Don Rickles

Donald Jay Rickles (May 8, 1926 – April 6, 2017) was an American stand-up comedian, actor, and author. He became known especially for his insult comedy. His film roles include Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) with Clark Gable, Carl Reiner's Enter Laughing (1967), Clint Eastwood's Kelly's Heroes (1970), and Martin Scorsese's Casino (1995) with Robert De Niro. From 1976 to 1978, Rickles had a two-season starring role in the NBC television sitcom C.P.O. Sharkey, having previously starred in the eponymous sitcom The Don Rickles Show (1972).

Don Rickles
Don Rickles 1.jpg
Rickles in 2010
Born(1926-05-08)May 8, 1926
Queens, New York, U.S.
DiedApril 6, 2017(2017-04-06) (aged 90)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Resting placeMount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery
  • Stand-up
  • film
  • television
  • books
Years active1955–2017
Barbara Sklar
(m. 1965)
Children2, including Larry Rickles

A veteran headline performer at Las Vegas hotel-casinos and peripheral member of the Rat Pack via friendship with Frank Sinatra,[1] Rickles received widespread exposure as a frequent guest on talk and variety shows, including The Dean Martin Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Show with David Letterman, and later voicing Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story franchise. He won a Primetime Emmy Award for the 2007 documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project. In 2014, he was honored by fellow comedians at the Apollo Theater which was taped and released on Spike TV entitled, Don Rickles: One Night Only.

Early lifeEdit

Rickles was born in Queens, New York,[2] on May 8, 1926.[3] He was Jewish.[4] His father Max Rickles (1897–1953) emigrated in 1903 with his Lithuanian parents from Kaunas[5] (then in the Russian Empire); his mother Etta Rickles (née Feldman; 1898–1984) was born in New York City to Austrian immigrant parents.[6][7] Rickles grew up in Jackson Heights.[3]

After graduating from Newtown High School in 1944,[8] he enlisted in the United States Navy and served during World War II on the motor torpedo boat tender USS Cyrene as a seaman first class. He was honorably discharged in 1946.[9][10] Two years later, intending to be a dramatic actor, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and then played bit parts on television. Frustrated by a lack of acting work, Rickles began performing comedy in clubs in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. He became known as an insult comedian when he responded to his hecklers. The audience enjoyed these insults more than his prepared material, so he incorporated them into his act.[11]

When he began his career in the early 1950s, Rickles started to call ill-mannered members of the audience "hockey pucks".[12] His style was similar to that of an older insult comic Jack E. Leonard, though Rickles denied Leonard influenced his style.[13] During an interview on Larry King Live, Rickles credited Milton Berle's comedy style for inspiring him to enter show business.[14]



While working in the "Murray Franklin's" nightclub in Miami Beach, Florida, early in his career, Rickles spotted Frank Sinatra and remarked to him, "I just saw your movie The Pride and the Passion and I want to tell you, the cannon's acting was great." He added, "Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody!"[3][15] Sinatra, whose pet name for Rickles was "bullet-head", enjoyed him so much that he encouraged other celebrities to see Rickles' act and be insulted by him. Sinatra's support helped Rickles become a popular headline performer in Las Vegas.[15][16] During a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast special, Rickles was among those who took part in roasting Sinatra,[17] and Rickles himself was also roasted during another show in the series.[18]

Rickles earned the nicknames "The Merchant of Venom" and "Mr. Warmth"[11][19] for his poking fun at people of all ethnicities and all walks of life. When he was introduced to an audience or on a television talk show, Spanish matador music, "La Virgen de la Macarena", would usually be played, subtly foreshadowing someone was about to be metaphorically gored. As Rickles observed, "I always pictured myself facing the audience as the matador."[13]

In 1958, he made his film debut in a serious part in Run Silent, Run Deep with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster.[19] Throughout the 1960s, he often appeared on television in sitcoms and dramatic series. Rickles guest-starred in Get Smart as Sid, an old war buddy of Max's, who comes to stay with him. In an episode of Run for Your Life, Rickles portrayed a distressed comedian whose act culminates when he strangles a patron while imploring the patron to "Laugh!" Rickles took a dramatic turn in the low-budget Roger Corman science-fiction/horror film X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes as a carnival barker out to exploit the title character (portrayed by Ray Milland).[20]

