Don Rickles: The Kindest ‘Merchant of Venom’
There should be a verb named after Don Rickles. Just imagine having been rickled (a cross between “heckled” and “tickled”) by “Mr. Warmth,” the impudent master of outrageous insult humor.
Take it from friend and fan Jerry Seinfeld: “To be insulted by Don is a badge of honor,” he said during a 2014 tribute on Spike TV. “What he does takes the three T’s: timing, talent and testicles.” Rickles’ ballsy comeback to such praise? “Jerry Seinfeld, he’s a wonderful guy. And you talk to him, it’s like being alone.”
Boom! And bravo. The comedian and actor, who died Thursday of kidney failure at 90, never met a man, or woman, or ethnicity, he couldn’t mock or rib with sardonic glee. His targets, whether as famous as Frank Sinatra (“Come right in, Frankie, make yourself at home. Hit somebody!”) or just willing, ringside bystanders at his nightclub and concert performances, took his barbs willingly, never seriously. The real Rickles, by all accounts, was a sweetheart.
“He was called ‘The Merchant of Venom,’ but in truth, he was one of the kindest, caring and most sensitive human beings we have ever known,” said best friend Bob Newhart in a statement with wife Ginnie. “He’s a hell of a nice guy, and basically kind of shy,” insisted Johnny Carson, on whose Tonight Show he appeared scores of times, securing a TV fame he could never duplicate in several short-lived series. “The more Rickles loves you, the more he insults you,” declared Dean Martin, on whose celebrity TV roasts Rickles found another popular platform for his pugnacious humor.
“They say I insult. I never see it that way,” Rickles told TV Guide Magazine in a 1968 interview. “I see it as making fun of ourselves, of life, of all of us.”
A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Rickles appeared in small parts in movies before finding his niche in stand-up comedy. Later in life, he received good notices as a casino boss in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 Casino and gained a new generation of fans as the cranky voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movies and TV specials.
“This is the job that won’t quit!” he crowed to TV Guide Magazine in 2013. “But hey, at least my grandchildren finally know what I do for a living.”