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Overview for Don Rickles
Don Rickles

Don Rickles


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Also Known As: Donald Jay Rickles Died: April 6, 2017
Born: May 8, 1926 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA Profession: Cast ... comedian actor


The Merchant of Venom. The Master of Insults. Mr. Warmth. These were just a few of the labels given to actor and comedian Don Rickles, who in the course of a decades-long career on stage, film and television came to define the tone and persona of the insult comic. But despite his withering barrage of put-downs, Rickles remained a favorite of celebrities and audiences alike, thanks to both an unflaggingly quick wit and a genuine affection for his targets. Those qualities where always on display in one form or another, but never so hilariously than when he was a regular fixture on the celebrity roast circuit in the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, Rickles went from the comic stage to film with roles in "The Rat Race" (1960) and "Muscle Beach Party" (1964), and later had a co-starring turn as a hustling supply sergeant in "Kelly's Heroes" (1970). While largely absent from the big screen over the next two decades in order to focus on television, which included numerous appearances on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992), Rickles made something of a comeback with a high profile role in "Casino" (1995) while voicing Mr. Potato Head in the "Toy Story" franchise. In the next century, he remained active in stand-up comedy and was the subject of the documentary "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project" (HBO, 2007), which went behind the scenes to reveal Rickles as an engaging personality who was indeed filled with warmth, humor and humanity. That love for the comic, from fans and peers (such as lifelong best friend Bob Newhart) alike, came through when news broke of his death at the age of 90 on April 6, 2017.

Born Donald Jay Rickles in New York City, NY on May 8, 1926, he was a shy child who took inspiration from the way his father, Max, endeared himself to people through humor. Turns in school plays eventually led to work as a radio announcer and later in nightclub engagements, where he worked initially as a joke-slinging stand-up comic. But he discovered that audiences truly responded to the off-the-cuff insults he fired back at hecklers, and gradually, he made this part of his act. His early style was compared to another acerbic comic, Jack E. Leonard, who occasionally mentioned that Rickles had "borrowed" his act.

Rickles served in the United States Navy during World War II and was honorably discharged in 1946, after which he returned to his stand-up career and studied drama at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, before making his film debut opposite Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable in Robert Wise's military drama "Run Silent, Run Deep" in 1958. The film was a substantial hit, and Rickles soon found himself in demand by producers for both his comic and acting chops. While his subsequent film roles were few and far between during the '60s - he turned up in four of American International Pictures' "beach party" movies, including "Muscle Beach Party" (1964) and "Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965); gave an agreeable dramatic turn as a shady carnival worker in Roger Corman's creepy "X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes" (1963); and had a notable dramatic cameo in Carl Reiner's "Enter Laughing" (1969) - he could be found more frequently as a guest star on all manner of television series. These ranged from "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1964) and "Burke's Law" (ABC, 1963-66) to "The Munsters" (CBS, 1964-66) and "The Wild, Wild West" (CBS, 1965-69). Rickles also co-starred with Ernest Borgnine in a 1967 stage production of "The Odd Couple" on the West Coast, which was met with critical acclaim.

During this period, several significant incidents helped elevate Rickles from stand-up comic to star status. In 1957, Frank Sinatra caught his act at a small Hollywood nightclub, and Rickles spared him no quarter in terms of insults. Sinatra found his routine hilarious, and quickly helped to spread word of mouth about his act. Rickles booked his first Las Vegas date two years later at the Sahara, which boosted his visibility even further.

In 1965, Rickles booked his first appearance on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992) - he would subsequently return 99 more times - and his freewheeling banter with the host helped sell him to talk show producers as an entertaining guest (prior to this, most chat shows were worried that his brand of humor might turn off viewers). Two years later, he earned an even bigger viewership, thanks to a string of guest shots on "The Dean Martin Show" (NBC, 1965-1974) during which producers invited a host of celebrity guests - including Bob Hope, Don Adams and many others - to sit in the audience and take the full brunt of Rickles' barbs. His routines paid off in huge ratings. Rickles also scored in the world of comedy records with his 1968 live debut, Hello, Dummy! He followed this with Don Rickles Speaks a few years later.

The success of his guest shots and albums inspired ABC to give Rickles his own series in 1968, but the program was short-lived and set the template for nearly all of Rickles' subsequent forays as the lead on his own series. In 1971, "The Don Rickles Show" (CBS) lasted just one season, but he quickly redeemed himself with a quartet of exceptionally popular specials between 1972 and 1975 for CBS and NBC.

Rickles returned to feature films in 1970 opposite Clint Eastwood in the tongue-in-cheek World War II action comedy, "Kelly's Heroes," but continued to devote most of his time to stand-up, mostly in Las Vegas where he was signed to the Riviera and then Sahara, as well as TV. "C.P.O. Sharkey" (NBC, 1976-78), which cast Rickles as a sardonic Naval officer, had a two-season run, while he enjoyed solid ratings in a string of specials, including 1982's "Two Top Bananas" with Don Adams, and an improvised 1986 Showtime special, "Rickles On the Loose." Rickles also served as the host of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) in 1984, and a 1980 co-hosting gig with Steve Lawrence on NBC's "The Big Show" variety program led to the pair touring together and co-hosting ABC's blooper program "Foul-Ups, Bleeps and Blunders" (1984-85). Rickles also performed at the White House in 1984 and tossed barbs at the Reagan Administration with typical fervor.

Rickles focused on his stage career for most of the mid-'80s and early '90s, but by 1992, he saw a resurgence in his long-dormant film career. Critics lauded his appearances as a mobster-turned-vampire in the John Landis film, "Innocent Blood" (1992), and he soon found himself in front of the camera in a number of other projects. A brief return to network TV in the glum sitcom "Daddy Dearest" (Fox, 1993) preceded an impressive supporting turn as a veteran casino pit boss in Martin Scorsese's "Casino" and the role that gave Rickles his broadest audience to date - the voice of the sweetly harried Mr. Potato Head in the Disney/Pixar animated feature "Toy Story" (1995) and its 1999 sequel.

In 2000, Rickles received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as he continued to contribute to numerous film and television projects, ranging from the bittersweet TNT TV-movie "The Wool Cap" (2004), which earned him more critical acclaim, to the hilarious documentary "The Aristocrats" (2005), in which he expounded on the history of a particularly infamous dirty joke. One of the oldest comics in the line-up, he more than hilariously held his own against the younger likes of Bob Saget, Whoopi Goldberg and Sarah Silverman.

A rarity in the business, Rickles was married for over 40 years to the former Barbara Sklar, with whom he had two children, Mindy and Larry. Ironically, he and Sklar were best friends with fellow actor-comic Bob Newhart and his wife, paving the way for hilarious stories of their vacations together being a frequent source of laughter in his many talk show appearances. And if personal happiness and over 50 years in the business was not enough, Rickles was honored with an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program for "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project" (HBO), a documentary made with love by director John Landis, that paid homage to the beloved comic. The special also took home the Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special. After reprising Mr. Potato Head for "Toy Story 3" (2010), Rickles had a guest appearance in 2011 as the presumed dead husband of Elka (Betty White) on an episode of "Hot in Cleveland" (TV Land, 2010-15). Rickles continued performing standup into his 90th year despite recurrent health issues. Don Rickles died of kidney failure at his home in Beverly Hills on April 6, 2017. He was 90 years old. Rickles had already recorded his lines for "Toy Story 4" (2019) at the time of his death.

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