Rickles and Lorne Greene on The Don Rickles Show in 1968

Rickles appeared in the Beach Party film series. He recalled in his 2007 memoir that at a White House dinner, Barbara Bush teased him about his decision to appear in those films.[21] Rickles' agent Jack Gilardi was married to Annette Funicello when Rickles was cast in the Beach Party films. He subsequently began to appear more frequently on television talk shows, first appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1965.[11]

He became a frequent guest and guest host, appearing more than 100 times on The Tonight Show during Carson's era. An early Carson–Rickles Tonight highlight occurred in 1968 when, while two Japanese women treated Carson to a bath and foot massage, Rickles walked onto the set.[22] He also made frequent appearances on The Dean Martin Show and became a fixture on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast specials.[19]

In 1968, Rickles released a live comedy album titled Hello, Dummy!, which reached number 54 on the Billboard 200 album chart.[23] The same year, he starred in his own variety show on ABC, The Don Rickles Show, with comedy writer Pat McCormick as his sidekick; the show lasted one season. During the 1960s, Rickles made guest appearances on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Munsters, The Addams Family, The Mothers-in-Law, Gilligan's Island, Get Smart, The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, and I Dream of Jeannie.


Rickles and Louise Sorel on The Don Rickles Show

In 1970, Rickles had a notable role as Crapgame in Kelly's Heroes, sharing the marquee poster with co-stars Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, and Carroll O'Connor. In 1972, he starred in The Don Rickles Show, which lasted for 13 episodes.[24] He also starred in a series of television specials. In his memoirs, Rickles acknowledged a scripted sitcom was not well-suited to his ad lib style of performing,[25] as he had earlier said that he never writes down his jokes.[26]

Starting in 1973, he became a popular dais comedian appearing on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast specials. In 1976–1978, he starred in C.P.O. Sharkey, which lasted two seasons.[25] The series is remembered for the cigarette box incident when Johnny Carson made an impromptu visit to the adjacent TV studio, during an episode's taping feigning "incensed" ire that Rickles broke his wooden cigarette box, on the previous night's show, while Bob Newhart was guest hosting The Tonight Show. The incident was often replayed in Tonight Show retrospectives and was considered a highlight of the 1970s era of the series.[27]

Rickles occasionally appeared as a panelist on Hollywood Squares and was depicted in comic-book form by Jack Kirby during his work on the Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen series (part of Jack Kirby's Fourth World).[28][29][30]


In the early 1980s, Rickles began to perform with Steve Lawrence in concerts in Las Vegas. In 1983, the duo co-hosted Foul-Ups, Bleeps & Blunders, an imitation of TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes. In 1985, when Frank Sinatra was asked to perform at Ronald Reagan's second inaugural ball, he insisted Rickles be allowed to perform and do it unrehearsed.[31][32] Rickles considered this performance the highlight of his career.[33]

In 1990, he appeared in the second-season episode of Tales from the Crypt titled "The Ventriloquist's Dummy". In 1992, he was cast in Innocent Blood, directed by John Landis. In his memoir, Rickles wrote that he recalled Landis was a "production assistant" to Brian G. Hutton during the filming of Kelly's Heroes. During the filming of Innocent Blood, Rickles would kid Landis by ordering him to get coffee or to run other errands befitting his one-time "gofer" status.

In 1993, Rickles starred in another short-lived sitcom titled Daddy Dearest, with Richard Lewis. In 1995, he portrayed Billy Sherbert in Casino and voiced Mr. Potato Head in the Disney film Toy Story; he reprised the latter role in the 1999 sequel Toy Story 2.[34] Rickles starred as George Wilson in 1998's Dennis the Menace Strikes Again; that same year, he portrayed a film theater manager in Dirty Work and voiced Cornwall, one of the heads of a two-headed dragon, in Quest for Camelot.


Rickles made a cameo appearance as himself in a recurring dream sequence in "Sub Conscious", an episode of The Unit, which aired in February 2007.[35]

Rickles performing in 2008

A memoir titled Rickles' Book was released on his birthday on May 8, 2007, by Simon & Schuster. Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, a documentary about Rickles directed by John Landis, made its debut on HBO on December 2, 2007. Rickles won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, besting a number of notable comics, including David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. Rickles remarked, "Stephen Colbert's a funny man, but he's too young. He has got plenty of time to win awards, but this may be my last year and I think that I made it count. On second thought, it was probably just a mercy award for an old man."[36] Rickles reprised his role of Mr. Potato Head for the Toy Story Midway Mania! attraction at Disney California Adventure Park, for Disney's Hollywood Studios[37] and in the 2010 film Toy Story 3. He was reportedly slated to reprise his role in Toy Story 4, but died before recording any dialogue. With permission from Rickles' family, Josh Cooley used hitherto unused archive recordings of Rickles for the 2019 film to honor him.

