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Don Rickles: Comic viper

Rickles

11 April 2017

Eddie Fisher, Joan Rivers, Tommy Lasorda, Marlo Thomas and others remember the master of the insult, Don Rickles.







Insulted uncle

David L. Wolper, television producer

...in high school...I worked summers as a waiter at Birchwoods Hotel in the Catskills....The assistant social director was a kid named Don Rickles. That was when I almost discovered him.

During the week, Rickles would do stand-up. Even then he was doing insult humor. I thought he was funny--and incredibly brave. So I called my uncle and told him I’d found a comedian who’d be perfect for the Hurricane [nightclub]. “Bring him down,” my uncle said.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have described his act. Just imagine meeting Don Rickles without knowing that the insults were his act. I vaguely remember my uncle standing there with his mouth hanging open in stunned silence as Rickles went to work on him. What I remember clearly is my uncle’s response: “Get out of my fucking office, both of you.” (mid-1940s)

from Producer, by David L. Wolper with David Fisher (Scribner, 2003)

Spontaneous and expensive

Eddie Fisher, singer

The Chesterfield Supper Club had its moments....

Sometimes there was more spontaneity than I bargained for. Don Rickles made his first television appearance on the show and couldn’t remember a line. He played a waiter in a skit, and even with his lines written all over a menu right in front of his eyes, he still screwed everything up. It was hilarious. He was a smash and I wanted to use him as a regular, but he upped his price from $1,000 to $7,500, and I couldn’t afford that every week. (Hollywood, 1957)

from My Life, My Loves, by Eddie Fisher (Harper & Row, 1981)

On target

Marty Ingels, comedian

One night the whole cast went to catch Don Rickles, who was the lounge act at the Sahara. He wasn’t a star yet, but he was the rage of the Vegas in-crowd. And, of course, he tore everyone apart. When he saw us, he started in on our show. (It was called Sketchbook.)

It hadn’t occurred to me that he would even know my name. But he saw me and said: “And then there’s Ingels. Cute face. Does his nice safe little cutesy-pootsy telephone bit. Hey, kid. Try this for a while. Stand up here in one for an hour and a half where they can reach up and grab ya’. That’s show business.” Everybody was laughing. And I made like I  was too. But I wasn’t. Rickles was too on target. And then some. I didn’t even have a safe little cutesy-pootsy telephone bit anymore. (Las Vegas, c. 1960)

from Shirley & Marty: An Unlikely Love Story, by  Shirley Jones and Marty Ingels (William Morrow, 1990)

Adorable softie

Marlo Thomas, actor and producer

If there’s one thing that proves how many generations of comedy Don Rickles’s career has spanned, it’s that he still wears a classic tuxedo on stage. When’s the last time you saw that in a comedy club? I smile whenever I see Don, because he reminds me of all the comics I grew up with who thrived in the early days of Las Vegas. But Don was unique among them. He had chosen the most difficult and dangerous way of trying to make people laugh—by insulting them. And they loved it. They still do, tipping the maitre d’ to put them up close in hopes of being the subject of his outrageous barbs. In 2008, Don had a best-selling memoir and won an Emmy for a documentary about his career. At 85, he continues to storm the stage and pack the house, because we know that beneath all that blustery insult stuff, the man is an adorable softie.

from Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny, by Marlo Thomas (Hyperion, 2010)

Massacred admen, then me

Regis Philbin, television personality

…I was just a young TV reporter in San Diego, still a couple years away from starting my local Saturday  night  talk show…Rickles was coming  to town—not to perform but to meet, for some reason, with the Advertising Council of San Diego…I go invited…As the Council went over its business, I could see that Rickles was clearly wondering how in the world he’d gotten involved with whatever these dull, serious older businessmen wanted from him. Here was the hot rising star of the club scene stuck with this rather humorless bunch who, I’d guessed, probably hadn’t heard of him yet. I waited anxiously for Rickles to go to work on them. I could tell he couldn’t wait to bite into those advertising guys and then get out of there. Finally he was introduced. He stood at the table and, one by one, demolished them. I had never seen anything like it. He just ate them alive. He didn’t know them, of course, but how they were dressed, who their clients were, their whole life existence—everything about them—was now being examined by Rickles in the most hilarious way. To the letter, he was everything I’d read about—and I loved him immediately. After the massacre, I timidly approached him and asked for an interview. He was not thrilled about it, but we went outside in the sunshine where my camera crew was set up and we began. He started with my name. Regis. He had never heard it before. It was fresh meat for him. He beat me up pretty good on the sidewalk that day and I still loved it. I marveled at his attack, his perception, his style of humor. He has a way of sizing you up and then letting you have it like you never had it before. He was sensational. (early 1960s)

