The legendary stand-up comedian Don Rickles died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles, at the age of 90. He is survived by Barbara, his beloved wife of 52 years—he liked to joke that she was able to signal ships with her jewelry—his daughter, and two grandchildren.
For the vast majority of his 60-something-year-long career, Rickles, one of the first entertainers to take on friend and foe alike, made a name for himself with audiences as the ultimate insult comedian. He was quick to turn the tables on the hecklers that had bedeviled him early in his career and was always ready with a withering put-down.
Rickles is, perhaps, the only man who ever made fun of Frank Sinatra to his face for his mob ties and propensity to hotheaded acts of violence. “Make yourself comfortable, Frank—hit somebody,” he said to Sinatra when he wandered in late to the then-unknown comedian’s set at Murray Franklin’s in Miami Beach in the 1950s. “Frank, believe me, I’m telling you this as a friend: Your voice is gone.”
Rickles, who was known by fans and fellow comedians alike as “Mr. Warmth,” walked away unscathed. His career catapulted into the stratosphere.
In real life, however, the sobriquet wasn’t sarcastic. Born in Queens on May 8, 1926, Rickles was a devoted family man, who lived with his mother—he referred to her repeatedly in his nightclub act as “the Jewish Patton”—until his marriage at age 38, which lasted until his death. He was greatly adored by his many friends; he was an honorary member of the Rat Pack, not being decadent or hard-drinking or unfaithful enough to truly join their ranks. His influence was great. Contemporaries like Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, and Sidney Poitier are all interviewed in the John Landis documentary Mr. Warmth, which pays homage to Rickles’s persona and career. He was also a generous mentor to countless younger comedians whose careers and comedy were influenced by his: David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Louis C.K. and Chris Rock, just to name a few.
By the end of his career, Rickles was perhaps best known to young audiences as the voice of “Mr. Potato Head” in the Toy Story franchise—curmudgeonly but lovable. He was the kind of guy who, in the words of San Francisco Gate critic David Wiegand, comparing Rickles’s form of audience harassment (“Who picked out your clothes, Ray Charles?”) to the infamous and racially inflammatory onstage outburst of Seinfeld star Michael Richards, which virtually destroyed the latter’s career: “When Richards lost it at the comedy club, he was spewing pure hate. Rickles wouldn’t know hate if it bit him in the butt.”
And that, in a nutshell, is how Rickles got away with it all these years, speaking the truth—or insult, depending on how you see it—without it ever coming back to haunt him. Because no matter how mercilessly he was mocking a powerful celebrity or a badly-dressed audience member or even a minority group, and long after political correctness began to exact its demands on comedy, his essential decency was apparent for all to see. In Rickles’s work, respect had to be earned, but respect didn’t equal reverence, and reverence certainly didn’t equal love. Love meant being seen, not revered. Rickles saw people, fans and peers alike, and knew that all anyone would want a little attention, even if it’s to their tie or their gut or the tackiness of their wife’s jewelry. So he gave it to them. And in doing so, he made the world a fairer—and funnier—place.