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Don Rickles: The Merchant Of Venom, Defanged

The Two Sides Of Don Rickles

Don Rickles was a study in contrasts. The man who made a career out of sarcasm and insults and who has been variously tagged with the monikers “The Merchant of Venom” and “Mr. Warmth,” couldn’t have been a nicer guy… offstage. But onstage, it was a different matter altogether.

During Rickles’ show (he did about 20 a year, give or take before he died in 2017); a sort of blood fever took hold as his furious ad-libs zinged their intended targets. The applause and laughter (which was always thunderous) spurred him to such improbable feats as attempting a James Cagney impersonation from “Yankee Doodle Dandy” complete with the tap dancing. At that moment, Rickles had the stout, compact body of the Merrill Lynch bull; two a-rhythmical legs that were born not to dance; and a perspiring head that looks like a snub-nosed .38 caliber cartridge.

He literally sweated bullets. It was all heady stuff even for a guy who’d been traversing that comic ground for more than 68 years (Rickles was 90 when he died).

Doing Something Differently

It’s odd then that Rickles’ stage persona vanished as quickly as the final curtain on his stage show. It was a complete sea change; the calm after the storm. In reality, Rickles offstage was unfailingly polite and rather stiffly decorous; almost formal. It was as if after such verbal bloodletting, a weird catharsis took place and there was nothing left to do but be placid.

“In the beginning, when I was just starting out, there were people who resented me,” Rickles told us during an interview back in 1999. “But that’s the price you pay when you try to do something different. And being different has allowed me to be a headliner in all the major gambling cities across the country. Not a bad tradeoff.”

Rickles graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City with dreams of becoming a serious actor. But when he found out there were no takes, he let his natural sarcastic bombast bubble up into a career.

“It’s always been my personality since I was a kid in school and in the [military] service,” he said. “I was always a sarcastic guy. I could never tell a joke, per se. I was never a jokester as you could see if you watched my performance. My current attitude developed over many years of doing bad impersonations and telling lousy jokes. I started to talk to the audience and talk about things around me. That become a performance and I found that they responded great to that. In the rough days when I worked in the low-life ‘jernts,’ you did anything to get the audience’s attention.”

There was an almost ritualistic aspect to being on the receiving end of a Don Rickles putdown. Audience members in pricey front row seats seemed to court it like they would a visit from the Publishers Sweepstakes minivan.

And that’s probably the single biggest reason why Rickles didn’t really prickle anymore. It had become politically correct – a red badge of courage – to merit one of his insults. (In 1980, Princess Margaret invited Rickles to join her at her table after being mocked at a fundraising gala.) This from a man whose gags should have, on the face of it, made most P.C. practitioners, well, gag.

My Don Rickles Stand-Up Story

Yours truly (Tom) was on the receiving end of one of Rickles’ diatribes at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas one night. I was in a front row seat which is ground zero for Rickles. I was wearing a double-breasted suit with my shoes buffed to a high sheen. Further sartorial splendor included a Brioni tie and pocket square. Rickles saw me, sized me up in a millisecond and then strafed me like he was a Messerschmitt 109 and I was a stalled milk truck on the autobahn. ‘Look at you, he snarled, contempt oozing out of him like a viscous substance, ‘you gotta be Italian – nothing matches.’ The audience (most of which couldn’t see me) roared. And what made his line even funnier to me was that I’m about as Italian as lutefisk and my whole ensemble that night perfectly matched.

A couple of years ago we caught up with Rickles again in his dressing room renamed the “Mr. Warmth Room” for the duration of his gig at the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee. A bottle of Grey Goose vodka was visible on a nearby counter ready to provide Rickles with his pre-show relaxer. He was still performing  his usual shtick, this time liberally imbued with clips of his appearance at Ronald Reagan’s 1984 inaugural gala and featuring TV segments of many “Tonight Show” and Dean Martin roast appearances often skewering his favorite target, Frank Sinatra. It struck us as faintly melancholy as we watched Rickles, with stage lights dimmed, crane his head to watch as his departed friends and show business cronies appeared on the screen. Dressed in his usual tux, Rickles sat for the entire 60-minute performance with a cane at his side.

