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Don Rickles, Legendary Comedian, Dies At 90

Don Rickles Sinatra Carson

Don Rickles, the legendary comedian who made a career out of insults of everyone from audience members to seemingly intimidating stars such as Frank Sinatra, has passed away at the age of 90:

Don Rickles, the acidic stand-up comic who became world-famous not by telling jokes but by insulting his audience, died on Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 90.

The cause was kidney failure, said a spokesman, Paul Shefrin.

For more than half a century, on nightclub stages, in concert halls and on television, Mr. Rickles made outrageously derisive comments about people’s looks, their ethnicity, their spouses, their sexual orientation, their jobs or anything else he could think of. He didn’t discriminate: His incendiary unpleasantries were aimed at the biggest stars in show business (Frank Sinatra was a favorite target) and at ordinary paying customers.

His rise to national prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s roughly coincided with the success of “All in the Family,” the groundbreaking situation comedy whose protagonist, Archie Bunker, was an outspoken bigot. Mr. Rickles’s humor was similarly transgressive. But he went further than Archie Bunker, and while Carroll O’Connor, who played Archie, was speaking words someone else had written — and was invariably the butt of the joke — Mr. Rickles, whose targets included his fellow Jews, never needed a script and was always in charge.

One night, on learning that some members of his audience were German, he said, “Forty million Jews in this country, and I got four Nazis sitting here in front waiting for the rally to start.” He said that America needed Italians “to keep the cops busy” and blacks “so we can have cotton in the drugstore,” and that “Asians are nice people, but they burn a lot of shirts.” He might ask a man in the audience, “Is that your wife?” and, when the man answered yes, respond: “Oh, well. Keep your chin up.”

As brutal as his remarks could be, they rarely left a mark. (“I’m not really a mean, vicious guy,” he told an interviewer in 2000.) Sidney Poitier was said to have once been offended by Mr. Rickles’s racial jokes. But in “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” a 2007 documentary directed by John Landis, Mr. Poitier sang Mr. Rickles’s praises.

Recalling the first time he saw Mr. Rickles perform, Mr. Poitier said: “He was explosive. He was impactful. He was funny. I mean, outrageously funny.”

Mr. Rickles got his first break, the story goes, when Sinatra and some of his friends came to see him perform in 1957 — in Hollywood, according to most sources, although Mr. Rickles himself said it was in Miami. “Make yourself at home, Frank,” Mr. Rickles said to Sinatra, whom he had never met. “Hit somebody.” Sinatra laughed so hard, he fell out of his seat.

Mr. Rickles was soon being championed by Sinatra, Dean Martin and the other members of the show business circle known as the Rat Pack. Steady work in Las Vegas followed. But he was hardly an overnight success: He spent a decade in the comedy trenches before he broke through to a national audience.

In 1965, he made the first of numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show,” treating Johnny Carson with his trademark disdain to the audience’s (and Carson’s) delight. He also became a regular on Dean Martin’s televised roasts, where no celebrity was safe from his onslaughts. (“What’s Bob Hope doing here? Is the war over?”)

Mr. Rickles’s wife, who he said “likes to lie in bed, signaling ships with her jewelry,” was not immune to his attacks. Neither was his mother, Etta, whom he referred to as “the Jewish Patton.” But off the stage, he didn’t hesitate to express his gratitude to his mother for unflaggingly believing in his talent, even when he himself wasn’t so sure.

“She had a tremendous drive,” he recalled in “Mr. Warmth.” “Drove me crazy. But she was like the driving force for me.”

He shared an apartment with his mother and did not marry until he was almost 40. After marrying Barbara Sklar in 1965, he saw to it that his mother had the apartment next door. He is survived by Barbara, his wife of 52 years; a daughter, Mindy Mann; and two grandchildren. Mr. Rickles’s son, Lawrence, died in 2011.

More from Variety:

Donald Jay Rickles was born in Manhattan and studied acting at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York after serving in the Navy during WWII. He began appearing in nightclubs during the ’50s but didn’t really break through until his first appearance on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” in 1965.

