Don Rickles was of comedy’s most famous funnymen. He passed away on April 6, 2017. For almost 60 years he appeared in top showrooms and concert halls throughout the U.S. and internationally. He is regarded among the world’s top entertainers.
Rickles was born in New York City, May 8, 1926, to Max and Etta (Feldman) Rickles. He grew up in the Jackson Heights area of New York.
After graduating from Newtown High School, Rickles enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served for two years during World War II on the USS Cyrene as a seaman first class. He was honorably discharged in 1946. Soon thereafter, he studied and graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Unable to get a significant amount of acting work, Rickles began doing stand-up comedy. He became known as an “insult” comedian as he would respond to his hecklers. The audience seemed to enjoy these spontaneous barbs more than his prepared material and he developed a style which featured making fun of people. When he began his career in the early 1950’s, he started calling ill-mannered members of the audience “hockey puck,” a term associated with Rickles to this day.
Early in his career and still a relative “unknown,” while working at “Murray Franklin’s” nightclub in Miami Beach, Rickles spotted Frank Sinatra in the audience and said to him, “I just saw your movie, The Pride and the Passion, and I want to tell you, the cannon was great.” He added, “Make yourself at home Frank. Hit somebody.” Sinatra, whose pet name for Rickles was “bullet-head,” enjoyed Don so much that he returned to see him when Rickles was performing at the Slate Brothers nightclub in Los Angeles and encouraged other celebrities to see his act. Rickles soon became the “in” comic among the Hollywood stars, who flocked to see him to become the target of his insults. Sinatra’s continuing support helped Rickles become a popular performer in Las Vegas, where he first started in 1959 and has been a headliner ever since.
Rickles earned the nicknames “The Merchant of Venom” and “Mr. Warmth” (coined affectionately by Johnny Carson) for his style of humor in which he pokes fun at people of all ethnicities and walks of life. When he is introduced to an audience or on a TV talk show, Spanish matador music, “La Virgen de la Macarena,” will usually be played subtly foreshadowing that someone is about to be metaphorically gored. Rickles has said, “I always pictured myself facing the audience as the matador.”
In 1958, Rickles made his dramatic film debut in Run Silent, Run Deep which starred Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. Throughout the next decade, he was seen frequently on television in both sitcoms and dramatic series. Among his memorable guest-starring roles were playing an old war buddy of Don Adams on Get Smart and portraying a troubled comedian who winds up killing an audience member on Run For Your Life. Other TV guest appearances included The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show, The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, The Andy Griffith Show and I Dream of Jeannie.
In the early ’60s, Rickles appeared in The Rat Race with Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds, and in Roger Corman’s drama film X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes as a carnival barker who exploits the lead character played by Ray Milland.
In the mid ‘60s, Rickles appeared in the popular Beach Party film series. He recalls that former first lady Barbara Bush teased him about his decision to be in those films saying, “I just caught Muscle Beach Party on the tube. I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”
As his career progressed, Rickles often appeared on television talk shows. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment of his breakthrough, Rickles believes the ball really started rolling on the night of October 7, 1965, during his first appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. His freewheeling performance that night became the talk of the show business industry and caused nationwide comment among the press and public. Rickles went on to become a frequent guest and guest host on The Tonight Show, appearing over 100 times during Carson’s tenure. One of his most memorable appearances occurred in 1968 when, while Carson was being bathed and massaged by two women, Rickles walked onto the set and jokingly began to massage Carson who was on his stomach and wearing a towel. Don wrapped his arms around him and said “I’m so lonely, Johnny!” Laughing hysterically, Carson got up, grabbed him and threw the fully-dressed Rickles into the bathtub.
