Don Rickles, the iconic spitfire insult comic, died at his home in Los Angeles Thursday, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 90. The cause of death was kidney failure, according to Rickles’ publicist.
On Thursday, tributes from countless comics and actors began flooding in. “He was called ‘The Merchant of Venom,’ but in truth, he was one of the kindest, caring and most sensitive human beings we have ever known,” comic and Rickles’ longtime friend Bob Newhart said in a statement. “We are devastated and our world will never be the same. We were totally unprepared for this.”
“Rickles was never politically correct, and he would never apologize for any of it,” Gilbert Gottfried tells Rolling Stone. “He was totally unapologetic about his comedy. I totally admired that and looked at him as a hero in that way. His legacy to me will always be that he didn’t care who he insulted; he didn’t care who he offended. If it got a laugh, that was great.”
“Don coming on our show was always a highlight for me,” David Letterman said in a statement. “Just endless mischief and nonsense, and a guy who would make the audience go completely crazy. Such a professional, such a gentleman. I already miss him.” “90 years with Don Rickles weren’t enough,” Jimmy Kimmel tweeted. “One of the sweetest and most lovely people I had the pleasure of knowing. We miss you already.”
For over 60 years, Rickles tore into celebrities, public figures and, especially, fans who happily paid for a chance to be burned by comic nicknamed “Mr. Warmth” and the “Merchant of Venom.” While Rickles began his career as a more traditional comic, he realized early that his audience responded most to the ad-libbed barbs he’d throw at hecklers. As his career was beginning in the early Fifties, Rickles came up with a term for anyone lucky enough to be on the receiving end of one of his insults: “Hockey puck.”
That same decade, Rickles got his big break in show business, fittingly after insulting Frank Sinatra at a Miami Beach nightclub. “Hey, Frank, make yourself at home – hit somebody,” the comedian said, drawing a laugh from his famous victim. Sinatra became a fast fan and helped Rickles land his first gig in Las Vegas where he’d remain a headliner throughout his career. He remained close to Sinatra as well.
In 1985, when Ronald Reagan asked the crooner to perform at his second Inaugural Ball, Sinatra demanded Rickles perform as well. “It’s a big treat for me to fly all the way from California to be here for this kind of money,” Rickles cracked to the President, before dropping his mic and rubbing his face in shame.
Rickles was a relentless touring stand-up and was on the road with Regis Philbin as recently as last year. He was also a favorite late-night TV guest, regularly visiting Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and The Late Show With David Letterman. However, the comedian also amassed numerous credits in film and TV. From 1976 to 1978, he starred in his own NBC series, CPO Sharkey, in which he played a cantankerous Navy officer, while he was a regular guest star on countless programs from The Twilight Zone to The Beverly Hillbillies to The Bernie Mac Show. Among his various film credits, Rickles appeared in Casino and memorably voiced Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story franchise.
Per The Washington Post, Rickles was born May 8th, 1926 in Queens to a father with a sharp sense of humor and a mother who encouraged him to prod his uncles at family functions. After a stint in the Navy, Rickles studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. But he struggled to find work, selling used cars and life insurance to pay the bills, and ultimately turning to comedy as something of a last resort.
While Rickles would return to his dramatic acting roots over the next several decades, he will forever be remembered for his insults. The comic would come on stage to the bullfighting song “La Virgen de la Macarena” and spared no one regardless of stature, age, sex or ethnicity. Inevitably, Rickles’ routines garnered criticism, and in 2012 he sparked a minor controversy with a joke about Barack Obama: “President Obama is a personal friend of mine. He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke.”
Of course, Rickles would also frequently skewer himself and his Jewish heritage, and in a 2004 New Yorker profile, the late comedian Bernie Mac spoke about the appeal of Rickles’ equal-opportunity roasts: “He had no respect for any person, and he was doing his thing to everybody – black, white, Jewish, Asian. I fell in love with him. I saw the joke, you know? My family saw the joke. My old grandfather, who came from the South – even he got Rickles. He was like, ‘This mofo is crazy.'”
While Rickles will be known for his insult comedy, the comedian himself wasn’t particularly fond of the term. In a 1996 interview with The Daily News, Rickles said, “If I were to insult people and mean it, that wouldn’t be funny. There’s a difference between an actual insult and a friendly jab. So I don’t think I’m offensive onstage. I like to think I’m like the guy who goes to the office Christmas party Friday night, insults some people but still has his job Monday morning.”