Don Rickles has sat in a chair next to a man behind a desk and made him laugh for more than five decades.
As the consummate late-night talk-show guest, the comedian first made his mark as one of Johnny Carson’s favorites on “The Tonight Show.” Since then, hosts from Dave Letterman to Jimmy Kimmel have sat nearby as the living legend cracks up America right before bedtime.
The accomplished funnyman, who turned 88 on Thursday, was feted in his home state of New York earlier this week by Spike TV at an all-star tribute to him that included Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Amy Poehler, Robert De Niro, Bob Newhart and more. “One Night Only: An All-Star Comedy Tribute to Don Rickles” will air May 28 on the cable network.
The actor, comedian and Vegas headliner has earned the nicknames “Mr. Warmth” and “The Merchant of Venom” over his storied career for his signature insults. But he couldn’t feel warmer or less venomous about his tribute. Rickles spoke with The Bee from New York City the night before his tribute taped about what he expected from the honor.
“Wonderful things about being a genius,” he said over the phone. “When you’re a genius, they talk about it. This is your life, so to speak. No, really, it’s quite something and I couldn’t be more delighted. Almost every entertainer I know will be there.”
Rickles comes to Turlock to play his rescheduled show May 17 at the Turlock Community Theatre. The original date was postponed due to a lingering leg infection that took the comedian off the road for six months. But now he is back, with a cane but still slinging insults, performing live shows across the country.
“I’ve come a long way, I really did, dear,” Rickles said of his injury. “It was a disease I can’t pronounce, a skin disease. I went to the doctor with what looked like a little pimple. And then this. But I’m better and I did four shows already with a cane and sitting.”
From his hotel room, Rickles confirmed with his wife of 49 years, Barbara, the name of his illness: necrotizing fasciitis, a rare flesh-eating disease. He has been recovering since October and returned to the stage in March. He even joked on Twitter (yes, the octogenarian is an active tweeter) about rehabbing his leg by stealing his dog’s leash and having his wife take him on walks instead.
Born in New York City, May 8, 1926, Rickles rose from a shy kid in Franklin Heights to the favored comic of Hollywood heavyweights like Frank Sinatra. Over his career, he appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” more than 100 times.
And, like countless others, he owes it all to his mother.
“My mother, she pushed me. I was a shy kid, like many actors,” Rickles said. “At synagogues and school affairs, she said, ‘Get up and do something.’ I used to do impressions, and that’s how I started.”
After serving for two years in the Navy during World War II, Rickles studied and graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. But when the acting gigs didn’t materialize, he turned to standup instead. It was early in his career that he gained his reputation for insults, dealing quickly with hecklers and the like. It was then that he coined his trademark term “hockey puck” for badly behaved audience members.
Still, while his famous insults may sting, Rickles insists they’re exaggerations more than anything else. Keeping things funny instead of mean is a fine line.
“Well, it’s my attitude and personality. You’re not selling a car, you’re selling yourself,” Rickles said. “When I say, ‘You gonna wear that shirt, Charlie?’ they laugh. My father always had that kind of attitude. It’s all attitude, attitude.”
While Rickles is being feted by some of the biggest names in comedy today, he doesn’t pay close attention to all the young guns coming up on the comedy circuit.
“I enjoy them. They do that language stuff, but people seem to enjoy it. I don’t, it’s not my style,” he said. “There are a lot of young guys coming up. When you’ve done this for 60 years, it is hard to sit down and say I want to watch this guy or that guy.”
That “language stuff,” by the way, is profanity, which Rickles does not use. What he does use at each and every outing, including those late-night TV stops, is his ability to think on his feet. Even if he is sitting these days.
“Thank God, the (talk-show) hosts usually like me. I’m a free-form kind of guy,” he said. “Even though I make notes, I always get the hosts into fun topics. Johnny Carson was my great inspiration. Now there is David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel.”
And it is precisely that mental exercise that keeps Rickles on the road these days.
“As the doctors say, you keep the mind going, you are in good shape. My mind is as good, and appearing in front of an audience makes it stronger,” he said. “At my age, a lot of people are retired and mumbling. The punch line is the audience comes to see me. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”
Then, as if to prove he still has it, Rickles makes sure to throw out a zinger for his upcoming Turlock appearance.
“How do you get there?” he asks. “By horse?”