The comedian Don Rickles, who has died aged 90, was America’s king of the insult, aimed at audiences in general and celebrities in particular. He was built like a bulldog with a boxer’s face; Frank Sinatra, one of his biggest fans, called him “Bullethead”, but his aggressive delivery belied his engaging smile.
Rickles was masterly at piling on the insults, snapping like a thin-lipped, hood-lidded turtle and ad-libbing, as his delighted victims – notably Sinatra – recoiled, usually helpless with laughter. Although the ethnic stereotypes on which he relied grew increasingly outdated, he generally avoided condemnation by the politically correct because his barbs were softened by his grin. “It doesn’t matter to me what you are, you’re a human being,” he would say, then pause: “I don’t want to see you again.”
His aim was directed at individuals, not groups, inevitably delivered as part of an across-the-board assault, including on his own Jewishness. “I have based my whole humour on laughing at bigotry,” he said, “but if you don’t laugh back, it’s not funny.”
Rickles achieved his first fame in 1957 when Sinatra, the biggest name in show business, entered Slate Bros night club in Los Angeles while Rickles was performing. “Make yourself at home, Frank,” he said. “Hit somebody.” Sinatra stopped, stunned, then began to guffaw. Rickles increased the fire. “I saw your new movie (The Pride And The Passion), Frank. The cannons were great.” Then he landed the knockout blow. “Frank, believe me, I’m telling you this as a friend: your voice is gone.” Sinatra insisted his Rat Pack – Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and the rest – submit to Rickles’s treatment; Rickles became a sort of court jester to the group.
Sinatra had his own favourite Rickles story: the comic interrupted his dinner at the Sands in Las Vegas one night to say he wanted to impress his date, who didn’t believe he actually knew the singer. When he’d finished his meal, Sinatra went over to Rickles’s table. “Hi, Don, how the hell are you?” Rickles looked up. “Not now, Frank. Can’t you see we’re eating?” With Sinatra’s imprimatur, celebrities flocked to his shows expecting to be ridiculed. The only real insult would have been for Rickles to overlook insulting them.
Rickles had wanted a career as an actor. He was born in New York’s outer borough, Queens, where his father, Max, a Lithuanian immigrant, sold insurance. His mother, Etta (nee Feldman), was his biggest influence and encouragement; in his act, likening her to the US general, he would call her a “Jewish Patton”. He lived with her until he married at 39, and then installed her next door to the marital home.
After high school, he enlisted in the navy and during the second world war served in the Pacific, where his comedy entertained his shipmates. After the war he returned to Queens, and worked unsuccessfully as a salesman before enrolling at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where his classmates included Jason Robards Jr, Grace Kelly and Anne Bancroft. But finding acting roles hard to get, he began working as a comic in small clubs. He variously claimed his insult style developed as a reaction to audiences bored with his stand-up act, or because a fed-up strip-club owner encouraged him to needle the club’s patrons.
Sinatra’s endorsement saw Hollywood stars flock to see him, and in 1958 he also landed his first movie role, a small but effective part in the submarine drama Run Silent, Run Deep. But other parts didn’t materialise, though he was a frequent guest on TV shows. In the mid-60s he appeared in a series of four Beach Blanket movies, playing characters with names such as Jack Fanny, Big Drag, and Big Bang. His agent, Jack Gilardi, was married to Annette Funicello, the former Disney Mouseketeer who starred in the movies. Gilardi also had a secretary, Barbara Sklar; she and Don married in 1965.
Rickles was thought too controversial for network TV until Johnny Carson gave him his first break in 1965 on the Tonight Show, where his energy could enliven any set of guests. His first words to Carson were “Hello dummy”, and he attacked him for meanness: “You’re making $50m a year and your poor parents are back in Nebraska eating locusts for dinner.” He was soon a regular on Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts, black-tie events at which the subject was both honoured and mocked. When they roasted Carson he said: “I’d like to say from the bottom of my heart, Johnny, nobody likes you.” In 1968 he released his first comedy record, Hello Dummy, and got his own television variety show, which flopped, as did a 1972 sitcom. Rickles’s comedy relied on ad-libbing reaction, not scripting; it made him a great guest, a good character actor, but not necessarily a sitcom lead.
In 1970 he played the wheeler-dealer supply sergeant Crapgame in Kelly’s Heroes, a Clint Eastwood vehicle conceived as a sort of second world war version of M*A*S*H. The movie also featured Carroll O’Connor. He went on to heavily on Rickles’s insults (“dummy” or “hockey puck” became “meathead”) when he played Archie Bunker, the American answer to Alf Garnett, in All in the Family, the US version of Till Death Us Do Part. Better movie roles for Rickles again failed to materialise, but he reprised the Crapgame character as the chief petty officer of the title in his most successful television series, CPO Sharkey, from 1976 to 1978.
By then he was an institution in Vegas and on TV talk shows. He described his own pinnacle as playing Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural ball in 1985, which happened at Sinatra’s insistence; Sinatra himself appeared at Nancy Reagan’s insistence. His film career picked up in the 90s, playing a mob lawyer in John Landis’s 1992 vampire crime comedy Innocent Blood (Landis had worked on Kelly’s Heroes), and three years later the casino manager Billy Sherbert in Martin Scorsese’s Casino. Scorsese understood Rickles’s improvisational strength perfectly. “It was like listening to a great jazz musician wail,” he said. Another sitcom, Daddy Dearest (1993) was short-lived, but Rickles was perfect as the caustic voice of Mr Potato Head in Toy Story (1995) and its sequels.
In 2007 he published a memoir, Rickles’ Book, and was the subject of a documentary directed by Landis, Mr Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, for the cable network HBO. It won him an Emmy award, as well as one for his son, Larry, who produced it.
Despite failing health, he continued to perform. In 2014 he appeared at an 88th birthday special at the Apollo theatre in New York, and the following year was one of the last guests on the David Letterman Show before its host retired. When Rickles himself was “roasted”, Henny Youngman turned the tables on him. “I could say a lot of things about Don Rickles … But why bother?” It brought the house down.
Larry died in 2011. Rickles is survived by Barbara and their daughter, Mindy.
Donald Jay Rickles, comedian, born 8 May 1926; died 6 April 2017