R.I.P. Don Rickles (1926-2017)

Don Rickles, the legendary comedian and actor who could roast President Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra and just about everyone else, has died. Rickles was 90.

Rickles died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles from kidney failure, his publicist confirmed.

He hadn’t stopped performing even in old age. Just a couple of weeks ago, AARP had announced Rickles would star in his own sit-down interview series for their new digital platform. No word if any of the segments for “Dinner With Don” already had been produced.

But Rickles, a quick wit and master of insults for decades, entertained audiences in the 1960s and 1970s via Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, then into the 1980s through the 2010s via late-night visits with Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel.

Rickles and his wife, Barbara, were lifelong best couple friends with Bob Newhart and his wife, Ginnie.

“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,” the Newharts said in a statement. “We are devastated, and our world will never be the same. We were totally unprepared for this.”

SPIKE TV paid tribute to Rickles three years ago for his 88th birthday, which I covered in person at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He also hosted a Gala later in 2014 at Just For Laughs Montreal:

John Landis directed a documentary about Rickles for HBO in 2007, Mr. Warmth, which I recently took another look at for my friends at Decider.

Here was an excerpt from that review:

We’re so used to seeing insults today in so many forms. Freestyle rap. Yo momma jokes. Mean Tweets. You have to transport yourself to an earlier age, when people didn’t talk about political correctness because people merely lived it. You spoke one way in private and another in public, and only the rare individual crossed those boundaries.

Today you see comedy club customers specifically request seats away from the front row out of fear that the stand-ups will pick on them. With Rickles, the opposite has proven true over five decades. Carl Reiner remembered the early days, when Rickles caught a huge break working The Slate Brothers nightclub in Los Angeles replacing Lenny Bruce, and every actor and celebrity came in hoping Rickles would notice them and thereby legitimize them in Hollywood. Johnny Carson would invite him on The Tonight Show countless times, always introducing him with a put-down to get the hijinx rolling immediately. Even Ronald Reagan asked for the Rickles treatment at his second presidential inauguration in 1985.

Sidney Poitier saw him at an early club show and recalled: “He was what he is today. He was explosive. He was impactful. He was funny. I mean, outrageously funny.”

Martin Scorsese, who directed Rickles in 1995’s Casino, fell into uncontrollable giggle fits just trying to recount bits of Rickles from decades earlier.

For more of my thoughts and reflections on the life and comedy of Don Rickles, please read my Humor In Hindsight column on him that ran in December on Decider.com.

Rest in Peace, Don Rickles.


Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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