In 2009, Rickles appeared on Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List and met Griffin's mother Maggie to fulfill one item on Maggie's "bucket list". In 2010, he appeared in a commercial during Super Bowl XLIV as a talking rose, and appeared on the 37th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards on CBS TV on June 27, 2010. In 2011, Rickles reunited with his Casino co-star Joe Pesci in a Snickers advertisement highlighting the actors known for their "short fuses."[38] Rickles also portrayed the late husband of Elka (Betty White) on Hot in Cleveland— a "surprise" because his character was thought to be dead.[39]

On May 28, 2014, Rickles was honored by Spike TV's "One Night Only: An All-Star Comedy Tribute to Don Rickles". Recorded live at New York City's Apollo Theater, Jerry Seinfeld was the master of ceremonies for the two-hour special, with live monologues by Johnny Depp, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Tracy Morgan, Brian Williams, Regis Philbin, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey. Recorded segments included bits from Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Jimmy Kimmel, and Eddie Murphy.[40]

The camaraderie and the comedy made the show a cross between a traditional roast and a dignified lifetime achievement award, spanning emotions ranging from admiration and gratitude to, well, degradation. And as the evening reached its climax, when Rickles got his say after all that had said about him and his nearly 60-year-long career, fittingly, he had the last laugh. – TV Week[41]

He was still a frequent guest on late night talk shows, including Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, among others, during the later months of his life. On May 11, 2015, Rickles appeared as a guest on one of the final episodes of The Late Show with David Letterman. He also made a cameo appearance in Grandfathered.[42]

In a 2014 interview, Rickles dismissed thoughts of retiring, stating:

I'm in good health. I'm working better than I ever have. The audiences are great. Why should I retire? I'm like a fighter. The bell rings and you come out and fight. My energy comes alive. And I still enjoy it.[43]

Until his death in 2017, despite being impeded by multiple surgeries following a bout with necrotizing fasciitis in 2013, Rickles continued touring across the United States.[10]

Personal lifeEdit

On March 14, 1965, Rickles married Barbara Sklar of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He admitted having a very difficult time romantically in his 20s and 30s, finally meeting Sklar through his agent when he was 38 years old and falling for her when she failed to get his sense of humor.[44][45] They had two children: Mindy Rickles and Larry Rickles.[46] According to Rickles' memoir, his grandchildren Ethan and Harrison Mann are much more impressed by his role as Mr. Potato Head than by any of his other achievements. Barbara Rickles died from non-Hodgkin lymphoma on March 14, 2021, exactly 56 years after the couple were married.[47]

Rickles befriended mobster "Crazy" Joe Gallo following a performance at the Copacabana in 1972. Gallo, whom Rickles had ribbed mercilessly during his set, despite being warned not to do so, accepted Rickles' ribbings in good humor and invited him to Umberto's Clam House after the show. Rickles declined the offer. That night, a gunfight erupted at Umberto's, killing Gallo.[48]

Rickles performed at the inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush with his friend Frank Sinatra,[49] although Rickles himself was a "lifelong" Democrat.[50]

He considered Bob Newhart his best friend, and the two often vacationed together along with their wives, who were also close.[51] Rickles and Newhart appeared together on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on January 24, 2005, the Monday following Johnny Carson's death, reminiscing about their many guest appearances on Carson's show. The two also appeared together on the television sitcom Newhart and for previous episodes of The Tonight Show, where Newhart or Rickles were guest hosts.