The next important breakthrough for Rickles occurred during the summer of 1967. He was signed to appear on The Dean Martin Show. Rickles, in his first guest appearance on a major prime-time variety show, scored a major success. Immediately after taping his first appearance on The Dean Martin Show, Rickles was signed for a second guest shot on that program. Celebrities were invited to sit in the audience to become the targets of Rickles’ “insults.” Rickles did not know as he walked onstage who he’d be confronting. Among others he faced that night were Danny Thomas, Jackie Cooper, Bob Newhart, Dean Martin, Ernest Borgnine, Don Adams, Ricardo Montalban and Pat Boone. He proceeded to ad-lib for one hour (eventually edited down to 20 minutes for the show). For weeks afterwards, people throughout the country repeated Rickles’ lines. Particularly memorable was his remark as Bob Hope walked into the studio and took a seat. It was during the Vietnam War. Rickles snapped, “What’s Bob Hope doing here? Is the war over?” Rickles made many more appearances on The Dean Martin Show and also became a fixture on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts specials, which continued into the mid ‘80s.
Meanwhile, the public was discovering that behind the sharp Rickles’ barbs was a deep affection and love for those whom he seemed to be taunting. “If I were to insult people and mean it, that wouldn’t be funny,” Rickles told an interviewer. “There is a difference between an actual insult and just having fun.”
In 1968, Rickles released his first comedy album, Hello, Dummy! which was followed by the 1969 release of his second album, Don Rickles Speaks.
In 1970, Rickles had a notable role as the con man Sgt. Crapgame, alongside Clint Eastwood, in what has become a cult classic film, Kelly’s Heroes. In the ’70s he also starred in a series of variety television specials.
In his memoir, Rickles noted that scripted sitcoms were not well-suited to his ad-lib style, but in 1976, he starred in C.P.O Sharkey. Although not actually part of the show, many remember the night Johnny Carson, feigning anger and followed by a Tonight Show camera, interrupted the Sharkey taping after finding out that, on The Tonight Show the night before, while Bob Newhart sat in for Carson, Rickles had broken Johnny’s treasured cigarette box. The incident has often been replayed in Tonight Show retrospectives and is considered a highlight of the 1970s era of the show. In 2015, for the first time, the series became available on DVD.
Also in the ’70s, Rickles occasionally appeared as a panelist on Hollywood Squares and was depicted in comic book form by Jack Kirby during his work on the Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen series.
In 1980, his star became even brighter internationally as a result of an appearance at Grosvenor House in London during a fundraising gala. The guest of honor was Princess Margaret, who laughed heartily at Rickles’ barbs directed at her, as did many other British theatrical, political and social leaders when it came their turn to be zapped. Afterwards, the Princess invited Rickles and his wife to her table so that they could become better acquainted.
Another memorable TV appearance came in 1985. When Frank Sinatra was asked to perform at Ronald Reagan’s Second Inaugural Ball, he stipulated that he would not do so unless Don Rickles was allowed to perform with him. Rickles did perform at the televised inaugural gala, where he “zinged” the President, the Vice President and other of the nation’s dignitaries gathered for the occasion. This is one of the highest honors an entertainer can be afforded and Rickles considers this performance the highlight of his career.
In 1990, Don guest-starred on HBO’s Tales From the Crypt in the episode “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.” Two years later, he was cast in the film Innocent Blood, directed by John Landis. In his memoir, Rickles recalled that Landis was once a “Production Assistant” to the director during the filming of Kelly’s Heroes. During the filming of Innocent Blood, Rickles would kid Landis by ordering him to get coffee or run other errands reminding him of his one-time “gofer” status.
In 1995, Rickles made a return to the big screen in two high profile projects: a dramatic role as Robert De Niro’s trusted colleague in Martin Scorsese’s Casino and as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the revolutionary Pixar computer-animated film Toy Story. He reprised the latter role in Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 as well as in a series of shorts based on the films’ characters which were released in 2011. He is also heard as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story Midway Mania! attraction at Disney California Adventure Park and Disney’s Hollywood Studios near Orlando, Florida.
In 1998, Rickles played a movie theater manager in theatrical film, Dirty Work.
In 2004, he was seen in the TNT television movie The Wool Cap, which starred William H. Macy.
