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A&E "Biography' takes a detailed look at Rat Pack

The one change Angie Dickinson would make in The Rat Pack, an ambitious four-hour A&E Biography special airing tonight and Monday from 8 to 10 each night, is that she'd call it The Making of the Rat Pack.

"The time they were together on the stage was brief, relatively speaking," says Dickinson, a long-time Sinatra pal and one of the show's interviewees. "What's great about this program is that it shows what was behind it, for all of them. That's the fascinating story."

Produced by Carole Langer and narrated by Danny Aiello, the program traces Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop back to their earliest years in show business.

Sinatra's burning ambition, Martin's knockabout years and edgy partnership with Jerry Lewis and Davis' precocious stardom are examined in considerable detail.

The show focuses heavily, for instance, on Sinatra's friendship with a mobster named Skinny D'Amato _ a friendship forged from D'Amato's absolute loyalty even when things were going bad. So when Sinatra came back, he wanted to repay D'Amato and his pals, which over the years raised a few eyebrows.

"Frank was an incredible friend," Dickinson says. "Friendship was his whole focus. I'm sure I've sat with mobsters, and at the end of night, all I thought was, "That's a charming guy.' It's not like they sit there playing with guns."

The original Rat Pack was a group of stars who congregated around Humphrey Bogart in the post-war years. Before Bogart died in 1957, he willed the notion to Sinatra, a natural leader who wanted nothing more than his own gang around him, all living the life he wanted to live.

With the Rat Pack in the late '50s and into the mid-'60s, he did just that, singing or making movies by day, partying by night _ and while the Pack was known for a famous series of Las Vegas shows and movies, their real reputation came from their impassioned embrace of the high life.

"Frank never wanted the party to stop," Dickinson says. "He wanted to stay up all night, every night, and he wanted his friends to stay up with him. When we were making Oceans 11, he'd sometimes get p---ed off at me because I couldn't do it every night. I couldn't pass the physical. Even Dean sometimes couldn't keep up. Frank loved living so much he didn't want to sleep."

But if Sinatra was the center of the Rat Pack, this Biography is equally strong on the stories of Martin and Davis. It doesn't blink in laying out the racial obstacles Davis had to hurdle _ the least of which was not being able to stay in the rooms of the hotels where he entertained sellout crowds every night.

"There were things then that seem unimaginable today," Dickinson says. "One time, around 1958 or 1960, I was asked by studio people not to have my picture taken with Nat King Cole. Can you believe that?"

As entertaining as the Rat Pack shows were, their legacy is in many ways more sociology and American popular culture than sheer music.

Dickinson, whose friendship with Sinatra endured well enough that she was one of the regulars in the weekly poker games he hosted right up until his death in May, says that from where she sits, this show gets it pretty much right.

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