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Don Rickles: The Methuselah of Stand-Up


I’m putting this out here right now ___ Don Rickles should host the 2013 Academy Awards Show. Billy Crystal can watch from home, or maybe, since Crystal is such a fan of the octogenarian Rickles, they can co-host. Even at 87 and 65 respectively, they’d be a hilarious tag team. My hope would be no script, no set pieces, just fill the house with the usual Hollywood suspects and let the two of them rip/riff and sew panic throughout the woefully named Hollywood and Highland Theater.

Maybe they never get around to handing out an award except the honorary one Rickles picks up to go with the Emmy Award he won in 2008 for Mr. Warmth:  The Don Rickles Project.

An Oscar for what, you ask? Why for the body of work, of course, everything from the Annette and Frankie beach movies of the 60’s to the Toy Story franchise, with stops along the way at Run Silent Run Deep, Kelly’s Heroes and Casino.

I’m joking about the award (a little), but not Don Rickles, a comic deserving of every other accolade that might come his way. Maybe it was Crystal’s influence that gave him that talking head moment during one of the segments intended to whip up nostalgia for movie going. In any case, good call.

Rickles said he likes the Godfather. Any surprise, dummy? Although anytime he shows up in a movie is a pleasant occasion, Rickles is a television guy. And despite starring in a couple of sitcoms, CPO Sharkey and the winning but failed Daddy Dearest with Richard Lewis, the association between Rickles and late night television is strongest.

It’s a treat when he turns up on Leno or Letterman, even if his mind is peripatetic and the put-downs lack those surreal associations and references that would reduce even a seasoned straight man like Johnny Carson to tears of laughter. Absent too is the rarefied foolishness that would break out when Rickles would interrupt one of his host’s sketches.

Cut to the set of the Carson Show, 1968. Johnny’s doing a Japanese bathhouse bit, wearing only one of those too small bathing suits that were fashionable among men in the 60’s. Carson has been mugging with the pretty girls, moving from the bathtub to a massage table, the sketch getting tired maybe, when Rickles walks in wearing a suit and tie. He makes a few politically incorrect jokes about the girls, and then rubs his hand down Carson’s bare back. “You’ve got a great body, John,” he says, “You’re gonna pass away in about a year.” Shortly thereafter, he tells Carson he’s lonely and tries to throw himself on him. As rail thin as Carson is, he turns, jumps up and lifts Rickles off his feet, throwing Mr. Warmth into the tub.

Fast forward to 1997. Rickles acquits himself beautifully at the AFI dinner honoring the lifetime achievement of Martin Scorsese who directed him in Casino. Scanning the crowd for a pigeon, he spots Robert De Niro and says,  “De Niro is sitting there. God bless you, Bobby, he’s got the beard on. To know him is a treat. He’s one of the great actors of our time ___you ask him. He’ll tell you.”

Fearlessness has always been part of the act. Acknowledging Frank Sinatra from the stage once Rickles said, "Make yourself comfortable,Frank, hit somebody." It's during the live act, when his fans and targets are sharing the same breathing space, that Rickles burns brightest. This writer caught him at the Fox Theater in casino Connecticut a few summers ago. Besides the revelation that he travels with a pianist who plays while Rickles croons and even does a little of the old soft shoe (who else does that kind of stuff anymore?), it was reassuring to see that he can still bare fangs and morph into the Merchant of Venom.

Stopping the show about midway to introduce some of the celebs in the audience, he acknowledged Jerry Vale, Tony Siragusa, and from nearby Rhode Island, former boxing champ, Vinny Pazienza. When Paz stood up for the rousing ovation, Rickles, said, “Okay, Vinny. Sit down. It’s over.”

Of course we already knew that, as did Rickles, but what makes it funny is Rickles saying what we’re all thinking without sounding like a dick. That’s always been his gift, the put-down artist who scalds without the now conventional obscenity.

Rummaging around a local shop full of rare showbiz memorabilia recently, I found a program for the Don Rickles Show, dated August 20th-August 26th, 1973. He was booked for a week at the Warwick Musical Theater in Rhode Island, the place Rhode Islanders always referred to as “The Tent.”

There’s no byline for the notes about Rickles, but they’re well-written and strike a consistent theme: "Don" was never in a hurry to be a star. He kicked around nightclubs for nearly twenty years before he made his first Tonight Show appearance in 1965. As the program guide puts it, “His freewheeling performance that night became the talk of the show business industry and caused nationwide comment among press and public”- in other words, he was released from his “comic’s comic” status and launched into the limelight.

And like some comic Methuselah, Don Rickles keeps touring and turning up in TV and movies. About the past he has said, “The old days were the old days. And they were great days. But now is now.”

Maybe that’s how he does it, existentially speaking.


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