Don Rickles, the bullet-headed comedian and actor whose pioneering brand of insult comedy earned him the nickname “Mr. Warmth,” died on April 6. He would have turned 91 on May 8.
Rickles died at his home in Los Angeles from kidney failure, according to his publicist.
In July, 2001, I had the chance to interview him for a story prior to his appearance at the Hummingbird Centre in Toronto, now the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. The following is excerpted from that story:
Pop quiz: Don Rickles is a) an acid-tongued wiseacre to whom everyone is either a “dummy” or a “hockey puck”; b) a surprisingly mild-mannered, polite, serious man; or c) both.
Don’t be too surprised if it’s c). But you’ll probably get more of a) if you go see Rickles’ July 9 show at the Hummingbird Centre, where he’s slated to appear with fellow in-your-face comic Joan Rivers.
Rickles has a great Jekyll-and-Hyde thing going: by night he’s the wisecracking Borschtbelt/Vegas lounge mainstay whose shtick has been insults, barbs and biting put-downs delivered rat-tat-tat to whoever’s unfortunate enough to be in his line of sight.
By day, like on the phone with The CJN from his Los Angeles home, he’s a disarming, soft-spoken, co–operative guy. Nice even. Not a zinger to be zung.
Not that the opportunity wasn’t presented.
“I have some questions you’ve probably been asked a million times,”I say. (Pause for sarcastic rejoinder).
“Well, lissen, you got a job to do,” comes the soft reply. “What can I tell ya?”
He can tell us the answer to the question every Rickles fan has: How does it feel making a living insulting people?
Ahh… there’s that word.
“You use the word ‘insult,’” Rickles observes. “I don’t like to call it that, but I was always stuck with it and it took me a long way, so I settled for it. But with ‘insult’ you think of someone mean, and I’ve never been mean-spirited. I never will be; otherwise, people wouldn’t come see me.” To Rickles, offending someone for real wouldn’t be funny.
“So it’s not an ‘insult.’ It’s an exaggeration of everything about us. And that’s exactly what I do, whether it’s religion, your appearance or what you wear or how you talk or where you live. I just take that, and exaggerate it, and have an attitude on stage, which is the funny, angry guy.”
Rickle has been that guy since 1957, when his signature style was born at a small Hollywood nightclub. One night, Frank Sinatra himself walked in, and the unknown comic from New York had the chutzpah to rib, “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody.” Old Blue Eyes loved it, and he became a Rickles booster.
The comic turned serious for a bit part in the 1958 movie Run Silent, Run Deep. By the early ’60s, his act was headlining the Vegas clubs. His big break took place on the Tonight Show in 1965, where he had Johnny Carson in stitches.
That style, he recalls, sprouted from a “very poor” early act in strip bars, in which he’d mug, tell old jokes and do impressions. One night, he was heckled, and Rickles did something no comedian had done before: he heckled back. The crowd loved it.
His early influences were Carson, Milton Berle, and Rickles’ father, “a ribber.”
Rickles tallies a long list of TV roles, including the short-lived Don Rickles Show and CPO Sharkey. On the big screen, he’s appeared alongside Clint Eastwood in Kelly’s Heroes and was Robert de Niro’s faithful sidekick in Casino. And of course, die-hard fans know he was the voice of Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story and Toy Story 2. In between were several forgettable roles in beach blanket movies.
Rickles, who often draws attention to his Jewishness in his act, does a fair bit of behind-the-scenes Jewish communal work (he and his wife Barbara raised funds to build a gymnasium at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles). And he insists he’s not the guy you see on stage.
“I’m a human being,” he explains. “I do rib people, my intimate friends. But I don’t go to a cocktail party and walk into a room and say, ‘You’re a dum-dum.’ When the occasion’s right, I kid around. But I would like to think of me as being a very average, normal guy.”
Which he is. That hockey puck.