His grumpy salutation upon seeing us was: “I’m sitting here in this cellar and I have to do this Mickey Mouse conversation? I just think how much longer I have to live, but I’m very proud that I’m still working at 90 and it helps the wife with the jewelry and her expenses.”

We reminded him that George Burns, if and when he turned 100, had gigs prescheduled in London and Las Vegas.

“My plan is if I’m around, I’ll call you,” he said.

And Old And A New Fan Base

don rickles

After years in circulation, Rickles’ cauterizing abuse may have lost some of its mortal sting but none of its sense of fun. In fact, he’s won a legion of younger fans to add to the brigades of middle-aged men and women who have been following him since his caustic appearances on the old “Dean Martin Show.”

Younger audiences seemed to like the “retrofit” of a club comedian who tells Phyllis Diller jokes as if she’s still a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry. And they respected Rickles who stayed the course for decades and raised low humor to high art. Rickles might not have been your cup of Earl Grey, but like him or not, he (like the late Joan Rivers) was unique.

Perhaps not since the salad days of Groucho Marx had anyone co-opted so utterly completely the genre of “dishing out the dish.”

“I’m an equal opportunity insult artist – definitely!” Rickles told us. “Anytime a comedian takes the stage, there’ll be people who won’t like him. Not everybody comes out of the theater and says, ‘I love Don Rickles.’ If they did, it would be a miracle.”

Did he ever fear the day when the comeback won’t come and he would be staring into the smirking face of a casino drunk who’s just bested him in a verbal duel?

“With 70 years in the business under my belt handling every kind of impromptu situation, if I start to worry about that, I got a problem,” he said. “It’s like a fighter with a good right-hand punch. You know it’s there and you don’t think about it. The day someone gets the upper hand on me and I just stare at them with nothing coming out of my mouth is the day I interview you!”

The same goes for retirement. “As long as the promoters still want me and people show up, I’ll be there.”

Dean Martin, Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra

Rickles pointed to three men as the biggest influences on his career. Dean Martin’s hugely popular 1960s TV show provided a national prime-time platform for Rickles’ humor. And during innumerable appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” Rickles solidified has fan base. But it was Frank Sinatra’s “Midas Touch” that ordained Rickles as the “in”-sult comic Hollywood celebrities should watch. It was in 1957, at Slate Brothers, a tiny Hollywood nightclub, that Sinatra walked directly into the unknown Rickles’ gunsights.

“I just saw your movie, ‘The Pride and the Passion’ and I want to tell you the cannon was great,” Rickles said. “Make yourself at home Frank, hit somebody.” Sinatra doubled up laughing and a beautiful friendship was formed that lasted until Ol’ Blue Eyes shuffled off this mortal coil in 1998.

Another long run for Rickles was his 51-year union with his wife Barbara, a first marriage for both. “I got married late in life,” he told us. “The whole secret is that my wife never looked for the limelight. She was a secretary for a guy involved in motion pictures when I met her, so she knows the business. But she never wanted to be a part of it. She’s not a crowd pleaser. She’s low-key. I’m the crowd pleaser and kidder.”

On the subject of enduring friendships, Rickles and comedian Bob Newhart were such fast friends that, along with their wives, they often vacationed together. “Barbara and I still go on the occasional cruise,” he explained, “but I constantly get accosted by passengers who don’t think I’m a paying customer. They think I’m there to perform. Many of them come up to me and say: ‘What time is the show tonight?’ I say: ‘No, no, I’m a paying customer like you are.’ And they say: ‘O.K., call my brother a moron and my cousin a jerk. We’ll be sitting in the front row.’ Then they sit there and wait until the ship docks …!”


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About The Author
David Fantle & Tom Johnson
David Fantle & Tom Johnson
Authors of Hollywood Heyday. In 1978, Fantle and Johnson, St. Paul teenagers, boarded a plane to meet with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. They had written the stars requesting interviews--and to their amazement, both agreed. Over the years, more than 250 other stars also agreed--Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, Debbie Reynolds, George Burns, Rod Steiger, Milton Berle, Frank Capra and Hoagy Carmichael, to name a few. Published for the first time and with exclusive photos, this selection of 75 interviews chronicles the authors' 40-year quest for insights and anecdotes from iconic 20th century artists.
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