There is no doubt veteran funnyman Don Rickles is deserving of a generous and heartfelt obituary. Yet it seems somehow inappropriate to say nice things about the comedian, who would’ve turned 91 this May.
He died Thursday from kidney failure at his Los Angeles home, publicist Paul Shefrin announced in a statement to EW.
Rickles was the king of the insult comics. For half a century, he got laughs by being rude about people, whether he was performing live, on TV, or in films such as the 1998 comedy Dirty Work, during which he blasted a character played by the rotund Artie Lange with the words, “Got a call yesterday from Baskin Robbins. They said that they’re down to only five flavors.” Johnny Carson welcomed Rickles onto the Tonight Show more than 100 times, although Carson’s warm greetings were not always reciprocated. On one memorable appearance, Rickles almost completely ignored the host and instead pointedly, and hilariously, embraced Carson’s sidekick, Ed McMahon, instead. One of Rickles’ best-remembered put-downs was his penchant for calling hecklers in the audience “hockey puck,” a phrase he continued to use throughout his career.
The New York-born Rickles originally set out to be an actor. After serving in World War II, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and over his long career was cast in a large number of TV shows and films, including his ’70s sitcom C.P.O. Sharkey, the 1970 Clint Eastwood-starring war movie Kelly’s Heroes, and the 1995 Martin Scorsese film Casino. Rickles also voiced the character of Mr. Potato Head in Pixar’s Toy Story franchise. But his star shone brightest in Las Vegas, where he remained an enduring draw as successive generations of casino visitors lined up to be insulted.
Rickles’ sharp-tongued and often transgressive shtick influenced many younger comedians, including Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman. His unique brand of comedic molestation was captured by director John Landis in the filmmaker’s 2007 documentary Mr. Warmth, for which Rickles himself won an Emmy.
Rickles is survived by his wife of 52 years, Barbara, as well as their daughter Mindy Mann and her husband Ed, and Rickles’ two grandchildren, Ethan and Harrison Mann.