Don Rickles, Equal Opportunity Offender of Comedy, Dies at 90
Don Rickles, the acidic stand-up comic who became world-famous not by telling jokes but by insulting his audience, died on Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 90.
The cause was kidney failure, said a spokesman, Paul Shefrin.
For more than half a century, on nightclub stages, in concert halls and on television, Mr. Rickles made outrageously derisive comments about people’s looks, their ethnicity, their spouses, their sexual orientation, their jobs or anything else he could think of. He didn’t discriminate: His incendiary unpleasantries were aimed at the biggest stars in show business (Frank Sinatra was a favorite target) and at ordinary paying customers.
His rise to national prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s roughly coincided with the success of “All in the Family,” the groundbreaking situation comedy whose protagonist, Archie Bunker, was an outspoken bigot. Mr. Rickles’s humor was similarly transgressive. But he went further than Archie Bunker, and while Carroll O’Connor, who played Archie, was speaking words someone else had written — and was invariably the butt of the joke — Mr. Rickles, whose targets included his fellow Jews, never needed a script and was always in charge.
One night, on learning that some members of his audience were German, he said, “Forty million Jews in this country, and I got four Nazis sitting here in front waiting for the rally to start.” He said that America needed Italians “to keep the cops busy” and blacks “so we can have cotton in the drugstore,” and that “Asians are nice people, but they burn a lot of shirts.” He might ask a man in the audience, “Is that your wife?” and, when the man answered yes, respond: “Oh, well. Keep your chin up.”
As brutal as his remarks could be, they rarely left a mark. (“I’m not really a mean, vicious guy,” he told an interviewer in 2000.) Sidney Poitier was said to have once been offended by Mr. Rickles’s racial jokes. But in “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” a 2007 documentary directed by John Landis, Mr. Poitier sang Mr. Rickles’s praises.
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Recalling the first time he saw Mr. Rickles perform, Mr. Poitier said: “He was explosive. He was impactful. He was funny. I mean, outrageously funny.”
Mr. Rickles got his first break, the story goes, when Sinatra and some of his friends came to see him perform in 1957 — in Hollywood, according to most sources, although Mr. Rickles himself said it was in Miami. “Make yourself at home, Frank,” Mr. Rickles said to Sinatra, whom he had never met. “Hit somebody.” Sinatra laughed so hard, he fell out of his seat.
Mr. Rickles was soon being championed by Sinatra, Dean Martin and the other members of the show business circle known as the Rat Pack. Steady work in Las Vegas followed. But he was hardly an overnight success: He spent a decade in the comedy trenches before he broke through to a national audience.
In 1965, he made the first of numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show,” treating Johnny Carson with his trademark disdain to the audience’s (and Carson’s) delight. He also became a regular on Dean Martin’s televised roasts, where no celebrity was safe from his onslaughts. (“What’s Bob Hope doing here? Is the war over?”)
Mr. Rickles’s wife, who he said “likes to lie in bed, signaling ships with her jewelry,” was not immune to his attacks. Neither was his mother, Etta, whom he referred to as “the Jewish Patton.” But off the stage, he didn’t hesitate to express his gratitude to his mother for unflaggingly believing in his talent, even when he himself wasn’t so sure.
“She had a tremendous drive,” he recalled in “Mr. Warmth.” “Drove me crazy. But she was like the driving force for me.”
He shared an apartment with his mother and did not marry until he was almost 40. After marrying Barbara Sklar in 1965, he saw to it that his mother had the apartment next door. He is survived by Barbara, his wife of 52 years; a daughter, Mindy Mann; and two grandchildren. Mr. Rickles’s son, Lawrence, died in 2011.
Donald Jay Rickles was born in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens on May 8, 1926, to Max Rickles, an insurance salesman, and the former Etta Feldman. During World War II, he honed his comedic skills while serving in the Navy. (“On the ship that I went over to the Philippines,” he told The New York Times in 2015, “out of 300 men I was the class comedian.”) After being discharged, he followed his father into the insurance business but, when he had trouble getting his customers to sign on the dotted line, decided to try acting.
He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, an experience that he later said gave him a greater sense of himself. But he found it difficult to get acting jobs and turned to stand-up comedy.
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