Before there was Bianca Del Rio, there was Don Rickles, the “takedown king” whose nearly ubiquitous reign over stage and television lasted 60+ years and earned him the sarcastic nickname “Mr Warmth.”
For those of us “of a certain age” – we grew up watching Rickles on EVERY television show EVER: Twilight Zone, The Munsters, the Addams Family, Dick Van Dyke, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, Gomer Pyle, Andy Griffith, F Troop, The Lucy Show, Laugh In, I spy, I Dream of Jeannie, Get Smart, Sanford & son, Archie Bunker’s Place, Gimme a Break! Tales from the Crypt, Hollywood Squares…
…and if NONE of those ring any bells for milllenials, well, he was ALSO the voice of Mr Potatohead in the Toy Story movies.
Ohhhhhhh, THAT guy!
Rickles honed his reputation in numerous appearances on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts that ran on NBC from the mid-1970s to the mid-80s. The specials provided a perfect venue for Rickles to unleash his caustic brand of humor on such visiting dignitaries as Sinatra, Reagan, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Kirk Douglas, Sammy Davis Jr. and Mr. T.
Johnny Carson provided Rickles a late-night stage by making him one of The Tonight Show’s most-frequent guests. On one memorable moment in 1968, Rickles cozied up to a half-naked Carson during a sketch with two Japanese female masseuses and said, “I’m so lonely, Johnny!” Carson threw him in a bathtub. More recently, he was a regular guest on Late Show With David Letterman, in which the CBS host treated Rickles like royalty.
Rickles intermittently played in movies, playing opposite beach bunny Annette Funicello in such movies as Pajama Party (1964) and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), appeared as a Vegas slime-ball in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1975) and voiced the cranky Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films.
He was still regularly working and had a recent gig touring with Regis Philbin.
Donald Jay Rickles was born in the New York borough of Queens on May 8, 1926. Following high school, he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, then studied acting and graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
At age 32, Rickles landed a small part in Robert Wise’s submarine drama Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), starring Clark Gable. Two years later, he was cast in The Rat Race with Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds.
Not surprisingly, Rickles found there weren’t many leading roles for a paunchy 5-foot-6 balding man. So, he worked up a nightclub act. After his Sinatra encounter, he perfected his bite and would land gigs in all the Vegas hotels: the Riviera, the Golden Nugget, the Desert Inn and the Sahara.
Flush with his casino successes, Rickles cut two best-selling comedy albums in the ’60s: Hello, Dummy! and Don Rickles Speaks.
Success as a star of his own TV series eluded him. He played Naval Petty Officer Otto Sharkey in NBC’s CPO Sharkey, which ran from 1976-78, and a used car salesman and father of Richard Lewis in Daddy Dearest, quickly canceled by Fox in 1993. He had two series titled The Don Rickles Show; each ran a handful of episodes. For one season in the ’80s, he hosted ABC’s Foul-Ups, Bleeps & Blunders with singer Steve Lawrence.
In 1965, Rickles married Barbara Sklar, who survives him. The couple, who often vacationed with deadpan comic Bob Newhart and his wife, Virginia, had two children, Mindy and Larry. His son, who produced the HBO documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, died in December 2011 at age 41.
Other survivors include his son-in-law Ed and grandchildren Ethan and Harrison. Funeral services will be private. Donations cane be made to the Larry Rickles Endowment Fund at Children’s Hospital LA.