In a career that spanned more than 60 years, Rickles, who died of kidney failure at age 90 Thursday at his Los Angeles home, appeared in movies (from Beach Party films of the early ’60s to Casino in 1995) and sitcoms (CPO Sharkey) and he voiced Mr. Potato Head in three of Disney’s Toy Story films. (”It’s a beautiful check,” he said of the toy character and his main accomplishment in the eyes of his grandchildren.
Rickles received widespread exposure as a popular guest on numerous talk shows, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Show with David Letterman, and later voiced Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films. He won a Primetime Emmy Award for the 2007 documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.
Donald Jay Rickles was born to Jewish parents in Queens, New York, on May 8, 1926. His father, Max Rickles, emigrated in 1903 with his Lithuanian parents from Kaunas (then in the Russian Empire), and his mother, Etta (née Feldman), was born in New York City to Austrian immigrant parents. Rickles grew up in Jackson Heights, New York.
After graduating from Newtown High School, Rickles enlisted in the United States Navy and served during World War II on the motor torpedo boat tender USS Cyrene (AGP-13) as a seaman first class. He was honorably discharged in 1946. Two years later, intending to be a dramatic actor, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and then played bit parts on television.
Frustrated by a lack of acting work, Rickles began performing comedy in clubs in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. He became known as an insult comedian when he responded to his hecklers. The audience enjoyed these insults more than his prepared material, so he incorporated them into his act.
When he began his career in the early 1950s, he started calling ill-mannered members of the audience “hockey pucks”. His style was similar to that of an older insult comic, Jack E. Leonard, though Rickles denied Leonard influenced his style. During an interview on Larry King Live, Rickles credited Milton Berle’s comedy style for inspiring him to enter show business.
While working in the “Murray Franklin’s” nightclub in Miami Beach, Florida early in his career, Rickles spotted Frank Sinatra and remarked to him, “I just saw your movie The Pride and the Passion and I want to tell you, the cannon’s acting was great.” He added, “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody!” Sinatra, whose pet name for Rickles was “bullet-head”, enjoyed him so much that he encouraged other celebrities to see Rickles’ act and be insulted by him. Sinatra’s support helped Rickles become a popular headline performer in Las Vegas.
During a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast special, Rickles was among those who took part in roasting Sinatra, although Rickles himself was also roasted during another show in the series.
Rickles earned the nicknames “The Merchant of Venom” and “Mr. Warmth” for his poking fun at people of all ethnicities and walks of life. When he was introduced to an audience or on a television talk show, Spanish matador music, “La Virgen de la Macarena”, would usually be played, subtly foreshadowing someone was about to be metaphorically gored. Rickles said, “I always pictured myself facing the audience as the matador.”
In 1958, Rickles made his film debut in a serious part in Run Silent, Run Deep with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster.
Throughout the 1960s, he often appeared on television in sitcoms and dramatic series. Rickles guest-starred in Get Smart as Sid, an old war buddy of Max who comes to stay with him. In an episode of the 1960s drama series Run for Your Life, Rickles played a distressed comedian whose act culminates when he strangles a patron while imploring the patron to “Laugh!” Rickles took a dramatic turn in the low-budget Roger Corman film X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes as a carnival barker out to exploit the title character (played by Ray Milland).
Rickles appeared in the popular Beach Party film series. He recalled in his 2007 memoir that at a White House dinner, Barbara Bush teased him about his decision to appear in those films. Rickles’ agent, Jack Gilardi, was married to Annette Funicello when Rickles was cast in the Beach Party films. He subsequently began appearing more frequently on television talk shows, first appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1965.
He became a frequent guest and guest host, appearing more than 100 times on The Tonight Show during Carson’s era. An early Carson-Rickles Tonight highlight occurred in 1968 when, while two Japanese women treated Carson to a bath and massage by foot, Rickles walked onto the set. Rickles also made frequent appearances on The Dean Martin Show and became a fixture on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast specials.
In 1968, Rickles released a live comedy album, Hello, Dummy!, which reached #54 on The Billboard 200 album chart. The same year he starred in his own variety show on ABC, The Don Rickles Show, with comedy writer Pat McCormick as his sidekick. The show lasted one season.
During the 1960s, Rickles made guest appearances on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Munsters, The Addams Family, The Mothers-in-Law, Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart, The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show and I Dream of Jeannie.
In 1970, Rickles had a notable role as Crapgame in Kelly’s Heroes, sharing the marquee poster with co-stars Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and Carroll O’Connor.
In 1972, he starred in The Don Rickles Show, which lasted for 13 episodes. He also starred in a series of television specials. In his memoir, Rickles acknowledged a scripted sitcom was not well-suited to his ad-lib style of performing.
Starting in 1973, Rickles became a popular comedian appearing on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast specials. In 1976–1978, he starred in C.P.O. Sharkey, which lasted two seasons. The series is primarily remembered for the cigarette box incident when Johnny Carson did an impromptu surprise visit during an episode’s taping because he was “incensed” Rickles broke his cigarette box while he chatted with Bob Newhart (who was sitting in for Carson as the guest host of The Tonight Show) on the previous night’s show. The incident was often replayed in Tonight Show retrospectives and was considered a highlight of the 1970s era of the series.
