Rickles in 1973
|Birth name||Donald Jay Rickles|
|Born||May 8, 1926|
Queens, New York, U.S.
|Died||April 6, 2017 (aged 90)|
Beverly Hills, California
|Medium||Stand-up, film, television|
|Genres||Insult comedy, observational comedy, musical comedy, improvisational comedy|
|Subject(s)||United States culture, racism, self-deprecation, everyday life, religion, current events|
|Spouse||Barbara Sklar (m. 1965–2017)|
|Notable works and roles||Hello Dummy!|
Run Silent, Run Deep
Donald Jay "Don" Rickles (May 8, 1926 – April 6, 2017) 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. He received widespread exposure as a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Show with David Letterman. He won a Primetime Emmy Award for his documentary, Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.
Rickles was born Donald Jay Rickles in the New York City borough of Queens on May 8, 1926 to Max Rickles (1897–1953), who emigrated in 1903 with his parents Joseph and Frances Rickles (Richters) from Kaunas, Lithuania (then in the Russian Empire), and Etta (Feldman) Rickles (1901–1984), born in New York to immigrant parents from the Austrian Empire. His family was Jewish and spoke Yiddish at home. Rickles grew up in the Jackson Heights area.
After graduating from Newtown High School, Rickles enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served during World War II on the motor torpedo boat tender USS Cyrene (AGP-13) as a seaman first class. He was honorably discharged in 1946. Two years later, intending to be a dramatic actor, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and then played bit parts on television. Frustrated by a lack of acting work, Rickles began performing stand-up comedy in clubs in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. He became known as an insult comedian when he responded to his hecklers. The audience enjoyed these insults more than his prepared material, and he incorporated them into his act. When he began his career in the early 1950s, he started calling ill-mannered members of the audience "hockey puck[s]". His style was similar to that of an older insult comic, Jack E. Leonard, though Rickles denied Leonard influenced his style.
While working in a Miami Beach nightclub known as "Murray Franklin's" early in his career, he spotted Frank Sinatra and remarked to him, "I just saw your movie, The Pride and the Passion and I want to tell you, the cannon's acting was great." He added, "Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody!" Sinatra, whose pet name for Rickles was "bullet-head," enjoyed him so much that he encouraged other celebrities to see Rickles' act and be insulted by him. Sinatra's support helped Rickles become a popular headline performer in Las Vegas. During a Dean Martin Roast special, Rickles was among those who took part in a roast of Sinatra.
Rickles earned the nicknames "The Merchant of Venom" and "Mr. Warmth" for his poking fun at people of all ethnicities and walks of life. When he was introduced to an audience or on a television talk show, Spanish matador music, "La Virgen de la Macarena", would usually be played, subtly foreshadowing someone was about to be metaphorically gored. Rickles said, "I always pictured myself facing the audience as the matador."
In 1958, Rickles made his film debut in a serious part in Run Silent, Run Deep with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. Throughout the 1960s, he often appeared on television in sitcoms and dramatic series. Rickles guest-starred in Get Smart as Sid, an old war buddy of Max who comes to stay with him. In an episode of the 1960s drama series Run for Your Life, Rickles played a distressed comedian whose act culminates when he strangles a patron while imploring the patron to "Laugh!" Rickles took a dramatic turn in the low-budget Roger Corman film X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes as a carnival barker out to exploit the title character (played by Ray Milland).
Rickles appeared in the popular Beach Party film series. He recalled in his 2007 memoir that at a White House dinner, Barbara Bush teased him about his decision to appear in those films. Rickles' agent, Jack Gilardi, was married to Annette Funicello when Rickles was cast in the Beach Party films. He subsequently began appearing more frequently on television talk shows, first appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1965.
He became a frequent guest and guest host, appearing more than 100 times on The Tonight Show during Carson's era. An early Carson-Rickles Tonight highlight occurred in 1968 when, while two Japanese women treated Carson to a bath and massage by foot, Rickles walked onto the set. Rickles also made frequent appearances on The Dean Martin Show and became a fixture on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roastspecials.
In 1968, Rickles released a live comedy album, Hello, Dummy!, which reached #54 on The Billboard 200album chart. The same year he starred in his own variety show on ABC, The Don Rickles Show, with comedy writer Pat McCormick as his sidekick. The show lasted one season. During the 1960s, Rickles made guest appearances on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Munsters, The Addams Family, The Mothers-in-Law, Gilligan's Island, Get Smart, The Andy Griffith Show and I Dream of Jeannie.
In 1970, Rickles had a notable role as Crapgame in Kelly's Heroes, sharing the marquee poster with co-stars Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and Carroll O'Connor. In 1972, he starred in The Don Rickles Show, which lasted for 13 episodes. He also starred in a series of television specials. In his memoir, Rickles acknowledged a scripted sitcom was not well-suited to his ad-lib style of performing.
Starting in 1973, Rickles became a popular comedian appearing on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast specials. In 1976–1978, he starred in C.P.O. Sharkey, which lasted two seasons. The series is primarily remembered for the cigarette box incident when Johnny Carson did an impromptu surprise visit during an episode's taping because he was "incensed" Rickles broke his cigarette box while he chatted with Bob Newhart (who was sitting in for Carson as the guest host of The Tonight Show) on the previous night's show. The incident was often replayed in Tonight Show retrospectives and was considered a highlight of the 1970s era of the series.
Rickles occasionally appeared as a panelist on Hollywood Squares and was depicted in comic book form by Jack Kirby during his work on the Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen series.