Don Rickles, aggressively caustic comedian dubbed ‘Mr. Warmth,’ dies at 90
Don Rickles was just another little known comic working a small club in Miami Beach in the 1950s when Frank Sinatra came in with his entourage.
“Make yourself comfortable, Frank — hit somebody,” said Rickles as the notoriously moody singer paused, and then broke into laughter.
Without missing a beat, Rickles hit the accelerator. “Frank, believe me, I’m telling you this as a friend: Your voice is gone.”
Using insult as his weapon of choice and a quick, knowing smirk as his defense, Rickles delighted audiences from sold-out Vegas showrooms to late-night TV to Hollywood roasts with a brand of aggressively caustic humor that targeted everyone from unknown “hockey pucks” to big-name celebrities.
Everyone was fair game for Rickles.
Rickles, who continued to headline lounges and concert halls well into his 80s, died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles as a result of kidney failure, his publicist Paul Shefrin said. He was 90.
Rickles rocketed into the spotlight after comics like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl had softened America to a riskier brand of humor, and helped opened the gates for the edgy, harsh-as-sandpaper acts of Sam Kinison and others who would follow.
Age didn’t seem to slow Rickles or mellow his humor, as a Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter discovered during a Rickles performance in 1998 at the Desert Inn when the “King of Zing” was 72.
To the strains of a bullfight trumpet fanfare as the curtain rose and a spotlight trained on center stage, Rickles unexpectedly burst through a side door and immediately began pelting his audience with insults as he made his way to the stage.
“Sit up,” he said to one audience member.
“Who picks out your clothes, Ray Charles?” he said to another.
“Look at the old broad,” he said. “I’m workin’ a home here!”
Well into the era of political correctness, Rickles continued his trademark jabs at everything from audience members’ weight problems to their ethnicities.
“There’s a real Italian; you can smell the oil right here,” he said on stage at the Stardust in Las Vegas in 2006 when he was 80. “There’s a definite odor in this area. Like a Polack gone bad. ...
“Hey lady, this is what you’re gonna hear. If you’re waitin’ for Billy Graham to come in and make a kid walk again, forget about it.”
Sinatra, who took to affectionately calling Rickles “Bullethead,” became one of the comic’s biggest boosters.
While Rickles was having drinks at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas some time later, his date for the evening excitedly noticed that Sinatra had arrived and was seated in a roped-off section with some celebrity friends. After his date said she didn’t believe that he knew Sinatra, Rickles excused himself and secretly went over to Sinatra’s table.
I like to think I’m like the guy who goes to the office Christmas party Friday night, insults some people but still has his job Monday morning.
— Rickles, to New York Daily News in 1996
Whispering to the legendary singer, Rickles asked if he’d do a favor for him to impress the woman he was with: Just come over and say, “Hello, Don.”
Ten minutes later, a beaming Sinatra ambled over to Rickles’ table and said, “Don! How the hell are you?”
Rickles looked at him and in a loud voice said, “Not now, Frank! Can’t you see I’m with somebody?”
As he wrote in “Rickles’ Book,” his 2007 memoir: “Everyone stopped talking. Everyone stared at us. Time stopped. And then, God bless him, Frank fell down laughing.”
SIGN UP for the free Classic Hollywood newsletter >> »
By the early 1960s, Rickles was an institution at the Sahara Hotel’s famous Casbar Lounge, where he’d score big laughs needling the celebrities who regularly showed up to see his shows and relished being the targets of his barbs.
As Dean Martin once told the comic’s audience at the Casbar: “Don Rickles is the funniest man in show business. But don’t go by me; I’m drunk.”
But while he was a hit in Vegas, according to Phil Berger, author of “The Last Laugh,” a 1975 book, Rickles’ aggressive insult humor was initially considered “too risky for TV.”
That changed after he made his first appearance on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” in 1965.
“Hi, dumb-dumb,” Rickles greeted the King of Late Night.
Interrupting Carson’s attempt to respond, Rickles barked: “Where does it say you butt in, dummy? I’m fed up with you already, you know that?”
As Carson broke up, Rickles continued: “That’s it, laugh it up. You’re making $50 million a year and your poor parents are back in Nebraska eating locusts for dinner.”
Carson and the audience howled. And Rickles, Berger wrote, “went national after that.”