Rickles occasionally appeared as a panelist on Hollywood Squares and was depicted in comic book form by Jack Kirby during his work on the Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen series.
In the early 1980s, Rickles began performing with Steve Lawrence in concerts in Las Vegas. In 1983, the duo co-hosted Foul-Ups, Bleeps & Blunders, an imitation of TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes.
In 1985, when Frank Sinatra was asked to perform at Ronald Reagan’s Second Inaugural Ball, he insisted that Rickles be allowed to perform, and do it unrehearsed. Rickles considered this performance the highlight of his career.
In 1990, he appeared in the second season of Tales from the Crypt in the episode “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”.
In 1992, he was cast in Innocent Blood, directed by John Landis. In his memoir, Rickles wrote that he recalled that Landis was a “Production Assistant” to Brian G. Hutton during the filming of Kelly’s Heroes. During the filming of Innocent Blood, Rickles would kid Landis by ordering him to get coffee or to run other errands befitting his one-time “gofer” status.
In 1993, Rickles starred in another short-lived sitcom Daddy Dearest, with Richard Lewis. In 1995, he played Billy Sherbert in Casino, and voiced Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story (1995) and reprised his role in Toy Story 2 (1999). Rickles starred as George Wilson in 1998’s Dennis the Menace Strikes Again. In 1998, he portrayed a film theater manager in Dirty Work and voiced Cornwall, one of the heads of a two-headed dragon, in Quest for Camelot.
In February 2007, Rickles made a cameo appearance as himself in a strange, recurring dream sequence woven through an episode titled “Sub Conscious” of the CBS dramatic series, The Unit.
Rickles’ memoir, titled Rickles’ Book, was released on May 8, 2007, by Simon & Schuster. Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, a documentary about Rickles directed by John Landis, made its debut on HBO on December 2, 2007. Rickles won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, besting a number of notable comics, including David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. To this Rickles remarked, “Stephen Colbert’s a funny man, but he’s too young. He has got plenty of time to win awards, but this may be my last year and I think that I made it count. On second thought it was probably just a mercy award for an old man.”
Rickles reprised his role of Mr. Potato Head for the Toy Story Midway Mania! attraction at Disney California Adventure Park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Toy Story 3.
In 2009, Rickles appeared on Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List and met Griffin’s mother, Maggie, to fulfill one item on Maggie’s “bucket list”. In 2010, he appeared in a commercial during Super Bowl XLIV as a talking rose and appeared on the 37th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards on CBS TV on June 27, 2010.
In 2011, Rickles reunited with his Casino co-star Joe Pesci in a Snickers advertisement highlighting the actors known for their “short fuses.” Rickles also played the late husband of Elka (Betty White) on the TV Land original comedy Hot in Cleveland— a “surprise” because his character was thought to be dead.
On May 28, 2014, Rickles was honored by Spike TV’s “One Night Only: An All-Star Comedy Tribute to Don Rickles“. Recorded live at New York City’s Apollo Theater, Jerry Seinfeld was the master of ceremonies for the two-hour special, with live monologs by Johnny Depp, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Tracy Morgan, Brian Williams, Regis Philbin, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Recorded segments included bits from Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Jimmy Kimmel and Eddie Murphy.
“The camaraderie and the comedy made the show a cross between a traditional roast and a dignified lifetime achievement award, spanning emotions ranging from admiration and gratitude to, well, degradation. And as the evening reached its climax, when Rickles got his say after all that had said about him and his nearly 60-year-long career, fittingly, he had the last laugh.” – TV Week
Rickles was still a frequent guest on late night talk shows, including Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, among other late night shows during the later months of his life. On May 11, 2015, Rickles appeared as a guest on one of the final episodes of The Late Show with David Letterman. He also made a cameo in the show Grandfathered.
In a 2014 interview, Rickles dismissed thoughts of retiring, saying: “I’m in good health. I’m working better than I ever have. The audiences are great. Why should I retire? I’m like a fighter. The bell rings and you come out and fight. My energy comes alive. And I still enjoy it.”
Until his death in 2017, despite being impeded by multiple surgeries following a bout with necrotizing fasciitis in 2013, Rickles continued touring across the United States.
On March 14, 1965, Rickles married Barbara Sklar of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He admitted having a very difficult time romantically in his 20s and 30s (he married at the age of 38), finally meeting Sklar through his agent and falling for her when she failed to get his sense of humor. They had two children, Mindy and Larry Rickles (1970–2011).
Although a lifelong Democrat, Rickles performed at the inaugurations of Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush with his friend Frank Sinatra.
Rickles considered comedian Bob Newhart to be his best friend, and their wives were also close friends. Rickles and Newhart appeared together on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on January 24, 2005, the Monday following Johnny Carson’s death, reminiscing about their many guest appearances on Carson’s show. The two also appeared together on the television sitcom Newhart and for previous episodes of The Tonight Show, where Newhart or Rickles were guest-hosts. They and their wives often vacationed together.
Rickles died of kidney failure on April 6, 2017, at his home in Beverly Hills, California; he was 90 years old.