A few days ago, we lost a comedic icon — Don Rickles. Rickles was an equal opportunity “insulter.” Among his favorite greetings were “hey dummy!” or “you hockey puck!” It didn’t matter to him whether you were a politician, celebrity, talk show host, regular fan, or mobster. Anyone was fair game, and yet his genius was such that the target, rather than take offense, would laugh uproariously. Many people, such as Frank Sinatra, considered it a “badge of honor” to have been insulted by Rickles.
Sinatra and Rickles were good friends. They first met in the 1950s at a club in Miami. Rickles was performing when Sinatra walked in with his entourage. Everyone knew of Sinatra’s penchant for violence and suspected mob ties. No matter. In one of those seminal moments that could make or break a career, Rickles laced into Sinatra. “Frank, I just saw your movie, The Pride and the Passion, and I want to tell you the cannon’s acting was great. Make yourself at home. Hit someone.” Sinatra thought Rickles was so funny, he told many of his friends and encouraged them to see the comic’s act and be insulted, themselves. Sinatra even used his influence to get Rickles invited to perform at Ronald Reagan’s Inaugural Ball in 1985, a performance that Rickles himself characterized as the “highlight of his career.”
Donald Jay Rickles was born on May 8, 1926 in Jackson Heights, Queens, NY. Upon graduating high school, he served two years in the Navy during WWII. In 1946 he received an honorable discharge and began to pursue a career as a dramatic actor. Although he landed a few bit parts here and there, he was largely unsuccessful. He tried selling insurance, used cars and cosmetics, but he was unsuccessful at those endeavors also. Finally, he turned to comedy.
At first, he was not too successful at that either. He was performing in small, nondescript clubs as a warmup act. Normally, the crowds were indifferent to his prepared material; sometimes, they were even abusive as they were more interested in the upcoming headliners. One night, while he was performing at a run-down strip joint in Washington, DC, the heckling was particularly abusive, and Rickles decided he had had enough. He began to insult his hecklers right back. To his surprise, they and the rest of the crowd loved it. Rickles knew he had found his niche, and he was on his way. Many people thought Rickles patterned his style after Jack E. Leonard, a contemporary “insult comic,” but Rickles once told Larry King that it was Milton Berle.
In a career that spanned more than 60 years Rickles appeared in countless movies, TV shows and clubs. Perhaps, his best movie was Run Silent, Run Deep, which starred Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. He starred in a few TV series, such as CPO Sharkey (1976-78), which were not long-term successes.
He was at his best, however, as a guest on TV variety, comedy and talk shows, which he did hundreds of times in his career. For example, he appeared over 100 times on The Tonight Show, alone, and even guest-hosted on many occasions. His signature introduction was a Spanish matador tune, which was intended to signal that someone was about to be skewered, metaphorically, of course.
One of his appearances in 1980 was the third highest rated Tonight Show ever. Carson loved him. In fact, it was Carson who dubbed Rickles “Mr. Warmth.” In addition, he was a fixture on Dean Martin’s “Celebrity Roast” specials. If you like comedy, these shows, starring a veritable Who’s Who of comedians, are “must see” and can be found on YouTube.
His style of humor resonated with the audiences because as he once said, the audiences knew “he was never mean-spirited.” As I said, he was an equal-opportunity insulter. In the days before the advent of over-the-top PC he often used ethnic humor, and his targets loved it. Patrons would often wear outlandish outfits to his shows hoping to be noticed and picked on.
Rickles met his long-time wife Barbara, through his agent. According to his memoirs, he was attracted to her because she did not “get” his humor. He also denoted that of all his movie and TV roles his two grandchildren liked his role as “Mr. Potato Head” the best. Go figure.
Rickles’ best friend was Bob Newhart. They often socialized with their wives, who were also close friends. Ironically, Newhart often remarked that, on those occasions, Rickles was the quiet one, and he, Newhart, the boisterous one. Again, go figure.
Rickles loved performing, and he continued to do so virtually to the end. He died of kidney failure on April 6, 2017 at the age of 90. He was a comedic icon, and he will be sorely missed.
On a personal note, Rickles was one of my favorite entertainers. (Many people who know me well have told me that my personality and style of humor contain a little bit of Rickles. Probably, so, although I admit I’m not quite as funny.)
Below please find a sample of the tributes that have poured in since his passing:
- Jimmy Kimmel called him “a towering presence in Las Vegas” (where Kimmel was raised).
- Seth Meyers – “There’s nothing better than getting burned by Don Rickles.”
- Martin Scorsese (who directed him in Casino) – “Don Rickles was a giant, a legend. He kept me doubled over with laughter every day on the set – yet he was a complete pro.”
- Jerry Seinfeld – He belongs on the “Mt. Rushmore of stand-up comedy.”
- And, finally, Rickles, himself — “I’m an honest friend. I’m emotional. I’m caring. I’m loyal. Loyalty in this business is very important.”