By Douglas J. Rowe
NEW YORK ó Hey, you hockey puck. Yeah, YOU!
Don Rickles ó Mr. Warmth, the Merchant of Venom ó has been on bestseller lists for five weeks.
That’s all the digits on one hand, dummy. Try to keep up.
While making the TV rounds to promote “Rickles’ Book,” the 81-year-old comedian ó who has made a career of insulting people ó has received reverential treatment from Jon Stewart, David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel (who returned from an appendectomy to devote virtually his entire show to Rickles).
Hard to believe?
Not really. In person, Rickles is a lovely, low-key guy, who would just as soon talk about baseball than his career. He has been married for 42 years, has two grown children, and grandchildren who were ecstatic when their “Pop-Pop” voiced Mr. Potato Head in the “Toy Story” movies.
The book, co-written with David Ritz, who collaborated on Aretha Franklin’s and Ray Charles’ memoirs, is unmistakably in Rickles’ voice. And Rickles is proud of his literary effort ó 80,000 copies in print ó and the episodic way in which it’s written.
The New York City native opens his heart about his parents, poor grades in school, difficulty “getting the girls,” best friend Bob Newhart, courtship with wife Barbara and the slow start to his career, among other things.
“I didn’t think about making it. I just thought about surviving,” he tells The Associated Press. “I said, ‘Gee, I got to keep going because I want to survive and I think I might be good.’ So I never thought of disaster. Because, to be very honest, I thought, ‘What could I fall back on?’ ”
Before becoming an entertainer, he tried various jobs and was inept at all of them, whether selling life insurance like his father, peddling cosmetics door to door, or delivering meat and mopping the butcher shop’s floor. “I couldn’t sell air conditioners on a 98-degree day. When I demonstrated them in a showroom, I pushed the wrong button and blew the circuit. Result: Customers started dropping from the heat,” he writes.
Eventually, he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Jason Robards, Grace Kelly, Anne Bancroft and Tom Poston also studied at the time. He envisioned a serious acting career, but after innumerable auditions he got used to hearing, “Thank you, next …”
Then he attempted standup comedy, doing impressions and jokes, and soon found himself making comments about his audience. “It was all attitude. All attitude,” he says.
“I took my best shots. Whatever I thought was funny in my head I said,” he says, lounging on a sofa in his New York hotel suite, wearing a sweat suit.
After his “biggest hero of all,” his dad, died at 55, Rickles moved near his mother, Etta, to Miami Beach. There, she befriended Frank Sinatra’s mother, Dolly, and asked her to get Sinatra to check out her son’s act at a club called Murray Franklin’s.
Two weeks later, Sinatra did.
“I saw him come in,” Rickles recalls in the book. “You couldn’t miss him. At first, I didn’t believe it, but Etta had really pulled it off. If anyone could get Frank to do anything, it was Dolly. When I said, ‘Make yourself comfortable, Frank, hit somebody,’ I saw his entourage wait to see how he’d react. He howled. So they howled.”
“My joke is I got to have a lot of Blue Cross,” Rickles says.
His big break came at the Slate Brothers, a Hollywood nightclub where stars would come in and he would yank their chains and burst their bubbles.
“Picture it: On Monday, I’m on stage. There’s Elizabeth Taylor staring up at me. ‘Elizabeth,’ I say, You got to stop calling me. I’m going with somebody.’ ” Eventually, he was razzing such giants of the time as Bob Hope (“Don’t worry, I’ll get you work at the USO”) and Milton Berle (“I didn’t recognize you dressed up as a guy”).
Rickles got into movies, including the well-regarded 1958 submarine drama “Run Silent, Run Deep” (starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster). He also appeared in a few “Beach Party” movies in the 1960s.
“I did have somewhat of a career. I did some good movies. On the whole, I think that (movies) and Broadway are the two things that I would have liked to have a little more of,” he says. “But I’m happy with my career.”
Rickles had only slightly better success with TV series than he did with his early job ventures. “The Don Rickles Show” lasted just one season (1972). “C.P.O. Sharkey,” in which he played an acid-tongued Navy chief petty officer, fared slightly better, airing from 1976 to 1978.
Years ago, a comedian named Jack E. Leonard had an act that was similar to Rickles’ ó and these days Lisa Lampanelli and Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Dog do, too. But Rickles doesn’t pay attention to such comparisons.
“I don’t get myself sidetracked. I wish them all luck. But I know what I do, and I know I’m the original,” he says. “I don’t like to compare myself with anybody.”
He also doesn’t much consider the Imuses and Opies & Anthonys of the world, who’ve gotten themselves suspended and fired for what they say and do.
“I was there before all this happened. So I feel I have all the rights on my side. Because people who come to see me know what I do, and I’m not mean-spirited. And it’s taken me a long way, and I have no cause in my performance to flinch or step back and say, ‘Oh, I better not say that.’ Because, the way I say it has been accepted for so many years,” he says.
He doesn’t fret about crossing the line. “I’m very canny. It’s like a thing in my head: It takes me right to the line, and stop.”
When he’s not working, he doesn’t go to comedy clubs. He prefers going out to dinner with his wife or watching the Dodgers and shoot-’em-ups on television. He could sit all day watching television and reading the sports pages and be very comfortable. “I hope it doesn’t sound weird to you.””When you’re 81 you get a little tired. People don’t realize, because when I’m on stage, I’m shot out of a rocket,” says Rickles, who amazes both his audiences and his doctors with his energy.
Now an elder statesman of comedy, he still plays scores of shows around the country and doesn’t intend to retire unless the fans stay away. “I think I’ll walk away before that happens, the crowds diminish and all of a sudden I don’t have it anymore,” he says. “My mind is in great shape.”
Then Rickles aims a barb at himself, acting like a shell of the Rickles persona whose mind is gone: ” ‘You, uhhhhhhhhh, dummy.’ Then it’s over.”
By Douglas J. Rowe