Today, Don Rickles turns 86 years old but not that Comedy Moontower needs a specific reason to toast this American original. When I was a tyke, I thought Don Rickles was one of the meanest men around but I was still captivated by his fearlessness and put-downs. My older brother Fun Bobby (or “Rob” as he was known at that time) hipped me to the reality that professional rassling wasn’t real and that Don Rickles was doing shtick. I immediately lost interest in the antics of Da Crusher, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, and the High Flyers (Greg Gagne & Jumpin’ Jimmy Brunzell), and I became all the more enthralled by Rickles’ act (which, as far as I could tell, seemed to be primarily improvised on the spot) and by his ability to elicit laughs from audiences instead of having the crowd brandish pitchforks and torches. It always made my week anytime Don Rickles appeared on The Tonight Show or a celebrity roast. Despite my total appreciation for the man and his talent, I only first saw him perform live on December 30th, 2007, at the Mystic Lake Casino’s new showroom in Prior Lake, Minnesota. I lucked into second row center seats and the seats in front stayed unoccupied. For stand-up geeks, getting goofed on by Don Rickles is akin to a baptism. The woman I was dating at the time was Chinese-American and despite her rad taste in rock-n-roll and film, she somehow managed to be totally unfamiliar with Don Rickles (freaky, right?). Midway through the show, Mr. Rickles asked me, “Hey pal, is that your wife?”
“No,” I replied as cheerily as one syllable can sound.
“Your girlfriend?” he queried.
“My date,” I said because we weren’t bf/gf yet. And while making that famous pout-n-nod, Don Rickles proclaimed to me, “Well, I’m sure your parents are real proud.” Half of the couple in Row B, Seats 58 & 60 was beaming but by the end of the show, Julie was a freshly christened Rickles fan.
In late November 2009, I had the great fortune to conduct a phone interview with Mr. Rickles for the Austin Chronicle in advance of his December 10th & 11th Paramount Theatre appearances. Below is a short excerpt of that conversation (someday I will transcribe the whole exchange because it was rather illuminating if you’re also a fan or simply carbon-based). As you likely have heard by now, Don Rickles is one of the nicest guys in showbiz and his entire consortium is a lesson in pure class. Please forgive the any implication of braggadocio, but Don (as he later asked that I call him) gave me my highest professional accolade by graciously thanking me for “being such a well-informed guy to do so much homework about me. It’s really a pleasure to talk to you because not many guys are on top of things like you are— about who they talk to, and I really appreciate that… If you come to the show, come back and say hello.” So before his first show, Don’s ace tour manager Tony O (formerly Frank Sinatra’s confidant), arranged time for us to have a little visit. This would be an instance where meeting one of your heroes is entirely uplifting. Since it was a private encounter, I have yet to recount the things Don said (other than asking me to call him Don instead of Mr. Rickles) or repeat the amazing words he inscribed in my copy of his autobiography, Rickles’ Book. I do know he and Tony O gave me extra face time because I was with a beautiful woman. I know this because they said so. Before shoving off, I gave him some Austin T-shirts for his grandkids. The show was hilarious and reminded me how much I dig hearing big bands live. I still get a laugh when I think of the “Wanna party?” offer Don made to an elderly woman in a wheelchair after she revealed her age. And to my utter disbelief and pleasure, at the end of his show, Don Rickles thanked me from the stage and rolled his eyes saying that I had brought him some T-shirts. Twice goofed— I’m still over the moon. Thank you and Happy Birthday Mr. Warmth!
Steve Birmingham: Mr. Rickles. It’s hard to imagine such a fearless performer as you as a shy kid but that was the case, huh?
Don Rickles: Well Steve if you investigate you’ll find out that most actors and actresses when they were kids were very shy. It seems to be the trend and that’s why most of them become outgoing after they get older. And yeah, I was a shy kid like a lot of others but it wasn’t so unusual in those days. I had a very strong mother who was very influential in keeping me going and wanting to be a performer.
SB: I found a newspaper ad for the Wayne Room strip joint in D.C. from January of 1954 boasting the 22nd consecutive week of Don “Glass-Head” Rickles. Was it at the Wayne Room in D.C. or the Elegante in Brooklyn where you felt you’d developed your voice?
DR: The Wayne Room was a joint in those days with a lot of striptease girls (and those striptease girls are like dressed compared to today), and I was the comedian in-between their dancing and so forth. That was a good training ground and helped me develop my style of talking to people and being sarcastic, as I am, and never mean-spirited. It was like a base camp for me to learn a lot of what I do, and then I went on to the Elegante and the guy [Joe Scandore] became my manager for forty years and he and I became great friends, and I worked a great deal of time in the Elegante in Brooklyn. After the Wayne Room days it had really developed into a performance.
