Music & Memories

Don Rickles, king of insult comedy, dies

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Don Rickles, the big-mouthed, bald-headed comedian whose verbal assaults endeared him to audiences and peers and made him the acknowledged grandmaster of insult comedy, has died aged 90 in Los Angeles.

Rickles, who would have turned 91 on May 8, suffered kidney failure and died on Thursday morning at his home, Paul Shefrin, his longtime publicist and friend said.

For more than half a century, Rickles headlined casinos and nightclubs from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and livened up late-night talk shows. No one was exempt from Rickles' insults, not fans or presidents or such fellow celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Johnny Carson.

Despite jokes that from other comics might have inspired boycotts, he was one of the most beloved people in show business, idolised by everyone from Joan Rivers and Louis CK to Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman.

James Caan once said that Rickles helped inspire the blustering Sonny Corleone of "The Godfather." Carl Reiner would say he knew he had made it in Hollywood when Rickles made fun of him.

Rickles patented a confrontational style that stand-up performers still emulate, but one that kept him on the right side of trouble. He emerged in the late 1950s, a time when comics such as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl were taking greater risks, becoming more politicised and more introspective.

Rickles managed to shock his audiences without cutting social commentary or truly personal self-criticism. He operated under a code as old the Borscht Belt: Go far - ethnic jokes, sex jokes, ribbing Carson for his many marriages - but make sure everyone knows it's for fun.

"I think the reason that (my act) caught on and gave me a wonderful career is that I was never mean-spirited," he once said. "Not that you had to like it, but you had to be under a rock somewhere not to get it."

In 2008, he won the Emmy for best individual performance in a variety show for the HBO film, "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project" and in 2012, he received the Johnny Carson Award for Comedic Excellence.

Rickles was a stage comic and occasional movie actor when he sat down on the couch next to Carson's desk and muttered, "Hello, dummy." The studio audience was initially startled, but when the host began laughing uncontrollably, so did everyone else.

He married Barbara Sklar, his agent's secretary, in 1965, and they had two children, actress Mindy Rickles and writer-producer Lawrence Rickles, who died of complications from pneumonia in 2011.

© AP 2017

Image: Mark J. Terrill

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