The Santa Barbara writer created one of the first modern hard-boiled female private eyes and topped bestseller lists for decades, inspiring loyal readers to name their daughters after the series’ heroine, Kinsey Millhone. She was 77. Full obituary(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The veteran sports broadcaster was long recognized as one of the most versatile and perhaps most enthusiastic announcers of his era. He also was an author, a longtime fixture at Pasadena’s Rose Parade, the host of several sports-themed TV game shows and was still calling San Diego Padres baseball games in his later years. He was 82. Full obituary(Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press)
Lee, elected in 2011, was the first Chinese American mayor of San Francisco, home to the oldest Chinatown in the United States. He oversaw years of dramatic growth that transformed the city’s skyline while also sending real estate values to stratospheric levels. He was 65. Full obituary(David Butow / For The Times)
The singer and actor became a TV icon in the 1960s playing the lovably naïve Gomer Pyle on “The Andy Griffith Show” and the spinoff series “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” He was 87. Full obituary(CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images)
Called “the Elvis of Opera” and the “Siberian Express” by some, Hvorostovsky was known for his velvety baritone voice, dashing looks and shock of flowing white hair. He was 55. Full obituary(Shiho Fukada / Associated Press)
The syndicated gossip columnist’s mixture of banter, barbs, and bon mots about the glitterati helped her climb the A-list as high as many of the celebrities she covered. She was 94. Full obituary(Stephen Chernin / Associated Press)
The fashion iconoclast’s clingy styles helped define the 1980s. Naomi Campbell was a favored model, and Michelle Obama wore his designs as U.S. first lady. He was 77. Full obituary(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
Kaji was the founding president of the Japanese American National Museum, established in 1992 in Little Tokyo. Years earlier, he established his own accounting firm and was part of a group that founded Merit Savings & Loan, one of the first and one of the few Japanese American-owned banks. He was 91. Full obituary
(Edward Ornelas / Los Angeles Times)
As one of the founding fathers of rock ’n’ roll, Fats Domino blazed a singular path in the history of popular music. Pounding a piano and booming in a baritone both warm and conversational, he gave the nascent genre a shot of rhythm and blues, jazz and boogie woogie from his native New Orleans. He was 89. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
Best known for his portrayal of the sharp-tongued butler in the TV sitcoms “Soap” and “Benson,” Guillaume also played Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of “Guys and Dolls” and became the first African American to sing the title role in “The Phantom of the Opera,” appearing with an otherwise all-white cast in Los Angeles. He was 89. Full obituary(Ann Johansson / For The Times)
Hefner built a publishing and entertainment empire on the idea that Americans should shed their puritanical hang-ups and enjoy sex. As the founder of Playboy magazine, he pitched an alternative standard — swinging singlehood — which portrayed the desire for sex as being as normal as craving apple pie. He was 91. Full obituary(George Brich / Associated Press)
The prolific character actor and occasional leading man brought a soulful, hangdog presence to such varied films as “Alien,” “Paris, Texas,” “Repo Man” and “Pretty in Pink,” becoming a favorite of film fans and directors alike. He was 91. Full obituary(Richard Derk / Los Angeles Times)
The gay rights pioneer brought a Supreme Court case that struck down parts of a federal law that banned same-sex marriage and led to federal recognition for gay spouses. She was 88. Full obituary(Richard Drew / Associated Press)
Stomping over miniature bridges and buildings in a rubber suit, Nakajima portrayed Godzilla, the fire-breathing, screeching monster that became Japan’s star cultural export and an enduring symbol of the pathos and destruction of the Atomic Age. Nakajima said he invented the character from scratch, and developed it by going to a zoo to study how elephants and bears moved. He was 88. Full obituary(Junji Kurokawa / Associated Press)
Kanno spent what should have been his final high school years confined to a World War II-era internment camp. He went on to become one of America’s first Japanese American mayors as an early-day politician in Orange County. He was 91. Full obituary(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Romero will be remembered best for co-writing and directing “Night of the Living Dead.” The “Living Dead” franchise went on to create a subgenre of horror movies whose influence across the decades has endured, seen in films like “The Purge” and TV shows such as “The Walking Dead.” He was 77. Full obituary(Amy Sancetta / Associated Press)
The Oscar-winning actor appeared in classic films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” and starred in the “Mission: Impossible” television series in the 1960s. He won his Academy Award for his portrayal of washed-up Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.” He was 89. Full obituary(CBS Photo Archive / CBS via Getty Images)
