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R.I.P. Don Rickles, comedy icon

(Photo: Getty Images, NBCU Photo Bank)

As confirmed by Variety, legendary insult comic Don Rickles—who is probably better known to younger people as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movies—died this morning from kidney failure. He was 90.

Born in Queens and raised in a Yiddish-speaking household, Rickles described himself as the clown of his high school and, later, his naval unit. As an 18-year-old, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II with the intention of entering the Special Services as an entertainer; instead, he was put on board the U.S.S. Cyrene as a Seaman First Class. Rickles served in the Philippines for two years, returning to the U.S. in 1946 to begin his career as a performer in earnest.


Hoping to become an actor, Rickles attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where his classmates included Grace Kelly, Jason Robards, and Anne Bancroft. Facing few job prospects, he focused his attention on stand-up, developing his signature brand of insult comedy as a response to hecklers. Rickles was one of just a few comedians to build an act around insulting audience members, sharing the idiom with Jack E. Leonard, who often suggested only half-jokingly that Rickles copied his act, a charge Rickles denied. Rickles’ barbs largely revolved around appearance, ethnicity, and liberal use of the epithet “hockey puck,” his signature term for unruly audience members.

After a rocky start as an entertainer at church and synagogue dances and then strip clubs, Rickles soon became a staple of comedy clubs in New York and Los Angeles, as well as in Miami, where Frank Sinatra spotted him performing at a nightclub called Murray Franklin’s. Even Sinatra was not immune from Rickles’ putdowns, but, like countless other audience members throughout Rickles’ career, he reveled in the honor of being targeted for a Rickles insult.


The two became fast and, ultimately, lifelong friends—Sinatra affectionately nicknamed the eternally balding Rickles “bullet head”—and Rickles credited Sinatra with giving him his break in show business, first by turning other celebrities on to the comedian’s singular style of comedy and then by getting him his start as a headliner in Las Vegas beginning in 1959. Sinatra even agreed to sing at Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural ball in 1985 only on the condition that Rickles be allowed to perform as well. Even when facing the president of the United States, Don Rickles didn’t hold back:

Armed with a preternaturally quick wit and gimlet eye, Rickles was a TV staple in the ’60s. He was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, where he was always brought on stage to the symbolic strains of “La Virgen De La Macarena,” a traditional matador theme. He later became a favorite of other talk show hosts, including David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, and Craig Ferguson. Notably, a 1967 appearance on The Dean Martin Show saw Rickles more or less invent the modern format of the celebrity roast. Though the New York Friars Club has held roasts since 1950, Rickles’ no-holds-barred approach of tearing into every famous person within arm’s reach proved hugely influential and laid the groundwork for The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, which ran from 1974 to 1984.


Rickles also managed to realize his early acting ambitions thanks to his fame as a stand-up comic. Trading on his Navy experience, Rickles made his film debut in 1958’s Run Silent, Run Deep, a Pacific Theater-set World War II submarine film starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. He went on to appear in a somewhat more prominent World War II movie, Kelly’s Heroes, as well as B-movie cult classics such as X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes and a series of ’60s beach movies, before starring in CPO Sharkey, an NBC sitcom that ran two seasons starting in 1976 and was built around Rickles’ comic persona and background as a Navy man. The show’s brief run spawned one of the Carson Tonight Show’s most memorable moments, when Carson, tongue planted in cheek, stormed the set of CPO Sharkey to confront Rickles over a cigarette box he had broken during a Tonight Show appearance:

Though CPO Sharkey was short-lived, Rickles’ acting career carried on, getting a boost in the ’90s, when he played a pivotal role in Martin Scorsese’s Casino and voiced Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story and its sequels and various TV and video game spinoffs. More recently, he had made guest appearances on TV shows including The Unit and Hot In Cleveland.


Rickles’ equal-opportunity offender act was not without its critics. In 2012, a joke at President Barack Obama’s expense (“I shouldn’t make fun of the blacks. President Obama is a personal friend of mine. He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke.”) drew strong censure. Yet Rickles always insisted that his longstanding policy of busting audience members’ and friends’ chops using racial, ethnic, and other stereotypes was done purely with affection; for years, he would end his routine with an earnest plea for “all bigots to vanish from the earth.”

Sarcastically dubbed “Mr. Warmth” by Johnny Carson, Rickles was nevertheless said to have sincerely lived up to the nickname in his personal life, as evidenced by decades-long friendships with Sinatra and fellow Rat Packers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., comedian Bob Newhart, and TV host Regis Philbin. He was also a well-known supporter of many younger comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, and Bernie Mac. He was married to the former Barbara Sklar from 1965 until his death, and they had two children together: Mindy Rickles, a comedian and actress, and Larry Rickles, a comedy writer who died at 41 of pneumonia-related complications in 2011. Don Rickles was active right up until the end of his life, embarking on a nationwide tour in 2015 at the age of 89. He is survived by his wife, two children, and two grandchildren.


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