from How I got This Way, by Regis Philbin (HarperCollins, 2011)

Always a lot of fun

Annette Funicello, singer and actor

Working with so many older, established actors was always a thrill…Don Rickles, who appeared in two of our films (Bikini Beach and Muscle Beach Party) was always a lot of fun. He got his first big break in our films [both 1964], and, his onscreen heckling persona  aside, he proved to be a very kind, warm man. He had a wonderful ability to get people to laugh at themselves, and toward the end of a long day’s shoot, that’s no easy feat. Once, when he was appearing in Las Vegas, most of the cast from one of the beach-party movies traveled there to see him. We made the mistake of all sitting at the same table, and from the stage he picked on each of us mercilessly. He particularly liked my dad, and he never saw him without cracking some joke about our Italian heritage, like “Hey, Joe, I see you’ve got some spaghetti sauce on your tie again!” When Don was around, you were laughing constantly.

from A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes, by Annette Funicello with Patricia Romanowski (Hyperion, 1994)

Insults at last 

Danny Thomas, comedian and television personality

...I was actually hurt when Don Rickles never insulted me the way he did everyone else when he was doing his act. I said to a mutual friend, “Doesn’t Rickles like me? How come he never picks on me?” Apparently the message got through. The next time I walked into the Las Vegas lounge where Rickles was appearing, he boomed out at me, “Well, look who’s here. It’s Moses with a cigar.” And he never failed to insult me since. (1960s)

from Make Room for Danny, by Danny Thomas with Bill Davidson  (G.P. Putnam’s, 1991)

“Just like Bill Cosby”

Richard Pryor, comedian

...I got a shot at playing Las Vegas...

...Seeing my name on the Flamingo’s marquee, in the same air as [Frank] Sinatra and Sammy [Davis, Jr.] was as big a thrill as I’d had up to that time. But the shows were something else. I knew I wasn’t as good as the reviews said I was, and I knew why. I just didn’t want to say it.

I didn’t have to. One night Don Rickles came backstage and praised my act.

“It’s uncanny,” he said. “You sound just like Bill Cosby.”

Shit.

Why’d he have to remind me? (Las Vegas, 1966)

from Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences, by Richard Pryor with Todd Gold (Pantheon, 1995)

True romantic

Barbara Eden, actor

One night Michael [husband Ansara], Charles  Bronson, and I went to see Don Rickles in Las Vegas. When we walked into the room, he looked out into the audience, spotted me with my hair in big curls, and yelled out, “So you’re married to a little girl, Michael Ansara!” We all laughed. As the show progressed, Rickles was at his funniest and most vitriolic, and the insults got stronger and stronger. He insulted Michael, he insulted Charlie, and he took on a few other audience members, but he never insulted me. Afterward, when we went backstage, he took me aside and said, “Barbara, I’m so sorry; I can’t insult you. I can’t say ‘Barbara’ and insult you, because, you see, I love my wife.” Don Rickles, a wonderful comedian, was sometimes vicious and sometimes hurtful, but underneath he was a true romantic with a heart of gold. (c. 1970)

from Jeannie Out of the Bottle, by Barbara Eden with Wendy Leigh (Crown Archtype, 2011)

Truly heartless

Mike Douglas, television talk show host 

...I can’t explain why I found it so enjoyable to have a little bald man hurl a string of insults at me on my own show [The Mike Douglas Show], but I sure did....Rickles was truly heartless. When he had me down on the floor, struggling with spasms of laughter, he would kick me with a few more one-liners.

