Don Rickles, the master insult comic who created laughs with ridicule and sarcasm in a decades-long career that earned him the facetious nickname “Mr. Warmth,” died on Thursday at his Los Angeles home from kidney failure, his publicist said. He was 90.
Rickles, who said he developed his brand of mockery humor because he was no good at telling traditional jokes, had recently postponed some performances, including a show set for May in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was pushed back to November just this week.
His death was confirmed by his spokesman, Paul Shefrin, who said Rickles is survived by his wife of 52 years, Barbara, as well as their daughter, Mindy Mann, and two grandchildren. He would have turned 91 on May 8.
The New York-born Rickles had an intense, often-ad libbed, rapid-fire delivery and a wide, impish grin. He delighted nightclub audiences, Hollywood royalty and politicians by hurling invective at them, all in good fun.
Encountering Frank Sinatra for the first time during a stand-up act in 1957, Rickles greeted the mercurial singer as Sinatra walked in with a retinue of tough guys by saying, “Make yourself at home, Frank – hit somebody.”
Luckily for Rickles, the line amused Sinatra, who became one of his biggest boosters and took to calling the short, bald Rickles “Bullethead.”
Performing decades later at the second inaugural gala of U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1985, Rickles did not hesitate to zing the commander-in-chief, asking, “Is this too fast for you, Ronnie?”
But the most frequent targets of the “Merchant of Venom” were the fans who packed his performances for a chance to be belittled as a “dummy,” a “hockey puck” or worse. Celebrities often showed up just for the honor of being mocked by Rickles, and no minority or ethnic group was immune to a Rickles tongue-lashing.
“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,” actor-comedian Bob Newhart and his wife, Ginnie, said in a statement.
Comic actor Jim Carrey tweeted: “Don once begged me for a couple of bucks, then told me to twist myself into a pretzel.
Ego slayer! Comic Everest!” Oscar winner Tom Hanks also tweeted a tribute to his “Toy Story” co-star, saying, “A God died today. Don Rickles, we did not want to ever lose you. Never.”
Rickles also mocked himself and shied away from describing himself as an “insult comic,” insisting that his humor was not intended to be mean-spirited but was built on making wild exaggerations for the sake of laughs.
Much of Rickles’ material played on racial and ethnic stereotypes that did not always keep up with cultural evolution.
He came under fire in 2012 for a joke that characterized President Barack Obama as a janitor. His spokesman defended the line as just “a joke, as were the other comments Don made that night.”
“Anyone who knows him knows he’s not a racist,” the spokesman told Politico then.
Heckling the Hecklers
Rickles, a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, proved especially adept in early nightclub engagements at handling hecklers, which led him to make poking fun at audience members a major part of his act.
In an interview with Reuters to promote his 2007 memoir “Rickles’ Book,” he said his flair for impromptu insults grew out of his shortcomings as a conventional comic.
“I just can’t tell jokes,” he said. “As a young man I had a personality that I could rib somebody and get away with it.”
Rickles, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, also built a resume as an actor, making his film debut as a junior officer alongside Clark Cable and Burt Lancaster in the 1958 submarine drama “Run Silent, Run Deep.”
He went on to appear in a series of 1960s “beach party” movies with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon and in 1970 played Army hustler Sergeant Crapgame in the wartime caper “Kelly’s Heroes,” with Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland.
He endeared himself to an entirely new generation by providing the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the computer-animated “Toy Story” movie and its two sequels in the 1990s. In 1995 he had a dramatic role in Martin Scorsese’s Las Vegas crime film “Casino.”
But Rickles’ biggest exposure came on television, both as a frequent sitcom guest star and late-night and variety show regular, especially on NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and “The Dean Martin Show.”
On Carson, Rickles was typically introduced by Spanish matador music, signifying that someone was about to be gored.
He took a long break from live shows and a Los Angeles performance in January 2015 was his first in 17 years.
Several Rickles TV series were short-lived, the most popular of which was the NBC comedy “C.P.O. Sharkey,” in which he starred as a U.S. Navy chief petty officer in charge of new recruits. The series lasted just two seasons.
A TV documentary, “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” directed by John Landis, aired on HBO in 2007.
Six Facts About Don Rickles
* Rickles was not always an insult-slinging comedian. He graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where his classmates included Jason Robards, Grace Kelly and Anne Bancroft. He had an early undistinguished stage career before gravitating toward comedy work, starting out in strip joints and working his way up to nightclubs, casinos, records, television and movies.
* Rickles did not think of himself as an “insult comic.” He said his act was all in fun and that his barbs were exaggerations delivered with good humor. “I’m the guy that makes fun of the boss at the Christmas party on Friday night and Monday still has his job,” he once said.
* Rickles inspired lots of nicknames. Singer Frank Sinatra called the short, bald comedian “Bullethead” while late-night television host Johnny Carson gave him the facetious title “Mr. Warmth” and Milton Berle dubbed him “The Merchant of Venom.”
* One of Rickles’ most notorious put-downs was to call someone a “hockey puck” but he once told an interviewer he was unsure how he came up with the barb.
* A lifelong Democrat, Rickles performed as part of Ronald Reagan’s second presidential inauguration. He joked that he took the job because he wanted to hang out with Sinatra.
* Rickles was a devoted son but in his act referred to his mother, Etta Rickles, as “the Jewish Patton.”