Don Rickles — the acclaimed master of the comic put-down who insulted movie stars, talk-show hosts, bandleaders, impresarios, presidents and even (carefully) the occasional mobster — died Thursday. He was 90.
His publicist Paul Shefrin said that Rickles died of kidney failure.
In a career that spanned nearly 60 years, from TV to motion pictures and to his most ubiquitous venue, the nightclub stage, Rickles became synonymous with a style of comedy that was ferociously funny and in equal measure fearsome. He was perhaps the fastest comic mind in the history of stand-up comedy, with a wit that he seemed to pull out of the air without missing a beat or a target. To sit in the front row of a Rickles show was to sit in the direct line of fire. To sit directly across from him on national television — as Johnny Carson did 89 times over a 30-year “Tonight Show” run — was to invite a direct hit, over and over. Rickles would often say, “I don’t tell jokes, I tell attitude.” But that attitude was sheer invective wrapped in comic brilliance.
Rickles eviscerated the idea of “politically correct” comedy decades before “political correctness” even existed, using ethnic humor — and even ethnic impersonations — as part of his fusillade. “I think the reason that [my act] caught on and gave me a wonderful career is that I was never mean-spirited,” he once said. “Not that you had to like it, but you had to be under a rock somewhere not to get it.” Nevertheless, he did back off the ethnic jibes years ago.
He grew up in a world of smoke-filled nightclubs from Miami Beach to Las Vegas, and hundreds of clubs in between, and played numerous engagements on Long Island over many years (He lived with his mother in Long Beach for a time, where he told a reporter for Newsday, “We had an apartment [and] I worked a lot of places in Long Beach in those days. They had many country clubs, and I used work on the beaches doing comedy.”)
He was part of the famed “rat pack” — the ’60s-era show-biz power clique headed by one of the most powerful and feared people in entertainment, Frank Sinatra. Introducing Sinatra in the audience at a show, Rickles once said, “Frank, stand up. Be yourself and hit somebody.” According to reports, Sinatra laughed.
Sometimes he may have gone too far. Rickles once told Charlie Rose that when he had made fun of a man’s consort in an audience during a Las Vegas show, the man — presumably a mobster — came backstage and threatened him. Rickles said that after the incident, he made “a call to New York” — he didn’t say to whom — but when the man returned the following night, he came backstage to praise Rickles’ performance.
Rickles may not have birthed the scorched-earth style of comedy he would come to represent, but he was certainly there at the creation, along with other put-down masters like Jack E. Leonard, who once told his friend and target Ed Sullivan, “there’s nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won’t cure.” Rickles acknowledged the other insult comics of the 1950s and ’60s, but said none ever influenced him. His closest friend in show business — also presumably one of his greatest influences — was Bob Newhart, another esteemed comic, with a style and delivery not even remotely similar to Rickles’.
He honed his craft on the stage, but found a home on television, guest-starring in dozens of shows from the 1950s through the ’70s. His own vehicles were less successful: He starred in several failed series, including two called “The Don Rickles Show” — the first a variety show (1968-69), the other a 1972 sitcom in which he played an advertising executive who worked in Manhattan and lived on Long Island.
So in lieu of series, he became a ubiquitous talk show presence. Rickles first appeared on Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show” in the early 1960s, then Jack Paar’s. Paar was lukewarm about Rickles, but Paar’s successor was not. Rickles’ first appearance on Carson’s “Tonight” was in 1965, and his last in 1992, just before Carson’s retirement. He guest-hosted the show dozens of times over the years, and along with Joan Rivers, came to be more closely associated with “Tonight” than any other comic. Carson adored him: He was the perfect guest who needed no preparation, and certainly no prompts. As he wrote in his memoir, Carson “caught on to me immediately. He looked at the notes his producers had provided about me, but he never stuck to them. Johnny just lets me go.”
Carson — who dubbed Rickles “Mr. Warmth” — let him go wherever he liked, which often meant instant hits on Ed McMahon, or bandleader Doc Severinsen. Then he’d then turn on Johnny, who loved it.
Over a couple of decades, Rickles would become Carson’s favored go-to guest, and audiences responded. A 1980 appearance would be the third highest rated “Tonight” episode over Carson’s run — 9.3 million households, or about 25 million viewers.
Born in Jackson Heights on May 8, 1926, Rickles enlisted in the Navy at the encouragement of his father, and served in the Philippines as a seaman first class. After he was discharged in 1946, he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, hoping to become a serious actor. Roles didn’t materialize and he turned to selling used cars, life insurance and cosmetics — badly, he said. He then tried comedy, appearing at small hotels in the Catskills and in rundown nightclubs. The turning point came at a strip joint in Washington, D.C. “The customers were right on top of you, always heckling, and I gave it right back to them,” he recalled in 1982.
He did have a good ride in motion pictures, with films that ranged from comedies to dramas and included “Run Silent, Run Deep” (starring Clark Gable), “The Rat Race,” (with Tony Curtis), “Kelly’s Heroes” (Clint Eastwood) and Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” (Robert De Niro). He also appeared in four “Beach Party” films in the 1960s and provided the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the animated “Toy Story” films.He married Barbara Sklar, his agent’s secretary, in 1965, and they had two children, actress Mindy Rickles and writer-producer Lawrence Rickles, who died of complications from pneumonia in 2011.
In a 1993 Associated Press interview, Rickles’ brassy voice softened when he was asked how he wanted people to remember him.
“If people know me well, they know I’m an honest friend. I’m emotional; I’m caring; I’m loyal. Loyalty in this business is very important.”
“Run Silent Run Deep” (1958)
“The Rat Race” (1960)
“X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes” (1963)
“Muscle Beach Party” (1964)
“Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965)
“Enter Laughing” (1967)
“Kelly’s Heroes” (1970)
“Innocent Blood” (1992)
“Toy Story” (1995) and its two sequels as the voice of Mr. Potato Head
“The Twilight Zone” episode “Mr. Dingle, the Strong” (1961)
First appearance on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” (1965)
“The Don Rickles Show” (1972)
“The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” (1973-84)
“C.P.O. Sharkey” (1976-78)
“Daddy Dearest” (1993)
“The Wool Cap” (2004)
“Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project” (2007), for which he won an Emmy
“Hello Dummy!” (1968)
“Don Rickles Speaks!” (1969)
“Rickles’ Book: A Memoir” (2007)
“Rickles’ Letters” (2008)
Don Rickles was an inspiration and a friend to numerous performers, many of whom tweeted their sentiments on Thursday after hearing that the comic had died.
“90 years with Don Rickles weren’t enough. One of the sweetest and most lovely people I had the pleasure of knowing. We miss you already.” — Jimmy Kimmel
“Don Rickles has passed away. A giant loss.” — Billy Crystal
“Don once begged me for a couple of bucks then told me to twist myself into a pretzel. Ego slayer! Comic Everest! Spank you, Mr Rickles.” — Jim Carrey
“My friend, my dad, the funniest biggest hearted of them all. A beautiful husband and father. My heart is broken. Rest In Peace. Don Rickles.” — Bob Saget
“The friendship The advice. The laughs. The toasts. The dinners. I Love you, Don.” — Kathy Griffin
“A God died today. Don Rickles, we did not want to ever lose you. Never. Hanx.” — Tom Hanks
“Being skewered by Don Rickles was side-splitting funny. A gentle soul with rapid fire wit. xoB” — Barbra Streisand