Death. Or the only thing that could get Don Rickles to shut up.
What? Too soon? Ah, relax, ya hockey pucks. A saber-tongued comic whose standup routines knocked everyone to the floor can take a final heaping of abuse. Hey, not long before he left our stage for good, at his own televised roast in 2014, Tina Fey said he looked like “somebody’s purse”—harsh.
His peers gave as good as he got, almost. Yet Rickles was the undisputed champ of tearing apart anyone in his orbit, and we loved him for it. Sample insults:
To an audience member: “Who picks your clothes? Stevie Wonder?”
To Frank Sinatra: “Hey, Frank, make yourself at home! Hit somebody!”
To Johnny Carson: “Your folks wanted to be here tonight, but their pickup truck broke down.”
To Jerry Lewis: “We’re all gathered here tonight, because you could get hot again.”
To Dean Martin: “If you understand any of this, blink twice.”
To Milton Berle: “You were my idol when I was a kid. I was getting shock treatments at the time.”
About President Barack Obama: “I shouldn’t make fun of the blacks. President Obama is a personal friend of mine. He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke.”
Well, we mostly loved him for it; deemed not on the edge, but right over it, that one kicked up a ruckus at a Hollywood event in 2012. Give him credit, though: At 86, Rickles (a lifelong Democrat) could still make waves. Not for nothing did Carson dub him “Mr. Warmth,” while waiting for Rickles to get in another jab.
“I make fun of everybody and exaggerate all our insecurities,” he said. What was at the root of all this hostility? Not family life: born May 8, 1926, in Queens, New York to immigrant parents who managed through thick and thin to keep a roof over his head, Rickles, who described himself as shy, later enjoyed a long and happy marriage, with kids and grandkids. It wasn’t military life: he was a seaman first class in the Navy during World War II, and honorably discharged a year after its end. Nor education: A guy who seemed to charge into nightclubs off the street to yell at people attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, like Lauren Bacall, Spencer Tracy, and Robert Redford.
It may have been the lack of their opportunities that drove him to it. There was never a big break in movies or TV for Rickles, not that there weren’t some good parts, and a few lousy ones. (“Were things so bad you had to do Bikini Beach and Beach Blanket Bingo?” former First Lady Barbara Bush once chided him.) Frustrated, he tried standup comedy; when hecklers (the “hockey pucks”) shot down his scripted routines, he gave it right back to them, off the cuff. An act was born, improvised on the spot, and he kept at it for 60 years.
Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t Sinatra who gave him a leg up in bookings; it was Sinatra’s mother, who saw him onstage in Florida and urged her son to take a look. He did, got insulted, and liked the ribbing so much Rickles was soon playing showrooms in Las Vegas (and just the showrooms; Rickles’ mother disliked his father’s gambling, so Rickles, a quintessential Vegas performer, abstained). “Every night when I go out on stage, there’s always one nagging fear in the back of my mind. I’m always afraid that somewhere out there, there is one person in the audience that I’m not going to offend,” he remarked.
Yet there was no malice in Rickles’ act, and no politics, traits shared with his unlikely best friend, the buttoned-down Bob Newhart. Even when he drew a little blood, being insulted by Rickles was like being charged by a bulldog, which after all that barking and slobbering just wanted to be scratched. He played extremely well on TV—Carson, and every talk show host during and after his reign, loved to have him on. He did guest spots on lots of shows, from Andy Griffith and The Twilight Zone to The Munsters and I Dream of Jeannie, highlighted Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts until they ended in 1984, and had a few vehicles of his own, which he said cramped his ad-libbing.
Like Joan Rivers, he was happiest at the microphone—and, like her, in his infrequent downtime he had some intriguing sidelines. Rickles, who made his film debut opposite Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable in the submarine drama Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), was indeed a skilled actor, tormenting aspiring dancer Debbie Reynolds in The Rat Race (1960), exploiting troubled experimenter Ray Milland in X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), handling Vegas riff-raff as Robert De Niro’s right-hand man in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995), and plundering gold (and a few scenes) in Kelly’s Heroes (1970), with Clint Eastwood.
That large-scale production’s gofer was future National Lampoon’s Animal House director John Landis, who built a documentary, Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, around him in 2007. Typically, Rickles made Landis (who had directed him in his 1992 vampire film Innocent Blood) fetch coffee for him. It paid off—the highly acclaimed peek at the comedian onstage and off won Emmys for Rickles and Landis. “It was probably just a mercy award for an old man,” he joked. (In 2011, Rickles’ only son, Larry, who like Landis won an Emmy for producing the movie, died, at age 41.)
Rickles’ most endearing credit is surely the Pixar classic Toy Story (1995), where, as Mr. Potato Head, he dressed down—a hockey puck. The littlest viewers won’t get the joke, but count on their parents and grandparents to explain it to them. The “Merchant of Venom” managed somehow to charm everyone. “I enjoy mixed audiences, not one particular group,” he said. “Short, tall, scientists, Jews, gentiles, whatever, as long as they breathe and like to laugh.”
Robert Cashill has written for publications including The Wall Street Journal, MovieMaker, Playbill, Slant, and Time Out New York, and is an editorial board member of Cineaste magazine. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a member and former board member of the New York-based Drama Desk, the theatrical critics association. Like him on Facebook and tweet with him on Twitter.