He’s still in your face
There are various ways to gauge the longevity of Don Rickles. His longtime publicist, Paul Shefrin, is the son of Rickles’ previous publicist, Gene Shefrin, just as Rickles’ longtime business manager, Bill Braunstein, is the son of Rickles’ previous business manager, Jerry Braunstein.
“There was no voting, they were just given the jobs,” Rickles said of the sons.
Rickles is 81 and enjoying a little bit of a renaissance, as it happens, with a memoir, “Rickles’ Book,” and now “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” a feature-length documentary directed by John Landis, of “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers” movie fame. The film screens at the AFI Film Festival Friday night and debuts on HBO Dec. 2.
The Rickles vault will always contain vintage “Tonight Show” clips and his appearances on Dean Martin celebrity roasts, Rickles brandishing his malice in a way that somewhere came back around to him as an ambassador of goodwill.
Today, when it comes to the art of the insult, the air is thicker but the skin is thinner (see Chris Rock versus Sean Penn at the Academy Awards in 2005). Maybe that’s why Rickles holds up; he is, finally, still better than anyone at making ridicule seem cathartic. Despite this fact, no one had ever captured his live act on film, largely because Rickles himself never wanted to participate.
“Mr. Warmth” offers generous portions of Rickles performing last November at the Stardust in Las Vegas, before that hotel and casino was imploded. (Rickles said he just signed up for dates at the Orleans.)
According to Shefrin, Rickles does his act approximately 75 times a year. Occasionally, Rickles said, he can get the Indian casinos he plays to send him a private plane, but there’s no mistaking his stunning endurance, and the mental acuity it takes to work a room, firing off insults at various customers who’ve paid for this very privilege.
Landis, who figures he’s seen Rickles perform 50 times, says 65% to 70% of the act doesn’t much change (ribbing the band; interludes of singing; assaulting the guy in the front row with: “That your wife?”).
“But then there’s always that 30 to 40% you’ve never heard before,” Landis said. “The truth is he’s a performance artist. I always thought so. He tells no jokes. There are no Don Rickles impersonators.”
And yet “Mr. Warmth” is more than a concert film; it’s a march through the history of Rickles’ life, full of grace notes. Son of an Eastern European-Jewish immigrant father and a strong-willed mother, Rickles never went to college and served in the Philippines in World War II, later attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts before moving to L.A., where, deep into his 20s, he continued to live with his mother Etta (in a high-rise then called Park Sunset, mother and son’s living quarters separated by a curtain) while going onstage at a club called the Slate Brothers, where one night, as legend has it (though the venue changes according to the source), Rickles befriended Frank Sinatra by calling out: “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody.”
Fraught silence, then a release of laughter. At L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills this week, munching on peanuts, Rickles told a similarly themed story from his days working the lounge at the Sahara, back when Vegas was run by the mob. Rickles performed on a stage over the bar (“There was a small stage and in between was a pit, where the bartenders walked, and the bar,” he said). He did several shows nightly with Louis Prima -- midnight, 2 and then 5 a.m. for the breakfast crowd.
“I used to go out in the casino and go, ‘Hold it! . . . hold it!’ Really loudly. ‘I’m performing in there, and the . . . noise is too much, I want it stopped! You understand that? Stopped!’
“They all stopped, froze,” Rickles said, “then they laughed their asses off.”
“Mr. Warmth” begins with actor Harry Dean Stanton sitting in a booth at Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood, blowing on a harmonica. For Landis, it’s a self-referential prelude: The director met Rickles in the hillsides of Tito’s Yugoslavia, where Landis was an 18-year-old gofer making 60 bucks a week on the set of “Kelly’s Heroes,” the 1970 movie starring Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Stanton, Rickles and Donald Sutherland as soldiers who go behind German lines to seize $16 million in gold bullion. (Rickles likes to poor-mouth his film career, but Landis isn’t buying it. “He was in ‘Run Silent, Run Deep!’ ”)
In “Kelly’s Heroes,” Rickles played a character called Crapgame. At the end of the shoot, Rickles gave Landis a $50 tip, and a friendship was born.
“Mr. Warmth” has four producers, including Rickles’ son, Larry, and Mike Richardson, publisher of Darkhorse Comics and producer of the “Hellboy” movies, who gave Landis the initial money to shoot Rickles at the Stardust.
Like many documentaries about comedians, “Mr. Warmth” gingerly attempts to explain Rickles’ appeal without spoiling the joy that his slurs paradoxically bring (Robert De Niro is interviewed, as is Rock, Martin Scorsese, Bob Newhart, Sarah Silverman and Sidney Poitier, though you mostly keep wanting the film to return to Rickles onstage at the Stardust).
At first, you see him backstage, sipping coffee in a robe, putting on his tux and shambling to his position backstage, accompanied by his longtime tour manager, Anthony “Tony O” Oppedisano.
Watching Rickles before he goes out, it’s hard to conjure what happens next. Which is why Landis wanted to show the transformation. “Don’s an 81-year-old man who has an 81-year-old man’s body,” he said. But then the horn sounds and the spotlight hits, and it’s Rickles. All over again.
“You like that, huh, you Nazi . . . ?” he barks at a customer in the front row, after dangling the microphone to imitate old Jewish men in the steam in Florida.
These jokes are impossibly vintage. And yet what is contemporary about Rickles is his command, the way in which he can make himself seem dangerous again, even now -- or maybe especially now. Things at the Stardust, for instance, get momentarily iffy when Rickles starts working a Japanese customer in the house and mis-hears the guy’s last name (“No need to get [upset], Joe. Just asking your name”).
There is a scene in “Mr. Warmth” where Rickles, sitting at home surrounded by photos of his show business pals, goes down one wall and says: “Dead. Dead. Cancer. Dead. Hanging on the ropes. Very bad. Very sick. Almost dead. And dying.”
Rickles toured with Sinatra when the singer was having to read lyrics off a teleprompter.
“He was really struggling too,” Rickles said. “I remember. . . . If I lose that, it won’t be Don Rickles anymore.”
Joey Bishop, the last Rat Pack member, died last month. Red Buttons died a day before Landis was to interview him for “Mr. Warmth,” the director said. Rickles has diabetes and is more hunched over these days; he says he gave up tennis and golf because of back issues, and a few weeks ago, in New York for the screening of “Mr. Warmth” at the New York Film Festival, he cracked a rib riding his exercise bike.
He’s better now, though the rib injury has prevented him from performing until after Thanksgiving.
“The audience won’t know,” he said of his return, “but maybe my trigger will be slightly slower. Slightly. Until it gets going, anyway.”