Don Rickles was an interesting dichotomy. He made his fame and fortune by hurling insults at his audiences and received love and respect for it. The legendary comedian died today at his home from kidney failure. He was 90.
Rickles decided to enter show business after a tour of duty in the military during World War II. In the late 1940s, he trained at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts along side fellow students Grace Kelly, Jason Robards and Anne Bancroft with the intention of becoming a serious actor. However, when the only acting jobs he could get were bit parts in television shows, Rickles decided to try his hand at stand-up comedy on the nightclub circuit of the early 1950s.
His insult comic shtick came about accidentally. He originally started out as a set up/punch line comic, but when audiences reacted to the biting, acerbic, improvised wit he used in combatting hecklers, he shifted his act to make those insults a major part of his routine.
One of his biggest supporters was Frank Sinatra. Legend has it, the crooner was impressed with Rickles after he has the audacity to insult Sinatra, who was sitting in the audience during a Rickles appearance at a Miami Beach nightclub. Sinatra encouraged friends to see Rickles, giving his career a boost, moving him from the small clubs in New York and Miami to the big rooms in Las Vegas.
Rickles made his feature film debut in 1958’s Run Silent, Run Deep, a war drama in which he starred with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. Supporting roles in dramas such as The Rabbit Trap, The Rat Race and the B-movie classic X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes would follow.
In the 1960s, as a result of his agent being married to Annette Funicello, Rickles began appearing in the successful series of “Beach Party” films. This lead to Rickles adding comedies like Enter Laughing and Kelly’s Heroes to dramas such as The Money Jungle and Where It’s At. It was on Kelly’s Heroes where he met John Landis, who was working as a production assistant on the film. Landis would later direct the Rickles in the 1992 vampire film Innocent Blood and would create the 2007 documentary, Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, which would earn Rickles an Emmy Award.
Rickles also was cast by fan Martin Scorsese as Billy Sherbert in 1995’s Casino. Rickles’ later film work would be consign to voice acting, most notably voicing Mr. Potato Head in Pixar’s Toy Story franchise. His last on-screen film role was in the 1999 Norm McDonald vehicle, Dirty Work.
Rickles was still perform right up until his death. In an interview with Closer Magazine earlier this year, Rickles stated: “At 90, I’m still going pretty damn good. And it’s nice because I have no plans to slow down.”