Don Rickles, unplugged
"Mr. Warmth" keeps his audience in the hot seat
By Mark Mobley
Sure, he's insulted presidents and told more than one Oscar winner "It's over." But Don Rickles, self-anointed "one of the king Jews of all time," has a benevolent reign that shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
When Rickles walks alone onto the Prudential Hall stage on Oct. 17, it will be like the entrance of a gaggle of ambassadors from old tri-state showbiz, classic Vegas, both vintage and modern Hollywood and all eras of television, not to mention service in the Philippines during World War II. He's also a recent recipient of the Friars Club Lifetime Achievement Award; a star-studded testimonial dinner in June included Rickles accepting the award from longtime friend and comedic antimatter Bob Newhart.
All of which is a long, long way from the first New Jersey gigs of the young man from Jackson Heights, Queens.
"The first place I remember was a place called the Melody Club," says Rickles, who is 87 but sounds at least 30 years younger on the phone. "It was one step below nothing. There was three girls that came out and they're like dressed compared to what’s going on today. I was the guy in between. In those days I did cornball jokes and bad impressions like a million other comedians. And this guy used to sit at the front table in a bathrobe and watch me. A real class place.
"My manager in those days was very friendly with guys with cigars, with little holsters inside their shirts. They were all wiseguys and they ran the clubs and everything else. They liked me a lot, so I had good days in Jersey."
Rickles is so well known for his distinctive style of rubber bullet insults that it's easy to undervalue the breadth of what he's done, much of which is recounted in his breezy autobiography Rickles' Book. Today's kids know him as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films. But his dramatic career — he trained alongside Jason Robards and Anne Bancroft — includes roles in the submarine film Run Silent, Run Deep and Martin Scorsese's Casino, as well as memorable appearances on sitcoms ranging from The Dick Van Dyke Show a half-century ago, his own C.P.O. Sharkey in the '70s and Hot in Cleveland today.
And through much of this storied run, Rickles and his wife Barbara have socialized and explored the world with Newhart and his wife, Ginny. "We don’t travel like we used to," Rickles says. "And don’t forget he has got grandchildren, I’ve got grandchildren. But we see each other, like tonight as a matter of fact. We are like family together."
Rickles says the Newharts were especially supportive after the death of Rickles' son Larry, a producer of the HBO documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, in 2011. "It's hard to find people that are loyal and sweet and wonderful to you. How do you travel around the world with somebody and still love each other without having some sort of eruption? We’ve always had love and fun together, always. We are very lucky to have friends like that.”
The NJPAC show remembers another one of Rickles' favorite friends, Frank Sinatra. The singer and the comedian — who doesn't have a half-bad voice himself — knew each other for decades and toured together for two years toward the end of Sinatra's career. On Oct. 17, the opener is Michael Martocci, who sings Sinatra hits including Rickles' beloved "My Way" and "New York, New York."
Sinatra "was a special man," Rickles says. "Lots of people don’t realize how special he was because he had that other side when he would get angry. But putting that aside, he was a giving human being and we miss and we adore him. He was wonderful to us."
Sinatra invited Rickles to perform at President Reagan's second inaugural celebration. It became the occasion of a crackling five-minute set that's been viewed more than 400,000 times on YouTube and includes the line, "And Billy Graham? Nice to see you, sir. This hand is bothering me."
"The true story," Rickles says, "is that Frank went and said, 'I am going to have Don Rickles on my show with me for the inaugural,' and the cabinet and all said, 'Oh no, Frank, we can’t. He is going to make fun of us.' And Frank said, 'Listen, if you don’t have Rickles, you aren't going to have me.'
"It was the highlight of my career doing the inaugural — all the cabinet there and making fun of them. And I had nothing written. I never had anything on paper. In my shows today, I always try to create something different every night. People enjoy it because they say, 'He never did that before and I never saw that before,' which is great."
Mark Mobley is a writer, editor, arts consultant and performer in Wilmington, Del., who occasionally regrets his decision to forego standup comedy for newspapering.