Don Rickles, the insult machine who heckled everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ronald Reagan during his heyday, died of kidney failure at his home in Los Angeles Thursday.
Sarcastically nicknamed “Mr. Warmth,” Rickles had mock disdain for stars, major public figures and all those who paid to see him, tweaking TV audiences and Las Vegas showroom crowds with his acerbic brand of takedown comedy. A good guy and devoted husband away from the stage, Rickles the performer heartlessly laid into everyone he encountered — and they loved it.
After toiling in relative obscurity for years as a more conventional stand-up comedian, Rickles unwittingly discovered his biggest laughs came when he turned the tables on his hecklers. His career then skyrocketed after he insulted the hot-tempered Sinatra, who normally did not take kindly to such treatment.
When the superstar singer and actor walked into a Miami Beach club in 1957 where Rickles was performing, the comedian greeted the “Chairman of the Board” from the stage: “Make yourself at home Frank. Hit somebody.” Sinatra roared — with laughter.
With Sinatra’s endorsement, Rickles began his comedic assault on people famous and not so famous — Jews, Asians, African Americans, the Irish, Puerto Ricans, red-headed women, short guys, you name it — with tremendous results. He referred to stupid people as “hockey pucks,” and in 1959, he signed for his first Las Vegas appearance, in the lounge of the Hotel Sahara.
In 1985, when Sinatra was asked to perform at Ronald Reagan’s second Inaugural Ball, he insisted that Rickles accompany him for a comedy routine. Rickles, naturally, did not spare the president (“Am I going too fast for you, Ronnie?” he asked) and considered that performance among the highlights of his career.
Rickles was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and also made numerous appearances on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts that ran on NBC from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. He starred in several movies, including Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Casino (1995), Pajama Party (1964) and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). He also starred in several television shows through the years, but success in those endeavors eluded him.
I grew up watching Rickles’ insult act on Dean Martin’s roasts, always understanding that the barbs were all in fun and no one was truly insulted.
Success for a politically incorrect comedian like Rickles would be all but impossible these days, I think. Are there any venues left where a comedian can make fun of “Jews, Asians, African Americans, the Irish, Puerto Ricans, red-headed women, short guys, you name it” without getting run out of the place on a rail? The snowflakes would demand it.
Rickles and his wife, Barbara, often vacationed with deadpan comic Bob Newhart and his wife, Ginnie.
“He was called ‘The Merchant of Venom,’ but in truth, he was one of the kindest, caring and most sensitive human beings we have ever known,” the Newharts said in a statement. “We are devastated, and our world will never be the same. We were totally unprepared for this.”
Yes, we lost a true original today. He will be missed.
Here is the Insult King roasting Ronald Reagan on The Dean Martin Show in 1973 when the Gipper was the governor of California.