Don Rickles, the caustic comedian known to generations as Mr. Warmth, Merchant of Venom and … Mr. Potato Head, died April 6 at the age of 90. Rickles made a career out of ridiculing anyone and everyone but it was never meant to be mean-spirited. As he once told his pal Jimmy Kimmel, if he didn’t like you he wouldn’t insult you. While his on stage persona was one of joking malice, Rickles was quite different privately, acknowledged by those who knew him as a generous man with a big heart.
Rickles was born on May 8, 1926 in Queens, New York, the son of an immigrant father. After graduating from Newtown High School, Rickles enlisted in the Navy and served during World War II. After an Honorable Discharge in 1946, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, hoping to become an actor. Bit parts on television led nowhere so he began performing comedy in clubs in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. Rickles responded to his hecklers with insults which the audience enjoyed more than his own material, and the legend was born.
Rickles really hit the big time when Frank Sinatra came to see one of his show in Miami Beach. Rickles told Sinatra that the cannon in his latest film did the best acting, and then told him to make himself at home by hitting someone. Sinatra enjoyed the put downs so much he encouraged all of his friends to take in Rickles’ act and endure their own insults. With Sinatra’s support, Rickles became a popular headliner in Las Vegas.
Rickles finally did get to pursue his acting dreams when he made his film debut in 1958’s Run Silent, Run Deep with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. Throughout the 1960s, Rickles also made guest appearances on many TV series including Get Smart. Rickles also appeared in the popular Beach Party series of films with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, and became a frequent guest on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, making more than 100 appearances. He was also a regular participant on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.
In 1972, Rickles starring in The Don Rickles Show, a sitcom that lasted for thirteen episodes. In his memoir, Rickles acknowledged that scripted comedy did not suit his ad lib style very well. Yet, he gave it another shot in the 1976-1978 sitcom C.P.O. Sharkey. Rickles was a frequent panelist on The Hollywood Squares, and achieved comic book immortality when he was depicted by legendary artist Jack Kirby in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.
In the early 1980s, Rickles partnered with Steve Lawrence for concerts in Las Vegas, and in 1985 performed — unrehearsed — at Ronald Reagan’s second Inaugural Ball (at the request of fellow performer Frank Sinatra). Rickles considered the performance the highlight of his career. In 1993, Rickles tried his hand at the sitcom game again, appearing with Richard Lewis in Daddy Dearest. In 1995, he gained a whole new generation of fans when he gave voice to Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story and its sequels. Unfortunately, with script rewrites on-going, Rickles was not able to record dialog for the upcoming fourth film in the series, but there is a chance previously recorded dialog could be used.
Rickles continued to perform into the 2000s with guest appearances on TV series, talk shows, reality shows and his own documentary for HBO which earned him a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program (typically, Rickles declared the win a “mercy award for an old man”). In a 2014 interview, Rickles dismissed any thoughts of retirement. Rickles continued to tour up until the time of his death.
In 1965, Rickles married Barbara Sklar at the age of 38 because she got his sense of humor. Rickles considered Bob Newhart his best friend, and the two would appear together on The Tonight Show when one or the other would guest host. The pair returned to the show the day after Johnny Carson’s death to reminisce about their appearances on the show. Rickles also guested on Newhart’s sitcom Newhart, and their wives often vacationed together.
Rickles was revered by the current crop of late night talk show hosts, with Jimmy Kimmel’s tribute particularly heartbreaking as the two were very close.
For Rickles’ 88th birthday, a number of stars helped celebrate on the TV special One Night Only: An All Star Tribute to Don Rickles. Among those celebrating was Jerry Seinfeld, who called Rickles part of “the Mount Rushmore of stand-up comedy.”
Rickles’ last acting gig was again as Mr. Potato Head in the 2014 TV special Toy Story That Time Forgot. Other TV credits include: M Squad, The Thin Man, The Twilight Zone, Wagon Train, The Addams Family, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Burke’s Law, The Munsters, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., The Andy Griffith Show, F Troop, The Wild Wild West, Gilligan’s Island, The Lucy Show, I Spy, I Dream of Jeannie, The Mothers-In-Law, Sanford and Son, Medical Center, Archie Bunker’s Place, Gimme a Break!, Tales from the Crypt, Hunter, The Larry Sanders Show, The Single Guy, Murphy Brown, The Bernie Mac Show, The Unit and Hot in Cleveland.
Rickles can be seen on film in The Rat Race, X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Pajama Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, Enter Laughing, Kelly’s Heroes, Innocent Blood, Casino and Dirty Work.
Rickles’ last project was Dinner with Don, a ten-episode reality series featuring Rickles dining with friends and fellow comedians at some of his favorite L.A. restaurants. Guests include Billy Crystal, Robert De Niro, Jimmy Kimmel, Amy Poehler, Vince Vaughn, Paul Rudd, Marisa Tomei, Zach Galifianakis and Martin Scorsese. The show had completed production though there is currently no distributor or TV network associated with the project at this time.