On April 6, 2017, several media outlets reported that Rickles died of kidney failure at the age of 90 at his home in Los Angeles,[52] a month before his 91st birthday. Rickles was interred at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery.[53]


In 2014, a number of stars helped celebrate Rickles' 88th birthday with a televised special titled One Night Only: An All Star Tribute to Don Rickles.[54] Those giving tributes included David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Nathan Lane, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Tracy Morgan, Johnny Depp, Brian Williams, and Regis Philbin. Also participating in taped appearances were Bob Newhart, Eddie Murphy, Jimmy Kimmel, and Bill Cosby.[55] Seinfeld described him as a part of the "Mount Rushmore of Stand-up Comedy" with George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Cosby.[56]

Upon hearing of Rickles' death, a number of television hosts paid tribute to his comedic talents, with Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and David Letterman among them.[57] Barbra Streisand, Tom Hanks, Billy Crystal, Mel Brooks, Tim Allen, John Lasseter, Whoopi Goldberg, Ron Howard, Chris Rock, Patton Oswalt, Jim Carrey, and Ricky Gervais all paid their respects on Twitter.[58]

Bob Newhart said in a statement: "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. We are devastated, and our world will never be the same. We were totally unprepared for this."[59]

Martin Scorsese, who directed him in Casino in 1995, stated: "Don Rickles was a giant, a legend … and I can hear his voice now, skewering me for being so lofty. I had the honor of working with him on my picture Casino. He was a professional. He kept me doubled over with laughter every day on the set—yet he was a complete pro. We became friends over the years, and I had the honor of being roasted by him more than once — sometimes when I didn’t expect it. He just started showing up at places and insulting me. Experiencing Don, and tuning into his mind, I witnessed the evolution of his comedy. It was like listening to a great jazz musician wail. Nobody else did what he did. He made comedy into an art form. And like all geniuses, comic or otherwise, he’s irreplaceable. He was much loved. I’m really missing this man."[60]

At the 90th Academy Awards, The Academy honored Rickles in their annual in Memoriam segment.[61] The film Toy Story 4 was dedicated to his memory, as well as animator Adam Burke.[62]




  • Rickles, Don; Ritz, David (2007). Rickles' Book: A Memoir. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-9305-1.
  • Rickles, Don; Ritz, David (2008). Rickles' Letters. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4165-9663-9.

Awards and nominationsEdit

Year Award Category Work Result Ref.
2000 Hollywood Walk of Fame N/A Lifetime Achievement Won [63]
2008 Primetime Emmy Award Individual Performance in a Variety Program Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project Won [64]
2009 TV Land Award Legend Award Lifetime Achievement Won [65]
2012 The Comedy Awards The Johnny Carson Award Lifetime Achievement Won [66]
2013 New York Friars Club Lifetime Achievement Award N/A Won [67]


