(May 8, 1926 – April 6, 2017)
Donald Jay “Don” Rickles was an American stand-up comedian and actor. Best known as an insult comic, he also acted in both comedic and dramatic roles on film.
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 honed his reputation in numerous appearances on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts that ran on NBC from the mid-1970s to the mid-80s. The specials provided a perfect venue for Rickles to unleash his caustic brand of humor on such visiting dignitaries as Sinatra, Reagan, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Kirk Douglas, Sammy Davis Jr. and Mr. T.
Johnny Carson provided Rickles a late-night stage by making him one of The Tonight Show’s most-frequent guests. On one memorable moment in 1968, Rickles cozied up to a half-naked Carson during a sketch with two Japanese female masseuses and said, “I’m so lonely, Johnny!” Carson threw him in a bathtub. More recently, he was a regular guest on Late Show With David Letterman, in which the CBS host treated Rickles like royalty.
Rickles intermittently played in movies, highlighted by Kelly’s Heroes (1970), where he co-starred with Clint Eastwood as Sgt. Crapgame, an Army black-marketer who had no compunction about cutting favorable deals with the Nazis.
He also played opposite beach bunny Annette Funicello in such movies as Pajama Party (1964) and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), appeared as a Vegas casino manager in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) and voiced the cranky Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films.
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.”
Rickles died on April 6, 2017, of kidney failure, in his home in Los Angeles.