The French survivor of Nazi concentration camps and a European Parliament president was one of France’s most prominent female politicians. She was best known in France for leading the heated battle to legalize abortion in the 1970s. France’s abortion rights law is still known four decades later as the “Loi Veil.” She was 89. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
The British author created Paddington Bear, the marmalade-loving teddy in a duffel coat and floppy hat. His creation become an icon immortalized in print, on screens and as countless stuffed toys. Bond was 91. Full obituary(Sang Tan / Associated Press)
Pressman, center, was an Emmy-winning journalist who worked at WNBC for more than 50 years after stints at New Jersey’s Newark Evening News and the New York World Telegram and Sun. He covered the 1956 sinking of the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria, riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Woodstock festival in 1969 and the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He was 93. Full obituary(Ron Frehm / Associated Press)
The Santa Cruz entrepreneur opened one of the world’s first surf shops and pioneered the neoprene wetsuit that helped popularize year-round cold-water surfing. He lost his eye in a surfing accident. He was 94. Full obituary(Dan Coyro / Associated Press)
The former dictator of Panama often played opposing sides of Cold War-era political battles until he was ousted by his on-again, off-again sponsors and toppled in a U.S. invasion. He was 83. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
Deford was an award-winning sports journalist and commentator whose elegant reportage was a staple for years at Sports Illustrated and National Public Radio. He was the first sportswriter awarded the National Humanities Medal. In 2013, President Obama honored him for “transforming how we think about sports.” He was 78. Full obituary(Carolyn Kaster / AP)
Perenchio deftly pulled the levers of power to create culturally defining media events, propel political candidates, collect masterpiece artworks and become one of the richest men in Los Angeles. In late 2014, he announced that he would leave much of his collection — at least 47 works valued at more than $500 million — to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was 86. Full obituary(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
The polarizing Fox News founder was credited with turning the news channel into a ratings powerhouse over his 20 years at the helm. He was ousted from the network following sexual harassment charges. He was 77. Full obituary(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)
The former child star played Joanie Cunningham in the sitcoms “Happy Days” and “Joanie Loves Chachi.” Her more recent credits included “The Love Boat” and “Murder, She Wrote.” She was 56. Full obituary(Wally Fong / Associated Press)
Using insult as his weapon of choice and a quick, knowing smirk as his defense, Rickles delighted audiences with his brand of aggressively caustic humor that targeted everyone from unknown “hockey pucks” to big-name celebrities. He was 90. Full obituary(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
A close confidante of Nelson Mandela, Kathrada dedicated his life to opposing apartheid and racism. An African National Congress activist, he played a major role in South Africa’s liberation struggle. He was 87. Full obituary(Kopano Tlape / EPA)
The billionaire businessman and philanthropist was the last in his generation of one of the country’s most famously philanthropic families. He was 101. Full obituary(D. Pickoff / Associated Press)
The Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist was part of the wave of practitioners of what came to be known as New Journalism: a group of gifted writers that included Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and others who reported on the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s. His writing made him a New York City institution for more than 40 years. He was 88. Full obituary(Mario Cabrera / Associated Press)
One of the founding fathers of rock ’n’ roll, Berry was an innovator who designed much of the music’s sonic blueprint and became his era’s most creative lyricist. He was 90. Full obituary(Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
The Nobel-prize winning poet was known for capturing the essence of his native Caribbean. His work was widely praised for its depth and bold use of metaphor, and its mix of sensuousness and technical prowess. He was 87. Full obituary(Berenice Bautista / Associated Press)
The Boxing Hall of Fame trainer and manager handled the careers of 19 champions including heavyweight Evander Holyfield. Duva with his family built the promotional company Main Events into one of boxing’s powerhouses. He was 94. Full obituary(Mike Groll / Associated Press)
The silver-haired and dapper Osborne was a bona fide movie connoisseur who displayed his wide knowledge of films as the genial host on Turner Classic Movies since its launch in 1994. Osborne was a longtime columnist for the Hollywood Reporter and the “official biographer” of the Academy Awards. He was 84. Full obituary(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Dubbed the “Acrobat of Scat” for his vocal delivery, Jarreau was admired by fans for his imaginative and improvisational qualities. He is best known for his single “We’re in This Love Together” from 1981. He is the only Grammy vocalist to win in the jazz, pop and R&B categories. He was 76. Full obituary(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Mansfield won the Nobel Prize for helping to invent MRI scanners. In 1978, he was the first person to step inside a whole-body MRI scanner so it could be tested on a human subject. His work, alongside chemist Paul Lauterbur, revolutionized the detection of disease by revealing internal organs without the need for surgery. He was 83. Full obituary(David Jones / Associated Press)
