Yesterday the world lost one of the best comedians ever to grace the stage at a Friars Roast. Don Rickles, the warmly aggressive insult comic who became world-famous not by telling jokes but by insulting his audience, died on Thursday at his home in Los Angeles.
The cause was kidney failure, said a spokesman, Paul Shefrin.
Mr. Rickles was born in 1926, and was 90 years old when he died. He’s been on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson more times than it’s convenient to enumerate here, as well as The Late Show with David Letterman. Seen Toy Story recently? Remember when one of the protagonists calls a hockey puck a…hockey puck? It was Mr. Potatohead, who was actually voiced by Rickles. And, while calling someone a hockey puck seems like a strange way to level an insult, understanding the dynamics of a comedy show reveals why Rickles’ clever insult makes a good deal of sense. At any comedy show there are going to be hecklers, and a good number of them aren’t there to see the comedian do well, but to take over the show. Don Rickles grew to understand this and developed a unique, endearing way to handle it. He insulted the bejesus out of the crowd, but in a warm way that didn’t turn them against him. Comedy is difficult, and there is a science to controlling a crowd. Don Rickles had that science down to an art, and that’s verified by his enduring legacy.
Don Rickles was one of the original comedy giants and a regular at the Classic Friars Roasts. Don doled out insults that trounced the egos of anyone who was put on a pedestal for him. Born, Donald Jay Rickles, he worked as a stand-up comedian and actor but most recognize him as an iconic insult comic. His widespread exposure is credited to his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Before he graced the celebrity stage, Don Rickles used to work in a nightclub where he saw an opportunity and picked on Frank Sinatra who was among the audience he was entertaining by saying “Make yourself at home Frank. Hit somebody.” This joke was the golden chance for Don Rickles as Frank Sinatra found him hilarious and urged fellow celebrities to check his act out. Rickles’ hilarious criticism so affected Sinatra, Frank began encouraging other celebrity friends to see Rickles’ act. This eventually led to Rickles becoming a well-known headlining performer in Las Vegas, and that legacy has also endured for decades.
Rickles wasn’t always a comedian, though. In fact he was at one time in the United States Navy. Many don’t realize this, but Don Rickles is actually a WWII veteran. Honorably discharged in 1946 near the age of twenty, Rickles spent several years rattling around the world like most men in their twenties. He began acting, but found very few acting gigs, and so started hitting the comedy circuit. Insulted by hecklers, Rickles took to abandoning prepared material and responding to them. People liked that more than anything else! Through the end of the forties and into the early fifties such was Rickles’ bread and butter, until he eventually began regular work in nightclubs.
If you’ve ever seen a Don Rickles performance live, you may remember the music playing as he comes out on stage is basically the same music which comes at the beginning of a match between a bull and a Matador in Spain. That’s because Rickles sees himself as the matador, and the audience as the bull. When considering the reality of the situation, it’s only too sensible! Everybody likes to see a dude in a goofy Spanish cap face down a bull, just like everybody loves to see Rickles make mincemeat of hecklers!
After hitting it big in Vegas, Rickles began to regularly appear in big-budget films, starring opposite such well-known performers as Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable in movies like Run Silent, Run Deep. By the seventies he even had is own short, thirteen-episode sitcom. There’s a famous moment in that sitcom where Johnny Carson made an impromptu appearance on the show complaining about a cigarette case Rickles had broken. It was a comedic stunt, surely; and though that took place around forty years ago, it’s still well-remembered today.
By the eighties Don Rickles had been at it a solid thirty years, and his career’s highlight was just around the corner. The particular performance that Rickles considers his best moment had a lot to do with Frank Sinatra, just like his initial rise to glory. Sinatra was singing for President Reagan at his second inaugural ball. The singer demanded Don Rickles open for him, or he wouldn’t perform; and so the agency organizing the ball brought Rickles aboard.
