Born May 8, 1926, Don Rickles grew into one of the country’s most famous comedians. Famous for his acidic wit, he went on from his humble Jackson Heights New York beginnings to playing the top stages both domestically and internationally. After graduating from high school, Rickles enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served on the USS Cyrene in World War II. He said later in an 2015 interview with the New York times, he was the class comedian of the ship. When he returned home after being honorably discharged in 1946, Rickles studied and graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Out of desperation at not getting dramatic work, Rickles began doing stand up comedy. Rickles played anywhere he could- the Catskills and strip clubs. He began to make headway as an “insult” comedian. According to New York Magazine, there was a tradition within Jewish comedy of the “underdog” or the “nebbish”. Rickles fit neither of these molds as he was aggressive from the start. For example, his theme music was Spanish matador music, “La Virgen de la Macarena”. Rickles always said he pictured himself as the matador and the audience as the bull.
He got his big break when he performed for at “Murray Franklin’s” nightclub in Miami Beach in 1959. In the audience was Frank Sinatra and some of his friends blowing off steam. He made some snide comments to Sinatra, notably, “Make yourself at home Frank. Hit somebody.” Sinatra laughed so hard he fell off his chair. From that moment on, Rickles were championed by Sinatra and the Rat Pack, which led to work in Las Vegas. However, it was not smooth sailing and he spent a decade slugging it out in clubs before he came to national attention. In 1965, he made the first of his many Tonight Show appearances, lampooning the guests and Johnny Carson in his bombastic style to their delight.
This led to a television show, which didn’t last, called “The Don Rickles Show”. However, he did hit television success with “CPO Sharkey”, which aired from 1976 to 1978. In it, Rickles drew upon his experiences in the Navy. However, these were short lived and he made his bread and butter on the stage doing stand up. He did experience cinematic success late in life in “Casino” with Robert De Niro and as Mr Potato Head in the “Toy Story” series. He never gave up performing, and continued to make concert and television appearances even after a leg infection in 2014 affected his ability to walk. At the age of 81, he was still performing at least 75 nights a year. However, his health finally got the better of him, and he passed of kidney failure at his home in Los Angeles, CA on April 6, 2017 at the age of 90.
Just wanted to add, we didn’t get to see much of Don’s work over here in the UK, however I personally remember him as Staff Sgt Crapgame in one of my favourite films ‘Kelly’s Heroes’. The role played to his strengths of “insult comedy”, one of the things he was best known for.
Sad loss to the world of comedy.