Riva’s portrayal of an elderly woman in the 2012 end-of-life drama “Amour” earned her international acclaim and the distinction of being the oldest nominee for a lead actress Oscar. She was 89. Full obituary(Francois Mori / Associated Press)
Moore rose to stardom on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in the 1960s and went on to headline “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a highly successful sitcom in the 1970s (pictured). The actress and her television character became so entwined that Moore became a role model for women who sought to challenge the conventions of marriage and family. She was 80. Full obituary(CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images)
Cernan, commander of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission, set foot on the moon in December 1972 during his third space flight. He was the last of only a dozen men to walk on the moon. He returned to Earth with a message of “peace and hope for all mankind.” He died at 82. Full obituary(SSPL / Getty Images)
The former California state librarian wrote rich cultural, economic and political histories on the birth, growth and maturation of the Golden State. He captured the state’s rise in influence and its singular hold on the public imagination in his sweeping “Americans and the California Dream” series. Full obituary(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Youguang was a linguist considered to be the father of modern China’s Pinyin Romanization writing system. Adopted by the People’s Republic in 1958, Pinyin has virtually become the global standard because of its simplicity and consistency. He was 111. Full obituary(Wang Zhao / AFP/Getty Images)
Dutton was the owner of Dutton’s Books, a Los Angeles landmark with its overflowing shelves and hard-to-find titles. Dutton’s Books on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, along with sister locations in Burbank and downtown Los Angeles, was at the very center of literary L.A. when it opened in 1961. He was 79. Full obituary(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Kamae was one of the most influential Hawaiian musicians of the last half-century and a filmmaker who painstakingly documented the culture and history of the islands. He had long been the face of the Sons of Hawaii, a popular recording group and a pioneering force in traditional island music. He was 89. Full obituary(Marco Garcia / For The Times)
The British war correspondent was the first journalist to report the Nazi invasion of Poland that marked the beginning of World War II. She won major British journalism awards, and was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. She was 105. Full obituary(Mike Clarke / AFP/ Getty Images)
The former Iranian president was an aide to Iran’s revolutionary supreme leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Although Rafsanjani’s legacy was tarnished by allegations of corruption and authoritarianism, his backing helped moderate President Hassan Rouhani win election in 2013, setting the Islamic Republic on a path to ending its disputed nuclear program and easing its isolation from the West. He was 82. Full obituary(Ebrahim Noroozi / Associated Press)
A scholar of world religions, Smith is best known for his work “The Religions of Man,” first published in 1958. It was reissued as “The World’s Religions” in 1991 and has sold about 2 million copies. His informed yet accessible prose led many laymen to read his books as their introduction to religions of the East and West. He was 97. Full obituary(Tina Fineberg / Associated Press)
Rickles, who later became a regular on “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast” shows, did not invent insult comedy.
Years before Rickles came to fame, Jack E. Leonard, the brash nightclub comic and frequent TV show guest who died in 1973 at 62, was well-known for his trademark putdowns. “Good evening, opponents,” the comic known as “Fat Jack” would greet audiences.
But Rickles, as a writer for the New Yorker put it in a 2004 profile of the comedian, “is certainly to be credited with taking insult comedy to an unprecedented level of ferocity.” And, in so doing, few comedians matched Rickles’ longevity.
The man Carson dubbed “Mr. Warmth” had his own simple theory for his enduring acceptance by audiences who knew what to expect when they dared sit ringside at one of his shows.
For Rickles, his barbed, in-your-face insult humor — “sarcasm and humorous exaggeration,” he called it — was all in fun.
“If I were to insult people and mean it, that wouldn’t be funny,” he told the New York Daily News in 1996. “There’s a difference between an actual insult and a friendly jab. So I don’t think I’m offensive onstage. I like to think I’m like the guy who goes to the office Christmas party Friday night, insults some people but still has his job Monday morning.”
