One of the greatest American funnymen of all time has sadly passed away. Don Rickles, who perfected the art of being the insult comic and spanned generations with his biting yet always loving acerbic quick wit and banter, died today at his home in Los Angeles, CA, of kidney failure. He was 90. He had been battling ill health the last couple of decades, but had retained his razor-sharp mind to the very end.
For my money, he was the funniest man alive. Known sarcastically as “Mr. Warmth,” the Queens, New York native had such a talent and gift for making one laugh, many times even belly laugh, with his quickness. He wasn’t like Groucho Marx or Jack Benny in the sense of the one-liners, but he stood toe-to-toe with them and so many other comedic luminaries in that he was able to rib all of them and scores of Hollywood celebrities, in a manner which exposed a frailty or a kind of tabloid urban legend that had been foisted upon them and then exploiting that foible. Genius examples would be how he would make fun of Dean Martin’s drinking, the ethnicity of people like Desi Arnaz or Ricardo Montalban, or the color of the skin of people like Denzel Washington or Cesar Romero, not in direct terms, but playing on and then hilariously skewering the cliché and the stereotype of it, as politically incorrect as that may seem in today’s ultra-sensitive world.
A key point of Rickles’ genius and respect as an artist from the entire Hollywood community for decades was that even when he would throw out an old hackeneyed kind of old school “racist joke” — jokes that at one time in American culture were bizarrely considered simply a fabric of pop culture of the American way and contained no real malice behind it — he never did it offensively, as hard as that may seem for a younger generation who didn’t know of his act and saw it on a face value, to swallow. It’s telling that no one ever sued Rickles for defamation or being racist or sexist, any of it. Ironically, the things Don Rickles said many times to many people throughout his career were things that would have gotten people like Howard Stern or Bill O’Reilly or Don Imus raked over the coals and vilified career and personal wise. But Don Rickles played his comedic string like it was a character itself, and there was a kind of understanding and even reverence for the way this comic mastermind manifested it each and every time.
His success was mainly through nightclub acts and TV specials, although he could never break through on television via sitcoms. (The mid 1970s nautical sitcom CPO Sharkey barely ran for two years on NBC.) He appeared in films like the Toy Story franchise (voicing Mr. Potato Head), and did dramatic turns in John Landis’ Innocent Blood and rubbed elbows with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s Casino. Landis, who was a long-time friend, directed an Emmy award-winning documentary on Rickles a few years ago, aptly titled Mr. Warmth.
The death of Don Rickles is incalculable and caps an end to an era of comedians where raunchiness and tastelessness weren’t the order of the day as it is the norm and expected tenets of comedy in today’s day and age. But make no mistake, he was a gargantuan legend, an unbelievable talent that kept us laughing for decades and will keep us laughing forever and ever. The belly laughs will remain loud and clear, like listening to the best of Rodney Dangerfield or Richard Pryor now too, talent that never fades, never becomes damp embers in the wind, but still vibrant forces of flames that stretch colorfully and continuously, still inspiring even in a posthumous sense.
The best way one could cap off how respected Don Rickles really was to everyone is when he would appear with Frank Sinatra on various talk shows or variety programs. No one ever seemed to stand up to Sinatra in any way, and always yielded to him in that half-fun, half-intimidated style of kneeling at his feet respect. But Rickles treated Sinatra just like anyone else, and raked him over the coals with his insult shtick as much as he did anyone else. To be able to stand up to the Chairman of the Board and make him belly laugh, just like he did to so many of us, it says more than anything else in a way, and it puts the legend of Don Rickles on par with the mighty Sinatra in his own respective genre and obviously, that’s saying a lot.
So long Don, thanks for all the laughs. Rest in peace, you hockey puck.