On October 17, 2000, Rickles received the honor of having his “Star” put alongside the greats of the entertainment industry on The Hollywood Walk of Fame. Later that year, he was among those saluting actor/director Clint Eastwood at the Kennedy Center Honors.
Rickles considers comedian Bob Newhart to be his best friend. Rickles, Newhart and their wives often vacation together. On January 24, 2005, the day following Johnny Carson’s death, Don and Bob appeared together on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno reminiscing about their many guest appearances on Carson’s show and, of course, the classic footage of the “cigarette box incident” was featured.
In May, 2007, Rickles best-selling memoir, titled Rickles’ Book, was released by Simon & Schuster. Later that year, Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, a documentary about and starring Rickles, directed by John Landis, made its debut on HBO and is currently available on DVD. The documentary won two Emmys, one for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special and the other for “Individual Performance,” where Don bested a number of comedic talents including David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
In 2008, Rickles’ second book for Simon & Schuster, Rickles’ Letters was released. The following year, he appeared on Kathy Griffin’s popular series, My Life on the D-List to help Kathy fulfill one of her mother’s “bucket list” wishes. In 2010, he appeared as a talking rose in a commercial during Super Bowl XLIV and also made an appearance later that year on the Daytime Emmys.
In 2011, Rickles joined Joe Pesci in an oft-seen commercial for Snickers candy bar. Also in 2011, he made a surprise appearance in a “cliff-hanger” episode as the “thought to be dead” husband of Betty White’s character on the TV Land comedy Hot In Cleveland. Later in the year, he returned to that show for the “payoff.”
In the spring of 2012 at the Comedy Awards in New York City, Rickles was honored to become the second recipient of the prestigious “Johnny Carson Award for Comedic Excellence.” The previous honoree was David Letterman. The presentation was made to Don by Jon Stewart and Robert De Niro and was telecast on Comedy Central.
In June of 2013, Rickles was honored with the Friars Club’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Comedy at a star-studded awards gala at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Among those participating in honoring Don through their songs or words were Lewis Black, Louis C.K., Natalie Cole, Bob Costas, Tony Danza, Robert De Niro, Kathy Griffin, Diana Krall, John Mayer, Bob Newhart, Regis Philbin, Joan Rivers, Bob Saget and John Stamos.
In May of 2014, Spike TV, TV Land and Comedy Central aired One Night Only: An All-Star Comedy Tribute to Don Rickles. Honoring Don on the two-hour special, which emanated from the famed Apollo Theater in New York City, were Bill Cosby, Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, Tina Fey, Brad Garrett, Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman, Tracy Morgan, Eddie Murphy, Bob Newhart, Regis Philbin, Amy Poehler, Ray Romano, Martin Scorsese, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart and Brian Williams.
In 2015, for the first time, DVD sets featuring all the episodes of CPO Sharkey and four of Don’s television specials were released by TIME LIFE.
Prior to his passing, Rickles was in production on a series titled Dinner With Don which featured the comedian interviewing top celebrities at some of Los Angeles’ top restaurants. Among his guests were Billy Crystal, Robert De Niro, Amy Poehler, Martin Scorsese, Jimmy Kimmel, Paul Rudd, Sarah Silverman, Snoop Dogg, Judd Apatow, Marisa Tomei, Vince Vaughn and Zach Galifianakis.
Rickles’ style was never mean-spirited and it was all just part of the act. In reality, most knew him to be quite genial and pleasant. It has been said that being “insulted” by Rickles was like “wearing a badge of honor.” He was known for often saying the word “anyway” following his comedic insults. This is widely regarded as one of Rickles’ classic comedic tactics that contributed to his impeccable sense of timing.
Rickles had been married for more than 50 years to his wife Barbara, who hails from Philadelphia. The couple had two children; a daughter Mindy, and a son, producer Larry Rickles, who passed away in December 2011 at the age of 41. According to Rickles’ memoir, his grandchildren, Ethan and Harrison Mann, were much more impressed by his role as Mr. Potato Head than by any of his other achievements.