In a 2000 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Rickles said: “Most people think the character I do onstage is the way I am offstage, but I’m just a regular guy who spends time with his family and who turns on the television and watches a lot of sports.”
The only child of an insurance salesman father and a housewife mother, Rickles was born in New York City on May 8, 1926.
Growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, Rickles was shy as a young child. But his father, he once said in an interview, “was a great ‘kibitzer’ who loved to kid people about themselves. I loved him and adapted his approach. I began to make friends by making people laugh.”
But he never started out to be a comic, he told the New York Daily News in 1996.
“When I got out of high school back in the ’40s, I had to go to a thing called a war against Japan,” he said. “What did I know then? I was still trying to figure out why I had pimples.”
After serving in the Navy in the Philippines, Rickles failed in his attempts to be a salesman — he briefly sold insurance and air conditioners and peddled women’s cosmetics door-to-door. He was delivering meat and mopping the floor of a butcher shop when he settled on a new ambition: The one-time president of his high school drama society decided to go to acting school.
To his surprise, he was accepted into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where his classmates included Jason Robards, Tom Poston, Don Murray, Grace Kelly and Anne Bancroft.
But after graduating from the academy and failing to land roles in Broadway productions, Rickles changed career paths: In 1951, he found an agent who got him a job as a comic for $25 a night at a third-rate club in New Jersey. Other small clubs, including a fair number of strip joints, followed.
“Think that was easy? Guys there wanted strippers, not comics,” he said in his 1996 interview with the New York Daily News. “But it was a job. Now and then I’d go to functions or affairs, tell jokes and be handed five or 10 bucks. One night at the strip club, the owner said to me, ‘Come on, make fun of my customers.’ So I did. That started it all.”
Rickles’ career took an upswing after he arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. Performing six nights a week at the Slate Brothers club, he began gaining notice for his jabs at the Hollywood celebrities who showed up in his audience.
Elizabeth Taylor: “Elizabeth, you gotta stop calling me. I’m going with someone.”
Gene Kelly: “Enough with the rain. I’ll buy you an umbrella.”
Martha Raye: “Hi, Martha, close your mouth. You’re sucking up the air conditioning.”
While performing at the Slate Brothers, Rickles was cast in his first movie role: a Navy petty officer in “Run Silent, Run Deep,” a 1958 World War II submarine drama starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster.
Over the years, he also appeared in films such as “The Rat Race,” “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Pajama Party,” “Beach Blanket Bingo,” “Kelly’s Heroes,” “Innocent Blood” and “Casino” — as well as providing the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the hit “Toy Story” movies.
On television, Rickles turned up in episodes of TV series such as “The Twilight Zone,” “Wagon Train,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Get Smart,” “Gomer Pyle USMC,” “The Lucy Show” and “The Addams Family.”
He starred in “The Don Rickles Show,” a short-lived, 1968-69 comedy-variety show. And he made two attempts as a sitcom star: playing a New York advertising agency executive in “The Don Rickles Show” (1972) and a Navy chief petty officer in “C.P.O. Sharkey” (1976-78).
With Steve Lawrence, he co-hosted “Foul-Ups, Bleeps & Blunders” from 1984 to 1985, and he played Richard Lewis’ overbearing father in the 1993 sitcom “Daddy Dearest.”
In the ’90s, Rickles gained a new generation of fans as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the computer-animated “Toy Story” movies.
“The stand-up is what paid for the house and the car and all the good things in life,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The movies and television have been a bonus for me.”
Rickles remained a bachelor until he was 38 and married Barbara Sklar, who had been his movie agent’s secretary, in 1965.
At the wedding reception, the newlyweds’ friends Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme got up and sang “More.” By the time they got to the second verse of the love song, Rickles wrote in his book: “My tears are flowing; my life has turned to gold. My Barbara will be with me always.”
But a few minutes later, Rickles wrote, he was his old self.
“Steve and Eydie, you sang beautifully,” he said. “But I had no idea you’d ask for money.”
Rickles is survived by his wife of 52 years, Barbara; their daughter, Mindy Mann; and two grandchildren, Ethan and Harrison Mann.
Improv maestro Gary Austin, founder of the Groundlings, dies at 75
Chuck Barris, creator of ‘The Gong Show’ and ‘The Dating Game,’ dies at 87
Chuck Berry dies at 90, a founding father of rock ‘n’ roll
2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background information.
This article was originally published at 11:15 a.m.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.