full tour dates for My Dad Was Nearly James Bond
Watch Des Bishop: My Dad was nearly James Bond, Thursday on RTÉ One, 10.15