The offstage Mr. Warmth is, well, really quite warm
Don Rickles, the bulldog of comedy, once studied dramatic arts in New York
The Vancouver Sun, October 14, 2006
Don Rickles isn’t called Mr. Warmth because of his cordial amiability. But after talking to the man on the phone, it’s clear his ironic nickname also works at face value.
The 80-year-old bulldog of comedy has made a name for himself throughout the years as a caustic, politically incorrect insult comic of the highest magnitude. But Rickles has long had the reputation, well-deserved by all appearances, of being a pussycat off-stage. You can’t help but wonder how he’s going to embarrass you (and secretly hoping he does), but it never comes.
Comedy historians trace his style back to Jack E. Leonard, but Rickles begs to differ. “Jack, rest his soul, was a friend of mine,” he says. “But he was so wrong, and so were a lot of other people. They compared me to him. Jack was a funny guy but Jack was the kind of guy that did put-down things in a set routine. Whereas I don’t tell jokes.”
An interesting distinction, to be sure, for anyone at the receiving end of either of these legends’ tongue-lashings. But Rickles, who plays the River Rock Show Theatre tonight, goes one step further, claiming not even to be an insult comic.
“Milton Berle gave me that many, many years ago and it always stuck with me,” he says. “But it’s not insult. Let me put it this way: I’m the guy that makes fun of the boss at the Christmas party on Friday night and Monday still has his job. It’s never mean-spirited. And it’s a matter of exaggerating people and things around us.”
It’s hard to imagine, but were it not for a few more inches and a lot more hair, Rickles might have had a different career path. Some fans and critics were blown away by his dramatic role in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, never realizing the clown had such depth of talent. But Rickles was a graduate of the esteemed American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, along with classmates such as Grace Kelly, Jason Robards, Tom Poston and Conrad Bain, before he ever took to the standup stage.
“I tried to get a job on Broadway and nothing really happened,” he says. “I got a couple of off-Broadway plays and that didn’t work out too well.”
So he started performing comedy, starting as an impressionist who did voices like Peter Lorre and Jimmy Cagney (“very badly,” he recalls with a laugh), before developing his current style by, in effect, heckling the hecklers.
“Without realizing it,” he says, “that’s how this performance developed… Thank God for standup, and of course doing odd jobs, otherwise I’d be selling apples today.”
But that very in-your-face approach to comedy also precluded much success in the movies.
“It did affect my movie career,” he says. “I was fortunate to do films, but to this day there are producers that hear my name and they go, ‘Ah, gee, what’s he gonna do to me?’”
Coincidentally, that’s precisely what his fans wonder, except in gleeful anticipation.