image
Don Rickles with his Primetime Emmy in 2008 for “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.”

Don Rickles is frequently described as an “insult” comedian, and he’s earned the title.

In front of an audience, he said to Frank Sinatra, “Frank, believe me, I’m telling you this as a friend. Your voice is gone.”

He said to old-time comedian Milton Berle, “It’s over.”

To Gene Kelly, “Enough with the rain. I’ll buy you an umbrella.”

To Red Skelton, “Get your face fixed.”

To Jimmy Durante, “Take off your hat, Jimmy. It’s not a Jewish holiday.”

At a roast, he said to Jerry Lewis, “You annoy me.”

To a member of his audience, he said, “Is your wife Chinese? No? Then you should have her eyes taken care of.”

To a Chinese man, sitting up front, “There are 40 million Jews here in Los Angeles; how did YOU get such a good seat?”

After a scant few minutes into my own phone interview with him the other day, he barked: “THAT’S IT!” (He was, fortunately, kidding.)

A few minutes later, he asked, “Are you Jewish?” Hearing an affirmative answer, he said, “Then let’s each of us daven, then hang up the phone.”

Actually, Rickles, who is 87, is far more than just an insult comedian. He’s also a fine actor. He graduated from the renowned American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he ogled Grace Kelly. (If he had gotten close with her, he has said, today he might be a prince.)

Besides which, when he’s not insulting people, he’s charming them. He’s a veritable Mr. Hyde and Dr. Jekyll. He’s adept at making and keeping friends – which helps account for his success. (Sinatra helped spread his fame and get him bookings.) His best friend, he says, is another comedian, Bob Newhart.

Rickles’ insults will certainly be on display when he appears at bergenPAC on June 20, and tickets are still available. Naturally, any members of the audience whom he insults will typically boast about it, as if it were a badge of honor. (He’ll also perform in Newark on Oct. 17.)

Actually, Rickles doesn’t particularly like being called an insult comedian. He just exaggerates, he explains. He prefers the title “Mr. Warmth,” which Johnny Carson once pinned on him. Sarcastically.

A nagging question is: Why, despite his insults, is he so well liked? He even has a fan club: Check out www.thehockeypuck.com. (The website got that name because Rickles calls offensive members of the audience hockey pucks, and claims not to remember why. But it may be Cockney rhyming slang – where, for instance, “storm and strife” means “wife.” )

One explanation for his success is that he readily apologizes for his offenses – and we remember that he’s also Dr. Jekyll. Everyone knows he’s not serious. Whoopi Goldberg believes that’s why he has no imitators.

Another explanation: Most of us work hard at not offending anyone, at not saying the wrong thing to the wrong people. (I once heard a man say pleasantly to a zaftig young woman, “Are you pregnant?” Her frosty reply: “No, just fat.”)

It’s shocking to hear someone say something offensive to another person, especially to a celebrity – but it’s exciting, too, and there’s relief in realizing that it’s just fun, that there won’t be nasty consequences. Someone once said that part of the pleasure of reading a murder mystery is recognizing that a terrible crime has been committed – and you definitely did not do it.

And while insults are Rickles’ shtick, he’s also played in such film non-classics as “Muscle Beach Party” and “Beach Blanket Bingo,” along with more reputable films like “The Man With X-Ray Eyes” (with Ray Milland), “Kelly’s Heroes” (with Clint Eastwood), and “Run Silent, Run Deep” (with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster). He’s also been the voice of Mr. Potato Head in “Toy Story.” And he’s appeared on many TV shows, from “I Love Lucy” to “Gilligan’s Island” – and more than 100 times on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. He even had his own TV shows. (Briefly.) And co-wrote a book (“Rickles’ Book”). And appeared in two documentaries. A busy man, a versatile man.

He actually never was a full-fledged member of the notorious Rat Pack, the way Sinatra, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford were, but he’s identified with it. And when the Metropolitan Opera recently put on a modernized version of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” with its portrayal of the Rat Pack, everyone identified the foul-tongued Rigoletto with Rickles. (Wrote a critic in Classical Music Guide, “You know, I never minded Rickles that much – actually found him funny sometimes – still he has no place in Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto.'”)

Born in Queens, with the name Rikhters, Rickles served in the Navy in World War II. He decided to become an entertainer, but “I had a tough time – I had no other jobs – so I reached out to comedy.” He started performing in rather seedy spots – including a place called the Top Hat, at $25 a night. At a dive in Passaic, he told one customer that his wife looked like a moose – and got laughs. He had found his niche.

A big break came when he was called on to substitute in Beverly Hills for a comedian considered offensive: Lenny Bruce. “They hired me, Mr. Good Taste, to replace Lenny Bruce,” he says with amusement.

It helped that he had a facility for making friends. Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, Jason Robards, Larry King, Judy Garland, Regis Philbin, and so forth.

During our recent brief phone interview, Rickles answered the stock question – why have there been so many Jewish comedians? – this way:

“I don’t know. A lot has to do with the struggle for jobs. In those days, you had no other jobs.”

Who are his own favorite comedians?

“Could you talk a little louder, Warren?,” he asked courteously, then answered, “Off the top of my head, Bob Newhart. Today there’s a lot of talent out there, and I wouldn’t want to go out on a limb.”

What did he think of Lenny Bruce?

“I knew Lenny Bruce – and admired him for what he did.”

Is there a difference between audiences? Those on the West Coast versus the East Coast, say?

“I don’t know. Funny is funny.”

What was the best advice he ever received?

“Get a job. My father said that.”

What advice would he himself give young people?

“You have to believe in what you do.”

Today Rickles is rich and happy, living in Los Angeles with the woman he married 45 years ago, Barbara Sklar, and still performing all over the country.

He has never played down his Jewishness.

One of his sons became a bar mitzvah at the Wall in Israel.

In his book, he writes that the Newharts invite him and his wife over every Christmas eve. “Once in a while, Bob has a serious moment and says to me, ‘Don, you really enjoy Christmas, don’t you?’

“Sure I do,” Rickles answers. “One of our guys started it.”

He also writes that on the day of his wedding the phone rang at 4 a.m. in his hotel room in New York City. It was Cantor Yavne, from his childhood synagogue in Jackson Heights, who was to sing at the wedding in a few hours. He wanted Rickles and his cousin to meet him downstairs in a half-hour.

The cantor proceeded to drive Rickles and his cousin to the cemetery in Long Island where Rickles’ father was buried. “The cantor put on his white robe and prayer shawl,” Rickles said. “In the still of the morning, standing over my dear father’s grave, he sang the Hebrew prayer for the dead. He wailed; he sang with such tender feeling and heartfelt anguish that I felt the presence of God Almighty in every fiber of my being. Afterward, we recited the Kaddish, the Jewish mourners’ prayer, our words melting the morning fog to tears.

“Before we left, the cantor sang a prayer in Hebrew, inviting Dad to my wedding. Then he finished by saying, ‘May your soul be with us forever.'”

What’s the funniest joke he tells? This might be it:

Years ago, he was with a gorgeous date at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Frank Sinatra and his crowd were seated across the room. Rickles boasted to his date that he knew Frank. She was properly skeptical.

So he went over to Sinatra and entreated him to come to his table and impress his date just by saying, “Hello, Don.”

Sinatra agreed.

Ten minutes later, Sinatra got up, walked over to Rickles’ table, and said, with a big smile, “Don, how the hell are you?”

Rickles waited a moment, then turned to Sinatra and said in his loudest voice, “NOT NOW, FRANK – CAN’T YOU SEE I’M WITH SOMEBODY?”

Sinatra fell down laughing.