Friday, April 7, 2017

The Late Great Don Rickles

Don Rickles, the famous insult comic who appeared in such films as  Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) , various entries in the "Beach Party" series, and Kelly's Heroes (1970), died yesterday at the age of 90. The cause was kidney failure.

Don Rickles was born on May 8 1926 in Queens, New York. He grew up in Jackson Heights, New York. During World War II he served in the United States Navy. After he was honourably discharged in 1946, he followed his father into the insurance business. Meeting with little success in the insurance industry, he decided to go into acting. He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Finding it difficult to get acting jobs, he took up stand up comedy. He performed in the Catskills and at nightclubs in New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. He became an insult comedian as a response to hecklers.

Don Rickles made his television debut as an announcer on an episode of Stage 7 in 1955. He also appeared as an announcer on episodes of Four Star Playhouse and Chevron Hall of Stars. As a comic he appeared on The Eddie Fisher Show. As an actor he appeared in an episode of The Thin Man. He made his film debut in Run Silent, Run Deep in 1958 and then appeared in the films The Rabbit Trap (1959) and The Rat Race (1960).

It was during the Sixties that Don Rickles's career really began to take off. He guest starred on such shows as The Twilight Zone, Wagon Train, Hennessey, The Addams Family, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Burke's Law, The Munsters, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., F Troop, The Wild Wild West, The Lucy Show, I Spy, and Get Smart. He frequently appeared on variety shows and talk shows doing his insult routine, including such shows as The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Joey Bishop Show, The Hollywood Palace, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Carol Burnett Show. During the 1968-1969 season he had his own variety show, The Don Rickles Show.

During the Sixties Don Rickles also had a thriving movie career. He appeared in several entries in the "Beach Party" series, as well as related films, including Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Pyjama Party (1964), and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). He also appeared in the films X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), Enter Laughing (1967), The Money Jungle (1967), Where It's At (1969), and Kelly's Heroes (1970).

In the Seventies Don Rickles had a short-lived sitcom, The Don Rickles Show, that ran during the 1971-1972 season. He saw more success with CPO Sharkey, a service comedy centred around the Naval noncom of the same name, that ran for two seasons from 1976 to 1978. He guest starred on the shows Sanford and Son and Medical Centre. He continued to appear on such talk shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Dinah!, and The Mike Douglas Show.He had a small role in the film The Love Machine (1971) as an announcer.

In the Eighties Don Rickles guest starred on Archie Bunker's Place, Gimme a Break!, George Burns Comedy Week, Newhart, and Tales from the Crypt. He appeared in the film Keaton's Cop (1990).

In the Nineties Don Rickles starred in the short-lived sitcom Daddy Dearest. He guest starred on the shows Hunter, The Larry Sanders Show, The Single Guy, and Murphy Brown. He appeared in the films Innocent Blood (1992), Casino (1995), and Dirty Work (1998). He was the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the films Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999). He was also a voice in the film Quest for Camelot (1998).

In the Naughts Don Rickles guest starred on The Bernie Mac Show and The Unit. He reprised the voice of Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story 3 (2010). In the Teens he guest starred on Hot in Cleveland. He was the voice of frog in the film Zookeeper (2011).

I cannot say that I was a huge fan of Don Rickles's routine, but there can be no doubt that it was groundbreaking. There were insult comics before Don Rickles (Jack E. Leonard being the prime example of such), but he was the one that popularised the form. As a comedian he was hugely popular in the Sixties and Seventies, and he remained popular in the Eighties and Nineties and into the 21st Century.

While I was not necessarily a big fan of Don Rickles's comedy routine, I loved him as an actor. Indeed, I cannot think of the "Beach Party" movies without thinking of Don Rickles. In most of the films his characters were called "Big (fill in the blank), whether he was playing a Martian ("Big Bang" in Bikini Beach) or the operator of a skydiving business ("Big Drop" in Beach Blanket Bingo). While one would expect the characters he played to be a bit prickly, he actually played a wide variety of different characters. On Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. he played one of Sgt. Carter's old war buddies, who credited Carter as being a war hero even as Carter credited him. On The Addams Family he played one of a pair of hold-up men who has the misfortune of meeting the Addamses on what is their favourite holiday. In Casino he played Billy Sherbert, a casino manager. During his acting career Don Rickles played everything from con men to a ventriloquist to a vacuum cleaner salesman. And he did all of them fairly well.

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