Another highlight in Rickles’ career was his Friars Club appearances. The New York Friars club was founded in 2004, and exists primarily to roast celebrities, comedians, and those of high-standing across the United States. The most famous celebrities of the country gather there, and are either roasted or delivered a scathing series of burns that are about impossible not to laugh at. Between 1998 and 2002, the Friars Club roasts were so popular, they were even aired on comedy central; and they’ve inspired many spin-off roasting shows. One of Don Rickles’ most memorable appearances was in 1968, under Roast Master Jack E. Leonard. Bob Newhart, who Rickles cited as a best friend, would be roasted by Don himself in 1994.
Health problems inevitably slowed Mr. Rickles down, but even after a leg infection in 2014 affected his ability to walk, he continued performing, making occasional concert and television appearances. In May 2015, he was one of the last guests on “Late Show With David Letterman.” His most recent performance was a Summer appearance on a new show called Grandfatherland in 2015, though Wikipedia has him listed as a voice credit for Toy Story 4, which is set to debut in 2018 by internet reckoning.
From Johnny Carson videos to celebrity roasts, Don Rickles has been in practically everything. He is famous for innumerable comedy sketches, and his appearances are often remembered decades after the fact. Some of the best comedy roasts of all time are the Don Rickles Roasts. Who could ever forget the time Don Rickles roasted Jerry Lewis to a goofy crisp? Or the time Dean Martin Roasted Don Rickles—the star power was dazzling and hilarious!
The Classic Friars Club has been a hotspot for mayhem, hearty laughs and a hell of a good time for the elite of the entertainment world. Started back in 1904 as a home for folklore, a place where comedians with a special talent for telling hearty jokes would gather. The Friars Club was eventually transformed by a group of reporters. Thanks to George M. Cohan , Victor Herbert, and Irving Berlin who in collaboration with other celebrities and comedians ganged up and called themselves ‘The Friars’, which is Latin for Brotherhood. This team changed this location into an ideal place for unorthodox and rowdy gents who would make fun of each other and where women were never allowed.
By the year 1988, the doors opened at the Club Friars for women, too. Lizza Minelli was the first woman to be roasted at the Friars Club. As time went on the Friars Club Roasts grew exponentially popular, broadcasting live and entertaining viewers globally.
With Don’s passing, the world mourns a great loss and we will miss his warm smile, his infectious laughter, his riveting stories, and most of all the love he spread everywhere he went. Don lived a long life filled with love and happiness every step of the way. Don was such a beautiful person inside and out. We cannot forget his generous nature, his love for people, and his overall zeal for life.
We are grateful for the glorious years that we had with our dear brother Don. We choose to remember the fun times, to laugh at the old jokes, to enjoy some of the same activities, and allow those memories to ease some of the pain from our hearts. Don never met a stranger. He had a contagious spirit of generosity and genuine positivism. He was one of the world’s most gifted comedians and had a knack for making people laugh, not only in their mind, but also in their hearts.
We are given but a short time on this earth to create a lasting memory, to make our mark on this world, to create what they call a legacy. The great thing about a legacy is that it lives on long after we have left this earth. It is what we leave behind for our loved ones and our friends to enjoy, and if we’re lucky enough our legacies will span far beyond just family and friends, but even to strangers. Perhaps something that we say or do will be remembered, will make a lasting impression on someone who we don’t even know. That’s the kind of life Don Rickles lived.
His personality shined bright and his smile shined even brighter. You don’t come into contact with a person like Don and easily forget them. That is called creating a legacy.
Although Don is no longer with us, his memory lives on. His funny perspectives will continue to resonate in our hearts and minds. An artist never really dies because his artwork lives on. Every artist puts a little piece of themselves in everything that they create. Whether it is in words, music, wood or paintings, a piece of them lives in their creation. Don lived a life of passion for his art. That passion lives on and will continue to live on into eternity. How fortunate we have been to know, love, and share in the life of Don Rickles.
So today we don’t say goodbye, but rather see you later. For we will see Don in our dreams, we will hear him in our conversations. While he may not be with us physically, he is not lost and we are not without our thoughts and most of all our love. Today we say farewell, take your rest my friend, until we meet again on the other side.