Photographer: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Don Rickles, Comedian Who Turned Insults Into Art, Dies at 90

  • Johnny Carson gave him the ironic nickname ‘Mr. Warmth’
  • Howard Stern among those citing him as a major influence

Don Rickles, the comedian who wielded the insult like a saber during a six-decade performing career in Las Vegas showrooms, on stages around the globe and in memorable appearances on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” has died. He was 90.

He died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles as a result of kidney failure, his publicist Paul Shefrin said in an emailed statement. He was 90.  

The man who called people “you hockey puck” studied drama with the likes of Jason Robards and Anne Bancroft in the 1940s in hopes of breaking onto the Broadway stage. He found some success on television, starring for three seasons in “CPO Sharkey,” and in movies including “Casino,” but his quest for dramatic roles went largely unfulfilled.

Instead, he became America’s premier putdown artist, a comic whose prime material was the audience in front of him: people of various ethnicities, religions, sizes, ages. He stabbed without drawing blood, shocking audiences without using the language that got Lenny Bruce, a contemporary, into legal trouble. Radio host Howard Stern is among the modern-day no-holds-barred performers who cite Rickles as a major influence.

“What I do is exaggerate, that’s all I do,” Rickles said in a 2007 interview with Charlie Rose. “I have a knack -- I don’t know how -- but I have a knack of making fun of somebody and exaggerating without hurting them, and doing it in such a way that they said, ‘Oh, that was great.”’

Hockey Puck

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang credits Rickles, circa 1963, with repurposing “hockey puck” to mean “a stupid or useless person.”

An equal-opportunity offender, he didn’t hesitate to put down the rich, famous and powerful, even right to their faces. Making his first appearance on “The Tonight Show” in 1965, a humbling moment for many, he greeted Carson with the line, “Hello, dummy.” It was Carson who gave Rickles the ironic nickname, “Mr. Warmth.”

In a private show for a Las Vegas audience that included two of the world’s richest men, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Rickles noticed that Buffett’s suit was wrinkled. As Rickles recounted for Playboy magazine in 2007: “I walked up to him, pulled him into the spotlight and said, ‘Here’s $5. Get the suit pressed. Whatever you need, sweetheart. Don’t be bashful. I have more if you need the help. Just call me.”’

Ribbing Reagan

Rickles said the highlight of his career was performing at the televised black-tie gala for Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural in 1985. After making rapid-fire jokes directed at audience members George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, and Billy Graham, the Christian evangelist, Rickles cracked to the 73-year-old president, “Is this too fast, Ronnie?”

He was given the presidential assignment by singer Frank Sinatra, who was honorary chairman of the inaugural gala. Rickles treasured his friendship with Sinatra, who called him “bullethead” and made him an auxiliary member of the Rat Pack.

The friendship began in the early 1950s, when Rickles was performing at Murray Franklin’s, a small club in Miami Beach, while Sinatra was headlining at the prestigious Fontainebleau.

As Rickles recalled in his 2007 memoir, “Rickles’ Book,” his fearless mother, Etta -- whom he called “the Jewish Patton” -- befriended Sinatra’s mother, Dolly, and persuaded her to get her famous son to come check out Rickles’ act.

“Make yourself comfortable, Frank -- hit somebody,” Rickles recalled cracking when he saw Sinatra enter the club. (Some later accounts placed that particular encounter in Los Angeles, not Miami Beach.)

The two performers became fast friends and shared billings in venues including Las Vegas, New York City and Monte Carlo.

Rickles was also close to comedian Bob Newhart, who wrote: “Don Rickles and I are best friends. I know that might seem strange to those who know Don only by reputation, but somebody has to be his friend.”

Early Life

Donald Jay Rickles was born on May 8, 1926, in New York City and grew up in Jackson Heights, in the borough of Queens. He was the only child of Max Rickles, an insurance salesman, and Etta, his wife.

He was president of his high school’s dramatic club. After graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy with hopes, he later said, of being assigned to a unit that entertained troops. Instead, he found himself in the Philippines, serving on a PT boat.

Following the war he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Robards and Bancroft also were learning the craft. He graduated in 1948, flunked tryouts for a series of Broadway shows, sold pots and pans from his car, briefly tried selling insurance like his father did, and did impersonations and told jokes at clubs in New Jersey and Connecticut.

Miami Days

After his father’s death in 1953, Rickles took his show -- and his mother -- to Miami Beach, where, in addition to becoming acquainted with Sinatra, he became a regular on Larry King’s early-morning radio show, broadcast from a houseboat.

He developed a following among Hollywood A-listers with performances at Slate Brothers, a small club in Beverly Hills. More often than not, the stars who showed up found themselves the target of his humor.

“He’d pick on anybody,” Ernest Borgnine recalled in “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” a 2007 documentary directed by John Landis. “I mean big stars, small stars, directors, you name it. Big executives in show business. I mean, he just ripped them apart.”

Rickles got off to what seemed like a promising start in films, appearing with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster in the World War II submarine drama “Run Silent Run Deep” (1958). Other early movies included “X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” (1963) “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965) with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, and “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970).

Las Vegas

In the 1960s, Rickles’ base was Las Vegas, where he followed singer Louis Prima with sets at midnight, 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. at the Sahara Hotel’s Casbar Lounge. He relished the night when Sinatra and fellow Rat Packers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. took seats in the front row and, just as Rickles began his act, opened newspapers and started reading.

After filling in one night for an ailing Carson at the Sahara’s main room, the Congo Room, Rickles got promoted to a regular in the larger venue.

Joan Rivers, then an aspiring comedienne, was among those who took in his act. “I went to see him and was just blown away,” she said in the Landis documentary. “No one was doing what he was doing at that time. No one.”

Television and movies proved a harder sell. Though he was a regular on late-night talk shows, on Dean Martin’s celebrity roasts and as a guest on series including “Get Smart” and “Gilligan’s Island,” his own sitcom, “The Don Rickles Show” (1972) lasted only one season. His biggest TV success was starring as an acerbic chief petty officer in “CPO Sharkey,” which aired three seasons starting in 1976.

Highlights of his film career included being beaten by Joe Pesci’s character in “Casino” (1995) -- “I had on a rubber suit, and it still hurt,” Rickles told Playboy -- and giving voice to Mr. Potato Head in “Toy Story” (1995) and its two sequels.

Survivors include his wife, Barbara, a daughter, Mindy, and two grandchidren.

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