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Don Rickles: 1926-2017
April 6, 2017  | By David Bianculli  | 6 comments

Don Rickles has died, at age 90 – leaving behind a legacy of some hilarious TV clips from the 1960s and beyond. With Rickles, there are more personal elements as well: I remember fondly my Fresh Air interview with him in 2007, and Eric Gould, one of our TVWW editors, owes his very life to Don Rickles…

Rickles, when not on stage, was what in his rat Pack era would have been called a “pussycat” – a truly sweet man, who adored the memory of his mother, was intensely loyal to friends (I wasn’t one of them, but knew some, including late-night TV executive producer Peter Lassally), and was well aware of the delight he could stoke in others merely by throwing an insult their way.

I was not immune to his charms, or the thrill of being insulted by him. In 2007, when he finally came out with his memoir, Rickles’ Book, I interviewed him for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He began with my all-time favorite Rickles anecdote, the time he insulted Frank Sinatra in front of his date, whom he later married. And at one point, he insulted me, using my last name like a club, in a way only the great Mel Brooks has approximated.

You can hear the full Fresh Air interview by clicking here.

In the movies, my favorite Don Rickles performance came in the 1970 WWII movie Kelly’s Heroes, when he found himself co-starring, improbably but impeccably, with Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, and Donald Sutherland. (Find it; you’ll love it.)

My favorite TV moments from Rickles – they sure weren’t anything from his military series, C.P.O. Sharkey – were twofold. One was from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the night Johnny returned to work after Rickles had stood in for him. Carson discovered that his cigarette box on his desk was broken, and took the Tonight cameras on an impromptu search to hunt down and confront Rickles, who was shooting his C.P.O. Sharkey sitcom on an adjacent soundstage. Our associate editor, Eric Gould, has isolated and highlighted that very piece in the current Video Worth Watching, so watch and enjoy.

The other TV moments came during the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, available on Amazon as both a six-DVD set and a massive 24-DVD Complete Collection.

In both of them, you’ll get lots and lots of Don Rickles – and when I was interviewed about these specials, for the DVD extras and (to my surprise) the ubiquitous late-night TV ads for the DVDs themselves, I singled out Rickles as an obvious highlight. What he had the audacity to say then, in the 1970s, was, and is, very funny. Watching the celebrities on the dais crack up as he verbally lashed out at them was, and is, even funnier.

Finally, one super-personal note. The aforementioned Eric Gould claims he owes his life – his very existence – to Don Rickles, who many, many years ago was a friend, separately, of both of Eric’s parents. Rickles, in fact, introduced them. They hit it off, got married, and had two sons, one of whom was Eric.

So if not for Don Rickles, TV Worth Watching would not exist in this form, and most likely not at all, because Eric designed it at the start, has redesigned it ever since, and has written for it, and edited it, throughout. One more thing to thank Don Rickles for…

The main thing, though, is for making us laugh, and for insisting that, through laughing at our differences, we might actually end up getting a bit closer. It was a novel and valuable approach then, and still has value now.

Thanks, Mr. Warmth. Truly.

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Apr 28, 2022   |  Reply
Bridget Barry
Just a few days ago, I watched an old Friar’s Club roast of Don Rickles (from early 70’s I think) that I’d recorded off Get TV or somewhere a while back. It wasn’t the greatest Rickles I’ve ever seen, but I’m glad I got around to watching it when I did, considering that he passed this week. Enjoyed your post, learning what a pivotal role he played in the very existence of TVWW, and the Fresh Air interview. Laughing at our differences, in a warm-hearted way … boy, could we use a load of that now.
Apr 7, 2017   |  Reply
Sean Dougherty
Those Roasts aged horribly - except for Rickles. I bought a few at a Nostalgia convention a few years ago and was surprised how unentertaining they were until Rickles got up. I don't think I ever saw a clip or performance of him that wasn't really great. I saw him perform live at a festival in Maine in the mid-2000s and he was spectacular even then, do full dance routines at 78 and calling audience members up on the stage to perform with him.
Apr 7, 2017
Steve Sheppard
Whenever Don Rickles was introduced, you knew you were in for a good time. Whether on one of his more than 100 appearances on the Tonight Show, or on a celebrity roast, he could always be counted on for multiple laugh-out-loud moments. Great article, David!
Apr 7, 2017   |  Reply
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