LOS ANGELES (AP) — Don Rickles, the big-mouthed, bald-headed “Mr. Warmth” whose verbal assaults endeared him to audiences and peers and made him the acknowledged grandmaster of insult comedy, died Thursday. He was 90.
Rickles, who would have been 91 on May 8, suffered kidney failure and died Thursday morning at his home, said Paul Shefrin, his longtime publicist and friend.
For more than half a century, Rickles headlined casinos and nightclubs from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and livened up late-night talk shows. No one was exempt from Rickles’ insults, not fans or presidents or such fellow celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Johnny Carson.
Despite jokes that from other comics might have inspired boycotts, he was one of the most beloved people in show business, idolized by everyone from Joan Rivers and Louis CK to Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman.
James Caan once said that Rickles helped inspire the blustering Sonny Corleone of “The Godfather.” An HBO special was directed by John Landis of “Animal House” fame and included tributes from Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier and Robert De Niro.
Carl Reiner would say he knew he had made it in Hollywood when Rickles made fun of him.
Rickles patented a confrontational style that stand-up performers still emulate, but one that kept him on the right side of trouble. He emerged in the late 1950s, a time when comics such as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl were taking greater risks, becoming more politicized and more introspective.
Rickles managed to shock his audiences without cutting social commentary or truly personal self-criticism. He operated under a code as old the Borscht Belt: Go far — ethnic jokes, sex jokes, ribbing Carson for his many marriages — but make sure everyone knows it’s for fun.
“I think the reason that (my act) caught on and gave me a wonderful career is that I was never mean-spirited,” he once said. “Not that you had to like it, but you had to be under a rock somewhere not to get it.”
Reaction to his passing on social media was heartfelt and swift:
90 years with Don Rickles weren’t enough. One of the sweetest and most lovely people I had the pleasure of knowing. We miss you already
— Jimmy Kimmel (@jimmykimmel) April 6, 2017
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) April 6, 2017
Don Rickles has passed away.
A giant loss.
— Billy Crystal (@BillyCrystal) April 6, 2017
According to Variety.com: ” Though he appeared in films and on television, Rickles’ mainstay was always nightclub performances, appearing in Las Vegas and elsewhere into his late 80s. He also found late success as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the “Toy Story” films, which were exceptional box office performers, and popped up frequently on latenight talkshows. Rickles’ career had its ups and downs as comedic tastes changed, and his curmudgeonly persona was sometimes out of kilter with audience tastes, but he survived long after many of his contemporaries had disappeared into retirement. And when he was hot, he was a potent club headliner, insulting his audience with his two key signature phrases “dummy” and “hockey puck.”
USA Today reported: “In a career that spanned more than 60 years, Rickles, who died 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 once said of the toy character, and his main accomplishment in the eyes of his grandchildren. “I sit in a booth and just do me.”) But he made his living as a self-described “aggressive” stage comedian, whose act jelled by accident as he reacted to hecklers he called “hockey puck.” He outlasted contemporaries such as Alan King, role model Milton Berle (who dubbed him the Merchant of Venom) and Carson, a good friend who hosted him on the Tonight Show more than 100 times and affectionately called him “Mr. Warmth”: “It’s sarcastic, but it’s true,” Rickles responded.”
— Al Roker (@alroker) April 6, 2017