  1. ^ Rickles, Don and David Ritz (2007). Rickles' Book: A Memoir. Simon & Schuster. p. 91 ISBN 978-0-7432-9305-1.
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  3. ^ a b c Witchel, Alex. " I'm No Howard Stern, You Dummy", The New York Times, August 25, 1996. Retrieved October 8, 2007.
  4. ^ April 6, 2017, Haaretz, "Jewish Comedian Don Rickles, Master Insult Comic, Dies Aged 90"
  5. ^ World War I draft registration, NY City, #31-9-149-B, Max S. Rickles, born August 12, 1897, in Kovna (Kaunas), Russia
  6. ^ US Census, 1930. Queens, New York, Supervisor's District 33, sheet 6A, family No. 136
  7. ^ US Census, 1920. NY City, Enumerationer's district 1508, Sheet 33A, family No. 138
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  9. ^ Jones, Chris (April 6, 2017), Don Rickles, WWII Vet & Comedian, Dies At 90, American Military News, retrieved October 27, 2020
  10. ^ a b Heller, Karen (May 26, 2016). "90 Years Old and Still Zinging". The Washington Post. pp. C1–C2. Retrieved June 4, 2016.
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  12. ^ The Tonight Show with Jay Leno April 15, 2009
  13. ^ a b MacPherson, Guy (October 6, 2006). "Don Rickles Interview". The Comedy Couch. Retrieved May 17, 2007.
  14. ^ Don Rickles on Larry King Show, 1985
  15. ^ a b "Biography". The Hockey Puck. Retrieved May 17, 2007.
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  19. ^ a b c King, Susan (June 24, 2013). "Don Rickles to be honored for busting people's chops". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 20, 2016.
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  22. ^ Video on YouTube
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  24. ^ Bob Leszczak (2012), "The Don Rickles Show", Single Season Sitcoms, 1948–1979, McFarland, p. 38, ISBN 9780786493050
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  26. ^ Rickles, Don (October 13, 1967). "From the Archives: A 1967 interview with Don Rickles, the ever-busy insult comic who never writes anything down". Los Angeles Times (Interview). Interviewed by Don Page.
  27. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (May 15, 2015). "Don Rickles Recalls His 'CPO Sharkey' Days". The New York Times. Retrieved April 6, 2017.
  28. ^ McAvennie, Michael; Dolan, Hannah, ed. (2010). "1970s". DC Comics Year By Year A Visual Chronicle. Dorling Kindersley. p. 146. ISBN 978-0-7566-6742-9. In one of Jack Kirby's strangest tales, Jimmy Olsen met real-world funnyman Don Rickles' costumed likeness, 'Goody' Rickles.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  29. ^ Kirby, Jack (w), Kirby, Jack (p), Colletta, Vince (i). "The Guardian Fights Again!!!" Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen 139 (July 1971)
  30. ^ Kirby, Jack (w), Kirby, Jack (p), Colletta, Vince (i). "Will The Real Don Rickles Panic?!?" Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen 141 (September 1971)
  31. ^ "Don Rickles discussing Reagan inaugural performance". December 25, 2016. Retrieved April 10, 2017 – via YouTube.
  32. ^ "Don Rickles performing at Ronald Reagan's 2nd inaugural". March 5, 2011. Retrieved April 10, 2017 – via YouTube.
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  35. ^ "The Unit – Season 2, Episode 13: Sub Conscious". Retrieved May 19, 2015.
  36. ^ "Gold Derby". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 19, 2015.
  37. ^ Barnes, Brooke (February 10, 2008). "Will Disney Keep Us Amused?". The New York Times. Retrieved March 18, 2008.
  38. ^ "Joe Pesci and Don Rickles Join the Snickers "Party"". The Ad Buzz. May 18, 2011. Archived from the original on July 20, 2012. Retrieved May 11, 2012.
  39. ^ "Don Rickles shows up as Elka's husband in 'Hot in Cleveland' season finale". Retrieved April 6, 2017.
  40. ^ Kaplan, Don (May 27, 2014). "Don Rickles and guest-star roasters like Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey trade shots". Daily News. New York. Retrieved October 20, 2016.
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  42. ^ Weigle, Lauren (September 29, 2015). "'Grandfathered' Cast On FOX With John Stamos as Jimmy". Retrieved April 6, 2017.
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  47. ^ "Barbara Rickles, Comedian's Wife and Target, Dies at 84". The New York Times. Associated Press. March 17, 2021. Retrieved March 20, 2021.
  48. ^ Paul, Don (June 28, 2017). "From Thugs to Thunderstorms: the Don Paul story". The Buffalo News. Retrieved June 28, 2017.
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  52. ^ Schudel, Matt (April 6, 2017). "Don Rickles, lightning-fast launcher of comic insults, dies at 90". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 6, 2017.
  53. ^ "Don Rickles Death Certificate, Kidney Disease Proved Fatal".
  54. ^ "Highlights from One Night Only: An All-Star Tribute to Don Rickles", The Comic's Comic, May 28, 2014
  55. ^ "DON RICKLES – One Night Only: An All Star Comedy Tribute (2014)". April 6, 2017 – via YouTube.
  56. ^ "Jerry Seinfeld tribute to Don Rickles", for his 88th birthday
  57. ^ Konerman, Jennifer (April 6, 2017). "Late-Night Hosts Remember the 'Funny, Sharp and Generous' Don Rickles". The Hollywood Reporter.
  58. ^ Ahern, Sarah (April 6, 2017). "Bob Newhart, Tom Hanks, Other Stars Remember Don Rickles: 'A God Died Today'". Variety.
  59. ^ "Hollywood Pays Tribute to Don Rickles". The Hollywood Reporter. April 6, 2017.
  60. ^ "Martin Scorsese pays tribute to Don Rickles: 'He made comedy into an art form'", Entertainment Weekly, April 6, 2017
  61. ^ Seemayer, Zach (March 4, 2018). "Oscars' 'In Memoriam' Honors Roger Moore, Don Rickles and Other Hollywood Icons – But Who Got Snubbed?". ET Online. CBS Television Distribution. CBS Studios Inc. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  62. ^ Snetiker, Marc (March 28, 2019). "Here's how Toy Story 4 will honor the late Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head". Entertainment Weekly. Meredith Corporation. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
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Further readingEdit

External linksEdit