SB: When you discovered your style, I’m curious if you also had the sense that your act would remain timeless? Your shows are still just as hilarious as ever and the fact that you have such a cross-generational and diverse audience speaks to that, I think.
DR: Well thanks Steve, I’m glad you realized that. Did you ever see my documentary?
SB: I did. I love Mr. Warmth and it definitely deserved those two Emmys.
DR: Ah thanks, I appreciate that. If you get a chance read the book, Rickles’ Book.
SB: I did, it’s fantastic.
DR: My god, we don’t even have to talk.
SB: [Laughs] Once you had found your style, did you also have a sense that it would be a timeless type of style?
DR: I had a lot of rejection in my beginning because it was different and I always say to other young people, “If you want to be successful in this business you have to be different and the people have to like you personally and you can’t be mean-spirited.” I never had a writer; I just used my own personality and started talking to the people and then talking about everything and exaggerating everything around me and little by little (who knew if it’d be timeless) but I knew that when they came to see me that the shows were always different because of what I was talking about. I always have a beginning, middle, and ending but it always changes somewhat every night.
SB: How do you feel about the “insult comic” label that you got tagged with?
DR: I overcame that. It used to bother me in my younger years because it always sounded like some mean-spirited guy, which I certainly wasn’t. But it was a great thing for me that I overcame that image of the insult guy who’s mean or something, and Johnny Carson named me “Mr. Warmth,” and that’s what I’ve been using for years now. And it really is all about me. In other words, it’s a joke when I say “Mr. Warmth,” but the idea is that I’m never mean and I give everybody a fair shake, that they don’t walk out saying, “This guy’s a real Mafia,” or something. And again Steve, you know when you’re different you can’t please everybody. Bob Hope, rest his soul, was a great comedian but maybe there’s a guy in Iowa who didn’t like Bob Hope not because he wasn’t funny but they don’t like his personality. The same with Don Rickles. You can’t please everybody but the idea is to get 90% in your corner.
SB: The thing that really blew me away from your memoir involved your friendship with astronaut Gene Cernan and the last manned moon landing, Apollo 17.
DR: I went down to where the astronauts were; a friend introduced me to a lot of those guys, and somehow Gene and I connected. And [laughs] the funny part, he came to L.A. to visit us, and we were going to have dinner one night and a had a Rolls Royce in those days, and I couldn’t get it started and I said, “Gene, can you get this thing going?” And he lifted up the hood, and he futzed around with it for about 10 minutes, and he said, “Gee Don, I can’t fix it.” And I said: “You know, you’re a joke. You can go to the moon but you can’t fix a Rolls Royce.” Of course, I made a big joke out of that. But he became very wonderful to me, and in fact he took the tape that I made with him to the moon. It wasn’t a tape you’d show to your grandma or your mother; it was strictly a stag kind of thing for those guys in the capsule— kind of personal and funny, and they loved it. And I was very happy to be able to do it.
SB: That’s historic! I don’t know if any other comedian can boast slaying an audience on another celestial body.
DR: I don’t either.
SB: Two things about your friendship with Frank Sinatra really struck me: his unyielding loyal support for you and also how much he enjoyed practical jokes. Could you share one of your favorite memories of Mr. Sinatra?
DR: Well the most outstanding thing was Ronald Reagan, rest his soul, was going to be inaugurated for the second time in Washington, and I was in Hawaii with my wife, and Frank called up and said, “Don, get packed and get to Washington. You’re going to be on the show with me for the inaugural of Ronald Reagan.” I said: “Oh, come on Frank. They’re not going to listen to me with my kind of style of humor. They’ll be a wreck.” [Sinatra said,] “No no no, I went to the Cabinet and they said, ‘No, we can’t have Rickles, we don’t know what he’s going to do’” And he said, “Well, if you don’t have Rickles, you don’t have me.” And that was the truth because of his loyalty to me. And sure enough, I came to Washington and they said, “What are you going to do Mr. Rickles?” And I said, “I don’t know. I get out there and do it.” And they were a basket case about that, but they accepted it, and I went out and did one of my best shows for the President. You can see in a little bit about it in my Mr. Warmth project, and it turned out to be just great.
SB: Jewish-American’s constitute only about 2.5% of the U.S population yet it seems like almost a majority of the comedy greats are Jewish. Why do you think this is?
DR: I don’t know, maybe God figured, “Gotta give them some sort of job.”
SB: You ran with giants like the Rat Pack and Johnny Carson and have met everyone of note from your half century plus in show business. Are there days when you feel a bit like The Last of the Mohicans?
DR: Well, I look around and say, “How many guys at my age, 83, are headlining in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and all over the country you know?” I go by that and doing well; that makes me very proud. But then again it makes me a little sad that so many of my colleagues have gone on to… who knows, better things.