Insult Comic Don Rickles, 90, Was Cruel on Stage, Kind in Life
BY KEITH VALCOURT | When I met Don Rickles in the early 1990s I wanted one thing from him — the same thing everyone he ever met in his 60-plus-year career in comedy desired from the legendary funnyman. Ironically, it was something that most New Yorkers give away for free on daily basis. Money? Nope. Friendship? Nope.
I wanted Don Rickles to insult me; make fun of me; call me a name — preferably his go-to, best-known insult: “Hockey puck!” After all, to be called that by the king of the “insult comics” was the ultimate compliment; the highest honor; on par with being knighted or winning a Nobel Prize.
At least to me.
When he died last week at 90, sadness over his death reverberated through the world of entertainment. Not because it was sudden or even unexpected, but rather, because Don Rickles — a man known for ripping anyone and everyone in his path to comedy shreds with a razor-sharp wit and machine gun-like delivery of jokes that often bordered on offensive (and even racist) — was so beloved by everyone he ever met offstage.
That’s why his act worked. Because no matter how rude, insulting or “off-color” he was while entertaining generation after generation of comedy fans, we all knew he was joking. We were all in on it. He wasn’t evil and mean. Don Rickles was, in reality, a kind, sweet, loving man with absolutely no hate in his heart. As I found out the two times I was lucky enough to meet him in person.
I have been blessed in my life and career to have met dozens of show business luminaries and comedy giants. Henny Youngman. Milton Berle. Alan King. Buddy Hackett. Aside from Joey Bishop, who was a dear friend for the last 12 years of his life (and the reason my son’s middle name is Bishop), no one was kinder to me than Don Rickles. Instead of riffing on me and making fun of my hair (Bill Cosby did that), the man I met with a kind and considerate soul.
The first meeting was a standard meet and greet backstage before a show at my friend Larry Bonoff’s theater — the Warwick Musical Theatre in my home state of Rhode Island (think a more rugged Westbury Music Fair). The second, a few years later at the same venue, was far more special because that night Don Rickles proposed to my first wife. For me. Before showtime we slid backstage under the guise of getting a quick photo op. Rickles and my pal Larry were fully in on the plan. After some small talk Rickles asked my then-future first wife, “How much do you love this guy?” He then pulled the box from his pocket and presented it to her. She just stood there, frozen in shock for what seemed like forever. I broke the tension by saying, “Honey if you don’t say ‘Yes’ I’m gonna have to marry Mr. Rickles.” He quickly reacted yelling, “Come here you!,” pretending to pull me in for a kiss. She said “Yes.” The proposal turned out to be the best thing about the marriage. That union lasted less than a year, while the vision of Rickles standing there in his pre-show robe holding the ring is burned into my memory forever.
Sadly, I don’t think Don Rickles’ act would work in an era where edgy riffs and jokes are often misdiagnosed as “hate speech.” Anyone who knew Rickles realized hate had nothing to do with his humor. The same can be said for Gilbert Gottfried and the “Queen Of Mean,” Lisa Lampanelli. Both are directly influenced by Don’s style of brazen stand-up — and sadly, both have been penalized and had to apologize for their comedy. Gilbert, who lost a lucrative job voicing the “Aflac duck” over his Japanese tsunami jokes on Twitter a few years back, has said that these days, “Jokes now come with apologies.” Rickles never had to apologize, and to his credit, he never did.
Over the last week, I have repeatedly read and performers and writers call Don “the last of a dying breed,” and it’s true that his passing marks the end of a certain era; a golden age of show business. There will never again be iconic, larger-than life-personalities like Mr. Rickles. Entertainment today is riddled with forgettable reality stars and flash in the pan TV and film “personalities.” Not icons of their art forms. Kim Kardashian could have never opened for Sinatra.
In losing Don, I want to remind folks that there are still a handful of legendary stand up innovators walking amongst us: Jackie Mason (85), Norm Crosby (89), Shecky Greene (91), Dick Gregory (84), Shelley Berman (92), Mort Sahl (89), Bob Newhart (87), and Marty Allen (95). Most occasionally perform. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and see most of them live. Do yourself a favor, and run out to watch these master of comedy while you can. Because when they are gone, all we are left with are the memories.
I will never forget Don Rickles the comic and, more importantly, the man. Thank you Mr. Rickles for decades of unfiltered comic genius and your personal kindness. Rest in peace you “Hockey Puck.”
Links to Valcourt’s interviews and massive collection of celebrity photo ops can be seen at keithvalcourt.com.