Don Rickles was Mr. Warmth to a generation of comics as the master of the put-down.
In a career that spanned more than 60 years, Rickles, who died at age 90 Thursday at his Los Angeles home, appeared in movies (from Beach Party films of the early '60s to Casino in 1995) and sitcoms (CPO Sharkey) and he voiced Mr. Potato Head in three of Disney’s Toy Story films. (”It’s a beautiful check,” he said of the toy character, and his main accomplishment in the eyes of his grandchildren. “I sit in a booth and just do me.”)
But he made his living as a a self-described “aggressive” stage comedian, whose act jelled by accident as he reacted to hecklers he called “hockey puck.” He outlasted contemporaries such as Alan King, role model Milton Berle (who dubbed him the Merchant of Venom) and Carson, a good friend who hosted him on the Tonight Show more than 100 times and affectionately called him "Mr. Warmth": "It's sarcastic, but it's true," Rickles says.
His longtime spokesman, Paul Shefrin, confirmed his death from kidney failure.
To many fans, he was known as the prototypical insult comic. He didn’t do punchlines; his act was the ad-libbed singling out of audience members for ridicule, a response to hecklers. It was all an act; in person he was gracious and friendly, though not all of his targets were in on the joke.
Did he like the insult label? "No, I don't, but I got it, and it stuck with me and it didn't hurt me," he said. "Insult, to me, was always something offensive."
Rickles, born in Queens, N.Y., to a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant father, served in the Navy during World War II and enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1948, intending to become a serious actor. But he grew frustrated by bit parts on television.
“I was too big for the screen,” he told USA TODAY in 2012. “There was no director that knew how to handle me. My comedy, my strength, my aggressiveness, nobody knew how to handle that. Broadway I (auditioned for) all the big shows, but never got the part, so I started to get discouraged.” It was then that he turned to stand-up comedy: “My father said the (temple) wants you to do this, they’ll give you $50. And then I started to develop my own stuff.”
Comedian Jon Stewart said Rickles’ style is “curmudgeon humor more than insult humor. He's a guy who's annoyed at you and things that just bother him." But spend time with Rickles, and you realize it's an act, Stewart says: "He's a comedic actor who created a character antithetical to his heart. Some comedians exist as a cautionary tale; he exists as an aspiration."
Rickles counted comedian Bob Newhart among his closest pals (”we’re like the odd couple because he’s so low-key”) and was especially fond of Frank Sinatra, who had "a lot" to do with his success. While working a Miami Beach nightclub in the late 1950s, he famously endeared himself to Sinatra after he spotted the mob-connected singer and instructed him, “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody.” Sinatra warmed to an unbowed Rickles, the comedian said, because "I didn't show any fear," and he affectionately dubbed him “bullet head” because of his bald pate.
Their friendship extended for decades: Sinatra gave Rickles, a lifelong Democrat, a career highlight by forcing Ronald Reagan's 1985 inaugural team to include him, threatening he would otherwise boycott the festivities. “Frank called me in Hawaii, says ‘Don, get dressed, get the wife, pack your bags and meet me in Washington,’” Rickles recalled in his staccato New York accent, which endured decades after his move to Los Angeles. “I said, ‘Why, Frank?’ He said, ‘you’re going to be in the inaugural for Reagan.’ I says, ‘Frank, what are you, nuts?’ He says, ‘shut up and do what I tell you.’ I had no idea what I was going to say.”
But it was a perpetually bemused Carson who cemented Rickles’ stature by engaging him in ad-libbed banter, and Rickles was forever grateful. "Johnny didn't mix (socially) as much as Frank," Rickles says. "He'd hide under the chair. But when the lights came on, there was no one better."
After his comedy career took off, he continued to do occasional serious film roles, appearing with Clint Eastwood in Kelly’s Heroes in 1970 and Robert DeNiro in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino. He also was a frequent guest star in TV sitcoms. He married his wife, Barbara, in 1965, and had two children, daughter Mindy and son Larry, a producer who won an Emmy Award for a 2007 HBO documentary of his father. Larry died in December 2011 of pneumonia, at age 41, in what his father described as “the terrible heartache of my life.”
Rickles never cursed onstage, and his humor was cutting but never mean-spirited. "I can't please the world. When you're standing out there doing comedy, not everybody thinks you're funny. But in my case, I've gained a great deal of respect for my age to still be going,” he sais in 2012. “I'm by the seat of my pants. I've never had a writer in my life."
And until recently, he was still working, touring solo and with Joan Rivers to casinos across the country.
"I just feel like I got a lot of time yet to do. And young people — 35, 22 — they go, 'Hey, Rickles is here, the guy who calls you a hockey puck or dummy.' That's something that always keeps you up there."