Rickles, Donald Jay ("Don")

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RICKLES, Donald Jay ("Don")

(b. 8 May 1926 in New York City), stand-up comedian and actor in film and television, known as a master of insult humor, who stretched the envelope of television content during the 1960s in several areas, including ethnic humor, in his appearances on the late-night talk show The Tonight Show.

The son of Max Rickles, an insurance salesman, and Etta Feldman, a homemaker, Rickles was born and raised in lower-middle-class Jackson Heights, a community in Queens, a borough of New York City. Rickles performed in class plays while attending public schools and developed a contentious style of humor beyond the confines of the stage. "I loved to perform, but I was really a very shy and frightened kid," he admitted to the New York Times in 1980.

After graduating in 1944 from Newtown High School in Elmhurst, New York, Rickles enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served in the Pacific during the last part of World War II. In 1946 he won admission to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He graduated in 1948, but success did not come quickly. He all but gave up on show business and took jobs selling cosmetics, used cars, and life insurance. "I played small resort hotels in the Catskills and cabaret dumps—when I could get the jobs," he recalled. "The customers were … always heckling, and I began giving it right back to them." Rickles gradually discovered that audiences were provoking him for the pleasure of being insulted, and that they enjoyed this exchange more than his prepared material. His reputation grew, and he began to get regular bookings around the country, although he was still far from a headliner.

Rickles's major break came in 1957. While substituting at a Los Angeles nightclub, he noticed the singer Frank Sinatra in the audience. "Hey, Frank," he said, "make yourself at home and hit somebody." Sinatra's laughing approval conferred a kind of jester's mantle on Rickles. One night, sighting the entertainer Bob Hope, who was known for taking his all-star shows into battle zones to play for the troops, Rickles asked the audience, "Who let him in here? What happened, is the war over?" To Diana Ross: "If you quit show business, don't worry. I'll always have a job for you. Do you do windows?" Notoriety brought Rickles a film role in the war movie Run Silent, Run Deep (1958). By the early 1960s Rickles had become famous for insulting the famous. Like most established club performers, he hoped to take advantage of the more lucrative opportunities for work in film and television. Finding venues in which he could effectively channel the compulsive energy and spontaneity of his work in the context of the prere-corded, highly edited world of mass media was not easy. In 1964 he appeared in a series of teen pictures, including Muscle Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo, playing foils to the screen idols Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello and a gaggle of made-for-swimwear extras from central casting.

In 1965 Rickles found his best role on television when he began appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. At the top of his game in terms of energy and talent, the comedian displayed a convincingly neurotic ability to verbally mow down all who crossed his path, whether he was sitting on the talk-show couch with the stars or roaming through the studio, working over the audience. Part of his effect may have been contextual; the mid-1960s was perhaps the blandest period in television history. The comedian's willingness to make ethnic and racial jokes on television, a form of comedy that was otherwise restricted to the most sophisticated big-city nightclubs of the era, shocked many viewers. The overall inclination of the television audience to accept, even to embrace, this kind of humor can be seen as a marker of the end of the cultural assimilationism that dominated the 1950s. It was also a signal of the general reawakening of ethnic and racial consciousness that took place in the United States during the 1960s. Rickles was frequently asked to host The Tonight Show when Carson was away.

Rickles appearances in prime time were quite another story. Although he appeared as a guest star on more than thirty top-rated shows during the 1960s, including The Beverly Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show, and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, he could not sustain a television series of his own. It was not for want of trying. The first Don Rickles Show (1968–1969) was an American Broadcasting Company (ABC) comedy-variety hour, and it was quickly added to the list of aborted attempts to revive that genre. The second Don Rickles Show, on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1972, possibly an experiment in surrealism, had him in a situation comedy as a suburban husband and father. (The Washington Post recommended the show to "masochists.") C.P.O. Sharkey, on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) (1976–1978) packaged Rickles as a navy chief petty officer screaming at his men. Attempts to find Rickles a successful prime-time show continued into the 1990s.

The lack of a performance space in prime-time television for the compelling psychodrama of which Rickles was capable during the 1960s is more of a comment on the limitations of American television than on the performer. As a live put-down artist, he not only flourished at the nation's top nightclubs, but he also was summoned to the Los Angeles restaurant Chasen's to let loose on Ronald Reagan during his presidency and to Buckingham Palace for a go at the British royals.

Rickles married Barbara Sklar, a secretary, on 14 March 1965, and they had two children. In 1995 Rickles surprised many critics with his stone-faced, mostly silent performance as a pit boss in the film Casino, directed by Martin Scorcese. "I'm not just some schmuck who goes around hollering rotten things about people," he had told Reader's Digest in 1982.

Achieving popularity on the nightclub circuit as a man that audiences "loved to hate," Rickles was characterized by TV Guide as "potentially the funniest comedian on television." The stardom of a television series eluded him, however, owing in large part to the blandness of the medium during the 1960s. Rickles remained a top nightclub performer throughout, and he continued to headline shows in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and elsewhere into the twenty-first century.

Information on Rickles can be found in articles in Time (7 Aug. 1995) and the New York Times Magazine (25 Aug. 1996). A good sample of Rickles's humor can be found in a comic interview he gave to Time (13 Dec. 1999). A more in-depth interview, conducted by Maurice Zolotow, appeared in Reader's Digest (Mar. 1982).

David Marc