Don Rickles was one of my all time favorite comedians.
Few comics made me laugh as hard and as consistently over the yeas as he did. Rickles wasn't the first insult comic and he's certainly not the last but one thing's for sure.
He was the best.
Rickles started his career with hopes of becoming a serious, dramatic actor. He was very good co-starring with Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable in Robert Wise's submarine drama RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958) and he held his own alongside Ray Milland in Roger Corman's truly outre film, X THE MAN WITH THE X RAY EYES (1963). But as he began to develop his stand up act, the parts grew more comedic. Rickles was in several "Beach" movies beginning with MUSCLE BEACH PARTY (1964). He also made a memorable appearance on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW in the fifth season episode, "The Luck of Newton Monroe", in which he played a hapless bumbler (who got on Barney's last nerve), before discovering that he was not inept but was really "ept".
By the time Rickles went to Eastern Europe to co-star in KELLY'S HEROES (1970), he was a certified comic star. He was brilliant as "Crap Game", part of the fantastic foursome that included Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland and Telly Savalas in this comic WWII caper film. Years later, he was terrific as a casino manager in Martin Scorsese's CASINO (1995) and for a new, younger generation, he will always be known as the voice of Mister Potato Head in the TOY STORY films.
And for a truly bizarre footnote in his career, Don Rickles was the subject of a two-issue storyline in, of all places, a comic book. And not just any comic book. Rickles appeared in DC Comics' SUPERMAN'S PAL JIMMY OLSEN #139 (7/71) and #141 (9/71), in a dual role as both himself and his "good" twin, Goody Rickles. The issues were written and drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby, my all time favorite comic book creator and they rank among the strangest comic books ever produced. As the cover banner proclaimed, "Don't ask! Just buy it!"
But Rickles was at his best in front of an audience, whether it was in a lounge in Las Vegas, in the guest seat on THE TONIGHT SHOW or on one of the countless DEAN MARTIN CELEBRITY ROASTS. Rickles needed a live audience to play off of, to feast on, to use as raw source material that could be mined for instant comedy gold. He was relentless in his attacks on Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon on THE TONIGHT SHOW and his appearances on that show over the years rank as some of the funniest things I've ever seen on television. I watched some clips on YouTube yesterday and they still made me laugh uproariously. And if you've ever heard me laugh, you know what that sounds like.
An appearance by Rickles on THE TONIGHT SHOW was a special event, a one time thing that had to be seen live because there was no way to capture it and enjoy it over and over again. In the 1970s, when Rickles was at his zenith, video tape recorders (to say nothing of DVR technology) didn't exist, which meant staying up late to watch the whole show (work or school the next morning be damned), because one of my comedy heroes was on, tearing the joint apart. I had to tune in, I had to see it and I did. As did millions of other Americans.
For years I figured that I would be content with seeing Rickles on television and movie screens only. Seeing him live was not a possibility that I ever considered. Imagine my surprise when, years ago, before we were married, Judy surprised me for my birthday with tickets to see Don Rickles at the Stardust hotel in Las Vegas.
It was a trip and a night that I'll never forget. We had great seats and when Rickles made his appearance, he circled the room throwing jabs at various audience members. He walked right behind our booth and I prayed that he'd lob something choice at me. What could have been better than to have been insulted by the master? He didn't insult me but I laughed my ass off so hard and loud for the next 90 minutes that I think I genuinely scared the people sharing the booth with us. The show was great. Rickles did the usual insults, some song and dance and patter about his life and career. He terrorized every member of the onstage band but he left us knowing that this was all an act, a put on, a means to make us laugh. He revealed, as if we didn't already know, that he was really a nice guy who pretended to be a bully and that he genuinely loved people. Making fun of them was just a way to not only get laughs but to expose our own fears and prejudices. Don Rickles was an equal opportunity insult artist. He spared no one, no man, no woman, gay, straight, fat, thin, black, brown or Asian, was safe from his barbed tongue.
Sadly enough, almost everything from that trip to Vegas is gone now. Rickles is dead, as is the Stardust along with the Sahara hotel where we stayed. Nonetheless, I had seen my hero, Don Rickles, in his native environment: in a Las Vegas lounge where he performed who knows how many times over the course of his career.
Years later, Don Rickles came to Austin for a show at the Paramount Theatre. I wanted to see him again along with an appearance about a month later by Woody Allen and his Dixieland Jazz Band. I told Judy that all I wanted for Christmas that year were tickets to Rickles and Woody (another one of my heroes). She was sweet enough to come through with tickets to both. We had good seats for Rickles and, to no surprise, he did roughly the same act in Austin that we had seen in Vegas. Didn't matter. It was still Don Rickles live and bringing down the house.
He's gone now. I was lucky enough to see him perform live twice. His movies and television appearances will always be with us to enjoy. I can think of nothing better than watching a clip of Don Rickles demolish Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon, among other targets. People say his act wouldn't fly today, that he couldn't get away with saying all of those mean and terrible things about people, that times have changed, that he was politically incorrect, etc, etc. I'm sure there were a few people out there who were offended by what Rickles said and did but the rest of us got the joke and loved every minute of it.
Rest in peace good man. You did your job and did it exceptionally well.
You made me laugh.
I can ask no more.