But there is a side to Don Rickles that I have to tell you about. I’m not trying to ruin his career, but that comic viper you know so well is a big act. Years ago, Don invited [wife] Gen and me to a party to celebrate his twenty-fifth anniversary in show business. It was a lavish affair, with people in formal wear, banquets of food, a full orchestra. We were there for about half an hour before it struck me. I leaned over and whispered to Gen, “There aren’t any other show people here.” I couldn’t understand it. A complete mystery. One of the biggest comedy stars in the nation celebrating his career, he could have had hundreds of name performers. Where were they? Finally, I had to ask. Don smiled and put his arm around me. “Mike,” he said, ‘this is a very special night for me, and these are very special people. Everyone here is someone that helped me when I needed it, someone that made my life better. We can do the show biz thing anytime. Tonight’s different. These are people that I love.”

I had to walk away.  Didn’t want Rickles to see me with tears in my eyes. (1970s)

from I’ll Be Right Back: Memories of TV’s Greatest Talk Show, by Mike Douglas with Thomas Kelly and Michael Heaton (Simon & Schuster, 2000)

Time bomb

Elwood Glover, television talk show host

I think the funniest part about the Don Rickles appearance on the [CBC] “Luncheon Date” program was not on the show itself but when Don walked into the dressing room before the program. We were introduced, shook hands and sat down. Then, the strangest experience. I was testing him out and he was testing me. He’d ask me a few questions and I’d answer--a kind of investigative procedure. He was trying to find out what kind of a guy I was and I was trying to figure out how he was going to be when he came on the show. I’m a Don Rickles fan and I’ve watched him on other talk shows and he can go crazy-mad when he wants to. The thing about Don Rickles is that he’s like a time bomb set to go off and if you give the magic word he explodes in all directions. On the air he was great. He answered my questions logically and with clarity....I was very careful not to lead him into a situation which he could develop spontaneously and turn the show into shambles.... (Toronto, 1975)

from Elwood Glover’s Luncheon Dates, by Elwood Glover (Prentice-Hall, 1975)

Ballboy

Tommy Lasorda, Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager

One of the people I became close with [during the 1976 baseball] season was Don Rickles. Although he seems hard and tough on the outside, on the inside he really has a heart of lead...After we’d clinched the pennant, I put him in uniform one day and let him work as a ballboy. I told him I could only pay him $15 for the game, but promised him top billing over the other ballboys. That was enough for him. The primary job of a ballboy during the game is to run from the dugout to the home plate umpire to give the umpire new baseballs when he needs them. Rickles did an excellent job throughout the game; he didn’t drop one ball and he didn’t get lost. (Los Angeles)

from The Artful Dodger, by Tommy Lasorda with David Fisher (Arbor House, 1985)

Two Mad Mouths

Joan Rivers, comedian

For several years Don Rickles had been asking me to costar with him, and I had always said no: I had feared that if he and I were together on one bill, the audience would overdose on a mix of comedy that was too rich. Each of us had a strong, distinctive voice that needed to be complemented by a softer tone.

This time, however, when Don Rickles came with his offer, I said the hell with my theory of how to blend comedy, and I hit the road with him. Just as the Three Tenors have worked out musically, so did the two Mad Mouths comedically. Although I no longer wanted to tour endlessly, I realized that touring is what I would have to do if I wanted to keep working.

And so I went on the road with Don and had a wonderful time: Audiences adored the pairing, and our double bill worked hilariously.... (early 1990s)

from Bouncing Back, by Joan Rivers (HarperCollins, 1997)


Dana CookFreelance journalist and editor Dana Cook has been mining autobiographies and memoirs for 25 years. His collections of encounters with the well-known--literary, political, show biz--have appeared in a wide range of publications including Salon, The Globe and Mail, The Hemingway Review, Nerve and Finest Hour, the journal of the International Churchill Society. A native of Burlington, Vermont, he now resides in Toronto, Canada. Contact: cooks.encounters(at)gmail.com