Rickles an iconic comic is dead at the age of 90
LOS ANGELES –(RNN) – Don Rickles, the legendary comedian best known for his insults, has died. He was 90 years old.
ABC News learned Thursday from his representative that the comic and actor died from kidney failure.
Known sarcastically as “Mr. Warmth” – a nickname coined by Johnny Carson – Rickles built one of the longest comedic careers in American history with an act that loudly pointed out and laughed at cultural and racial stereotypes of people, including himself and the audience paying to see him. His style combined self-deprecation, insults and observational humor that influenced several generations of comedians.
Rickles was born May 8, 1926 in Queens, NY, to an American-born mother and a Russian immigrant father.
“My father came to America with a gun, grenade, and a picture of Stalin,” Rickles joked in “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” a 2008 documentary about his life.
Making fun of people was something Rickles developed as a kid, and eventually he incorporated the tough love style of humor into his act.
“Ever since I was a kid, I made fun of people,” he said in “Mr. Warmth.” “I made fun of my mother for the way she smoked her cigarette, the way my aunt drove a car, the way my cousins rode their bikes in the schoolyard.”
After graduating high school, Rickles enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served during World War II. He served in the Special Services, where he was to entertain troops with comedy and impressions, but still had to engage in artillery fighting from time to time. He would later joke about that scenario.
“I told [the officers], I’m in the Special Services. I’m not supposed to do this,” he had said. “I’m supposed to be doing comedy. And they said, ‘just keep firing.'”
The war ended, and Rickles was honorably discharged. In 1946, he set out to become a serious dramatic actor and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Getting acting work on stage or in film proved to be difficult, but Rickles’ comedy career began to soar as he performed in clubs around New York City and eventually started getting booked in places like Miami, where he would meet the man who would change his life: Frank Sinatra.
Sinatra sat in the front row at a club Rickles was performing at and instead of praising the megastar, Rickles made fun of his rough and tumble persona.
According to TheHockeyPuck.com, a fan website devoted to Rickles, when Sinatra walked into the club, Rickles noticed the legendary crooner and said, “Make yourself at home, Frank – hit somebody.”
He then proceeded to make fun of Sinatra’s performance in a recent movie. Due to Sinatra’s reputation, this was considered a risky move. But Sinatra must have thought it was funny because he kept coming back to see him – with other big stars, as well, which earned Rickles a spot among the Hollywood elite of that day.
“It was all because of Frank,” Rickles said. “He brought Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Wyman, Sammy Davis Jr.” and more.
“Every star in Hollywood felt that they have not made it…[unless] they had been insulted by Rickles,” said comedian and award-winning director Carl Reiner.
“He’d pick on anybody,” said actor Ernest Borgnine. “Big stars, small stars, directors, everybody. He just ripped them apart.”
While Rickles was building up his star status in Hollywood, Sinatra was building up the star status of Las Vegas, and the crooner talked the comedian into coming out to the desert to perform.
Rickles became a staple in Vegas. Beginning in 1959, Rickles would perform in Sin City for more than 50 years. During the next few years, he had small parts in several TV shows, including “The Twilight Zone,” “The Addams Family,” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” He also appeared in several “Beach Party” movies, a popular genre in the 1960’s known for starring pop music stars and women in swimsuits.
Rickles’ presence in those movies added some caustic comic relief and helped him earn an invite to the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. According to The Hockey Puck, Rickles’ “freewheeling performance that night became the talk of the show-business industry and caused nationwide comment among press and public.”
The turn on the “Tonight Show” was a boon to Rickles’ career. After years of playing clubs and getting small parts in mediocre movies, the classically-trained actor turned nightclub comedian started to get bigger roles. In 1967, he starred in West Coast presentations of “The Odd Couple,” as well as more prominent TV roles, including classics like “I Love Lucy,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and “I Dream of Jeannie.”
In 1972, he got his own show, “The Don Rickles Show,” but it only lasted one season. During this time, and over the next two decades, Rickles continued to get TV roles, perform in Vegas, and appear on late-night talk shows.
He even served as a stand-in for Johnny Carson on several occasions.
By the 1970s, Rickles was a big star and was influencing future comedians. Penn Jillette, who would later become well-known for being one half of the comedy duo Penn and teller, saw Rickles perform in the 1970s and described it in “Mr. Warmth.”
“He had this quality of pleasing the audience was the most important thing in the world – not in his life, in the world,” Jillette said. “But he would not compromise in any way to please them: a very complicated, very important idea. In a certain sense, the very definition of art.”
During the 70s, Dean Martin hosted the “Dean Martin Celebrity Roast,” where the day’s top stars would be subjected to good-natured insults from friends and colleagues. With Rickles’ brand of insult humor, he was a natural and became known as the top roaster – a title many claim he held until his last days.
Despite his caustic persona, Rickles was close to his mother, Etta, and he was known for paying tribute to her in his performances.
“My dear mother. When the whole world booed… this great lady stood by me. I loved her,” Rickles said to an audience in “Mr. Warmth.”
He also closed many of his performances with the line, “Good night, Etta darling, wherever you are.”
Etta Rickles died in 1984 at the age of 83.
In the 90s, Rickles got prominent roles in two now-classic movies: “Casino” and “Toy Story 2.” In “Casino,” Rickles played Robert DeNiro’s casino manager, Billy Sherbert. And in “Toy Story 2,” he did the voice for Mr. Potato Head, which brought his humor to a new generation.
Tragedy struck for Rickles in 2011 when his son, Larry Rickles, died of respiratory failure due to pneumonia. Larry Rickles earned an Emmy in 2008 for producing “Mr. Warmth.”
Until his death, Rickles continued his appearances on talk shows, appearing on Leno and Letterman, as well as other popular late night shows like “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”
Sidney Poitier, who first saw Rickles in the 60s, said his act was the same then as it was towards the end of his life.
“He was explosive,” Poitier said. “He was impactful. He was funny. I mean, outrageously funny.”
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