In the meantime, he worked in movies. After his debut in WWII submarine drama “Run Silent, Run Deep” (1958), he appeared in the Tony Curtis-Debbie Reynolds romantic comedy “The Rat Race” and various AIP beach movies with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon.

After the Carson appearance, he achieved headliner status in Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe, and he was frequently seen in the company of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack.

He took to the stage in the L.A. production of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” playing Felix. Later he took “The Don Rickles Show” on tour around the country. He also made more movies, including Carl Reiner’s “Enter Laughing” and WWII heist comedy “Kelly’s Heroes.”

His first try at a TV series, CBS’ “Kibbe Hates Finch” in 1965, never got beyond a pilot. Variety series “The Don Rickles Show” lasted a single season in 1969-69, and his mid-’70s sitcom “C.P.O. Sharkey” lasted two. He co-hosted reality clip show “Foul-Ups, Bloops and Blunders” with Steve Lawrence for a single season in 1983-84 on ABC. His last attempt was Fox’s 1993 sitcom “Daddy Dearest” co-starring Richard Lewis, which quickly folded.

More successful were his guest starring appearances on TV in a variety of shows including comedies such as “Archie Bunker’s Place,” “The Lucy Show,” “F Troop” (in a recurring role as Bald Eagle), “Get Smart,” “Newhart” and, in 2011, “Hot in Cleveland.” He also acquitted himself on TV dramas like “Medical Center” and “Chrysler Theater.” He guested on “The Single Guy” and “Murphy Brown” in the late ’90s, appeared in a supporting role in 2004 telepic “The Wool Cap” and appeared as himself within a dream sequence in a 2007 episode of CBS drama “The Unit.”

In January 2005, Rickles appeared with Bob Newhart, whom he considered his best friend, on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” the day after Johnny Carson’s death to reminisce about their many guest appearances on Carson’s show.

During the late ’70s and a good part of the ’80s, Rickles’ humor was out of fashion, and while he continued appearing at casinos, the luster of his star had faded. Then, things turned around again, and a new generation of comedians that he had influenced came into favor. Rickles was once again in vogue.

Rickles’ humor, while enjoyed better in person, also landed on record with albums such as “Hello Dummy!” and “Don Rickles Speaks.”

In Scorsese’s 1995 film “Casino,” Rickles had a substantial role as a trusted cohort to Robert De Niro’s casino owner. And the “Toy Story” animated features kept Rickles busy, voicing Mr. Potato Head in the 1995 original, the 1999 sequel and the enormously successful third entry in 2010. He reprised the role in a 2011 short called “Hawaiian Vacation,” and he voiced the Frog character in the 2011 live action/animated hybrid “Zookeeper,” starring Kevin James and Rosario Dawson.

RIckels’ brand of comedy wasn’t for everyone, of course, but he did manage to stay relevant enough to have a career well into his 80s that included touring with the likes of Regis Philbin, shows in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, and continued appearance on Late Night television, especially with David Letterman, who seemed to appreciate Rickels’ biting routines and insults quite a lot. He also made several appearances over the years on The Tonight Show with both Jay Leno and current host Jimmy Fallon. By then, of course, Rickle was well into his 70s and 80s and seemed to be enjoying a revival of his career in his elder years. For me, though, it will always be Rickles’ appearances during the Johnny Carson years of the show that will be the classic Rickels, and Johnny seemed to delight in Rickles poking at him, whether it was over his wealth, or the number of marriages he’d had.

Rest in peace, you hockey puck.

Here’s a few clips of Rickles at this best, including two with Frank Sinatra, who helped Rickles get his big break many years earlier:

From The Tonight Show in 1973:

And 1978:

And 1986:

And here is a 1976 clip featuring Sinatra, Rickles and Carson together.

Finally, this is Rickels at the Dean Martin Roast of Frank Sinatra:

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook