Emmy-award winning iconic comedian , legend , and actor Don Rickles died Thursday morning –April 6, 2017, in Beverly Hills, CA of kidney failure. Don was born May 8, 1926, in Queens, New York City, NY , and would have turned 91 on May 8.
Don was an honorary Rat Pack member and celebrity roast guest whose career spanned six decades. After toiling in relative obscurity for years as a more conventional stand-up comedian, Rickles unwittingly discovered his biggest laughs came when he turned the tables on his hecklers. His career then skyrocketed after he insulted the hot-tempered Frank Sinatra, who normally did not take kindly to such treatment. When the superstar singer and actor walked into a club in 1957 where Rickles was performing, the comedian greeted the “Chairman of the Board” from the stage: “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody.” Sinatra roared — with laughter. With Sinatra’s endorsement, Rickles began his comedic assault on people famous and not so famous — Jews, Asians, African Americans, the Irish, Puerto Ricans, red-headed women, short guys, you name it — with tremendous results. He referred to stupid people as “hockey pucks,” and in 1959, he signed for his first Las Vegas appearance, in the lounge of the Hotel Sahara. Below- Rickles without the comb over on stage at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City on January 12, 2008
Donald Jay Rickles was born to Jewish parents in Queens, New York, on May 8, 1926. His father, Max Rickles, emigrated in 1903 with his Lithuanian parents from Kaunas (then in the Russian Empire), and his mother, Etta (née Feldman), was born in New York City to Austrian immigrant parents. Rickles grew up in Jackson Heights, New York.
Rickles and Lorne Greene on The Don Rickles Show, 1968
Frustrated by a lack of acting work, Rickles began performing comedy in clubs in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. He became known as an insult comedian when he responded to his hecklers. The audience enjoyed these insults more than his prepared material, so he incorporated them into his act. When he began his career in the early 1950s, he started calling ill-mannered members of the audience “hockey pucks” .
He received widespread exposure as a popular guest on numerous talk shows, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Show with David Letterman, and later voiced Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films. He won a Primetime Emmy Award for the 2007 documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.
Don was always kind and outgoing to myself , and all of our news staff and crew, over the years , whether during an interview , or behind the scenes. Don would joke around with us many times. One time at a charity gala – myself and one of my producers were dressed in black formal tuxedos, towards the entrance of the ballroom -so when Don saw us he said : “what are you guys undertakers ! ? ? ! “. Then another time on Oscar night Don – who was only 5 feet and 6 inches- said to one of my producers who was short : “wow look at that guy . . . that’s the shortest guy I ever seen – usually where ever I go I am the shortest guy – but not tonight – look at him ! ” . Just a few years ago I got to see his show in Palm Springs – and he was in great shape- and gave a great performance – I was very lucky to see him !
In a 2014 interview, Rickles dismissed thoughts of retiring, saying: “I’m in good health. I’m working better than I ever have. The audiences are great. Why should I retire? I’m like a fighter. The bell rings and you come out and fight. My energy comes alive. And I still enjoy it.” Until his death in 2017, despite being impeded by multiple surgeries following a bout with necrotizing fasciitis in 2013, Rickles continued touring across the United States.
For those of you that want to see Don some more – you can watch AARP Studios’ inaugural production for 2017 : “Dinner With Don,” starring Don Rickles. The 10 episode series will feature the reigning king of comedy dining with friends and fellow comedians he has inspired over the years. The star-studded guest list features Billy Crystal, Robert De Niro, Jimmy Kimmel, Amy Poehler, Vince Vaughn, Paul Rudd, Marisa Tomei and Martin Scorsese.