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Don Rickles: The Merchant

Of Venom, Defanged

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Publicity photo of Don Rickles from 1973.
Perhaps The Classiest Insult Comedian To Ever Grace A Stage, Rickles Talks About His Biggest Benefactors And How He Still Can Manage To Win Every Verbal Battle

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Nov. 16, 2015 — Don Rickles is a study in contrasts. The man who has made a career out of sarcasm and insults and who has been variously tagged with the monikers “The Merchant of Venom” and “Mr. Warmth,” couldn’t be a nicer guy … offstage. But onstage, it’s a different matter altogether.

During Rickles’ show (he does about 20 a year, give or take); a sort of blood fever takes hold as his furious ad-libs zing their intended targets. The applause and laughter (which is always thunderous) spurs him to such improbable feats as attempting a James Cagney impersonation from Yankee Doodle Dandy complete with the tap dancing. At this moment, Rickles has the stout, compact body of the Merrill Lynch bull; two a-rhythmical legs there were born not to dance, and a perspiring head that looks like a snub-nosed .38 caliber cartridge.

He literally sweats bullets. It’s all heady stuff; even for a guy who’s been traversing this comic ground for more than 67 years now (Rickles is 89).

It’s odd then that Rickles’ stage persona vanishes as quickly as the final curtain on his stage show. It’s a complete sea change; the calm after the storm. In reality, Rickles offstage is unfailingly polite and rather stiffly decorous; almost formal. It’s as if after such verbal bloodletting, a weird catharsis takes place and there is nothing left to do but be placid.

“In the beginning, when I was just starting out, there were people who resented me,” Rickles told us during an interview back in 1999. “But that’s the price you pay when you try to do something different. And being different has allowed me to be a headliner in all the major gambling cities across the country. Not a bad tradeoff.”

Rickles graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City with dreams of becoming a serious actor. But when he found out there were no takers, he let his natural sarcastic bombast bubble up into a career.

“It’s always been my personality since I was a kid in school and in the [military] service,” he said. “I was always a sarcastic guy. I could never tell a joke, per se. I was never a jokester as you could see if you watched my performance. My current attitude developed over many years of doing bad impersonations and telling lousy jokes. I started to talk to the audience and talk about things around me. That become a performance and I found that they responded great to that. In the rough days when I worked in the low-life ‘jernts,’ you did anything to get the audience’s attention.”

There is an almost ritualistic aspect to being on the receiving end of a Don Rickles putdown. Audience members in pricey front row seats seem to court it like they would a visit from the Publisher's Sweepstakes minivan.

And that’s probably the single biggest reason why Rickles doesn’t really prickle anymore. It’s become politically correct — a red badge of courage — to merit one of his insults. (In 1980, Princess Margaret invited Rickles to join her at her table after being mocked at a fundraising gala.) This from a man whose gags should, on the face of it, make most P.C. practitioners, well ... gag.

After years in circulation, Rickles’ abuse may have lost its mortal sting but none of its sense of fun. In fact, he’s won a legion of younger fans to add to the brigades of middle-aged men and women who have been following him since his caustic appearances on the old Dean Martin Show.

Younger audiences seem to like the “retrofit” of a club comedian who tells Phyllis Diller jokes as if she’s still a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry. And they respect Rickles who’s stayed the course for four decades and raised putdowns to high art. Rickles might not be your cup of Earl Grey, but like him or not, he (like the late Joan Rivers) is unique.

Perhaps not since the salad days of Groucho Marx has anyone co-opted so utterly completely the genre of “dishing out the dish.”

“I’m an equal opportunity insult artist – definitely!” Rickles told us. “Anytime a comedian takes the stage, there’ll be people who won’t like him. Not everybody comes out of the theater and says, ‘I love Don Rickles.’ If they did, it would be a miracle.”

Did he ever fear the day when the comeback won’t come and he would be staring into the smirking face of a casino drunk who’s just bested him in a verbal duel?

“After more than 40 years in the business handling every kind of impromptu situation, if I start to worry about that, I got a problem,” he said. “It’s like a fighter with a good right-hand punch. You know it’s there and you don’t think about it. The day someone gets the upper hand on me and I just stare at them with nothing coming out of my mouth is the day I interview you!”

The same goes for retirement. “As long as the promoters still want me and people show up, I’ll be there.”

Rickles pointed to three men as the biggest influences on his career. Dean Martin’s hugely popular 1960s TV show provided a national prime time platform for Rickles’ humor. And during innumerable appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Rickles solidified his fan base. But it was Frank Sinatra’s “Midas Touch” that ordained Rickles as the “in” comic Hollywood celebrities should watch. It was in 1957 at Slate Brothers, a tiny Hollywood nightclub, when Sinatra walked directly into the unknown Rickles’ gunsights.

“I just saw your movie, The Pride and the Passion and I want to tell you, the cannon was great,” Rickles said. “Make yourself at home Frank, hit somebody.” Sinatra doubled up laughing and a beautiful friendship was formed that lasted until Ol’ Blue Eyes died in 1998.

Another long run for Rickles has been his 50-year union with his wife Barbara, a first marriage for both. “I got married late in life,” he said. “The whole secret is that my wife never looked for the limelight. She was a secretary for a guy involved in motion pictures when I met her, so she knows the business. But she never wanted to be a part of it. She’s not a crowd pleaser. She’s low-key. I’m the crowd pleaser and kidder.”

On the subject of enduring friendships, Rickles and comedian Bob Newhart are such fast friends that, along with their wives, they often vacation together. “Barbara and I still go on the occasional cruise,” he explained, “but I constantly get accosted by passengers who don’t think I’m a paying customer. They think I’m there to perform. Many of them come up to me and say: ‘What time is the show tonight?’ I say: ‘No, no, I’m a paying customer like you are.’ And they say: ‘O.K., call my brother a moron and my cousin a jerk. We’ll be sitting in the front row.’ Then they sit there and wait until the ship docks …!”

Zing!

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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