"Let me put it to you 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."
– Don Rickles
Guy MacPherson: Thank you for taking the time out to talk to me. I really appreciate it. I'm a big fan of yours.
Don Rickles: Oh, I appreciate it.
GM: Even CPO Sharkey.
DR: Wow, you really go back.
GM: I know you did a private show here in Vancouver not too long ago.
DR: Yeah, at the same casino.
GM: Before that, had you played Vancouver?
DR: Yeah, yeah, I think I have. I can't recall off the top of my head. You may know on the internet better than I do. But I have been in Vancouver before. I can't recall what I did up there but I did a couple of things up there.
GM: I know you and Bob Newhart travel the world a lot. Have you ever travelled through Canada?
DR: Oh, on my own I was up, my wife and I. I spent three weeks up in Montreal doing a thing called The Wool Cap with Bill Macy. And I've been in Montreal in my beginnings when it was tough in Montreal. I worked a place called the Copacabana in the Latin Quarter, or whatever, a hundred years ago. But I worked a lot in Montreal in those days. And I worked in Toronto at the O'Keefe Centre. They gave it a new name now. So I've worked in both Toronto and Montreal.
GM: I'm interested in your early, early career. Was your comedic predecessor Jack E. Leonard?
DR: Jack, rest his soul, was a friend of mine. But he was so wrong, and so were a lot of other people. They compared me to him. And Jack was a funny guy but Jack was the kind of guy that did put-down things in a set routine. Whereas mine, I don't tell jokes. He was more of a jokester. I do situation things that become a joke, if you know what I'm saying. So we were so different but he insisted on saying, in a kind way, he said, "You know, kid, you're doing me." Which was not the case. We let it go because he was a charming man and there was no argument about it. If you saw us both on stage, you know there was a difference in our performance.
GM: Was there anyone, then, that you based your career or style on?
DR: The only thing I can say is my timing when I was a very young man came from Milton Berle, rest his soul. Milton Berle, I loved his timing. But that's about the extent of it. Everything I ever did, Guy, I've never had a writer, except on a comedy show, you know, or in a performance that was for television. But it's always been everything I've made up myself off the top of my head and over many, many years it became a performance. It's that simple to say and that honest, because it sounds like that would be very difficult. But actually in those days we didn't have recorders. I used to write it on slips of paper what I said and try to repeat it and just talk to the audience. There was a time when I just walked out on the stage and just said, "Where are you from, sir?" and I went from there. And it became a performance, if you know what I'm saying. I doubt if you can, but that's the way it was.
GM: Sure. It all depends on who happens to be sitting near you.
DR: Right, in my beginnings, in my beginnings, absolutely. I was just talking about my surroundings and people in the audience. That was my show.
GM: But in the very beginnings, you must have had sort of an act.
DR: Well, in the very beginning, like other guys I did impressions. And very badly (laughs). But I made it funny. Then I realized as I did it, I would do Peter Lorre from way back, and Jimmy Cagney and so forth. And then suddenly look down in the audience and say, "Don't you think I do this good?" And then I'd go from there. So little by little in those days, without realizing it, that's how this performance developed.
GM: In the fifteen years before you got on The Tonight Show, did you ever think of changing to a more TV-friendly style? Did you have self-doubts?
DR: No, my mother did. My mother, rest her soul, she always used to say, "Why can't you be like Alan King?" I said, "Well, mom, this is what I do." And, thank God, being different, it got me ahead of the crowd and got me where I am today, wherever that is. And that's kind of successful. So I was proud of what I did. I always say to young people, "Be different." It's a struggle but it gives you a better chance.
GM: And be true to yourself?
DR: Very much so. It did affect my movie career. 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?" You know what I'm saying? It's not the case. It really isn't.
GM: Your performance in Casino, among other films, should be enough to let them know what you can do.
DR: Yeah, right, but my image was so strong, the crossover into films used to scare a lot of guys. And now at this stage in my life, there's not that many parts for me to play, you know what I'm saying?
GM: You were a trained actor, weren't you?
DR: Yeah, well, I graduated, believe it or not, from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York with people like Grace Kelly, rest her soul, and Tom Poston, and Jason Robards, and Conrad Bain. Many people. So I have quite a background in the American Academy.
"My mother, rest her soul, she always used to say, 'Why can't you be like Alan King?'"
– Don Rickles
GM: And this was before your standup career?
DR: Yeah, right.
GM: Do you ever wonder about your life if your career had taken that path?
DR: Well, I tried. That's how it all happened. I tried walking around Broadway and Anne Bancroft, rest her soul, she was in my class. I tried to get a job on Broadway and nothing really happened. I got a couple of off-Broadway plays and that didn't work out too well. So I started doing standup and doing impressions in joints and what-have-you, and went from there doing my style. Thank God for standup, and of course doing odd jobs, otherwise I'd be selling apples today.
GM: Even though the insults seem to the untrained ear scattershot, there is a philosophy behind a successful insult, isn't there?
DR: Well, I believe so because it shows my heart and soul. It's really not an insult. They gave it the word insult. Milton Berle gave me that many, many years ago and it always stuck with me. But it's not insult. Let me put it to you 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. My father had that gift, but he was an insurance man and never became a comedian. But when you see me perform you'll understand that my heart's in the right place. I've never had, to my knowledge, anybody - in my beginnings, oh sure - but today anybody that comes to see me... When you're selling yourself, Guy, you can't always win. But today, the majority of people that see me know after my performance where I come from.
GM: Were any of your jabs ever taken the wrong way by a celebrity?
DR: I'm sure somebody has. As I said, when you stand on the stage and you sell yourself, not everybody's going to love you. When you're an insurance man and you sell insurance, not everybody's always going to buy your policy. Because a lot of it has to do with selling yourself. And so there's somebody, as soon as I walk on the stage, who'll say, "I don't like this guy." I'm sure somebody in the world didn't love Bob Hope, although I can't see how that could happen. But with the style I do, I'm sure there's somebody that says, "I'm not crazy about him." But thank God the majority is on my side.
GM: Is it true that in comedy you can't be too close to a subject and keep it funny?
DR: Well, I don't analyze too much, Guy. I'm the kind of guy, I'm a street guy, that I never say, "Gee, what is my reason for saying that?" Whatever pops out of my mouth at the time, I believe in it, if that makes sense to you.
GM: I'm thinking of some comics who have strong political bents...
DR: No, I never hit the president hard or anybody in Congress. I wouldn't even do jokes about this Foley guy. A lot of guys do and make it funny. But it's not my bag. I never do politics. I never do the president stuff and I never do any of that stuff. I've done jokes about the pope, which I just started to say, because some funny things came out of that, believe it or not in a limo driving to a job with my road manager. I was talking about the pope and started to do an impression of what I think he would say, and so forth. And it became a little bit of a performance, as crazy as it sounds.
GM: And you just remembered it.
DR: That's right. And I said I'd go ahead and do it on the stage. It's proved to be a very funny bit.
Guy MacPherson: A while back, about 15, 20 years ago, everything got politically correct. Did you ever have any repercussions from that time?
DR: No. I even worked for Princess Margaret in London and so forth. And as I say, when it comes out of my mouth, that's it. It's like a reaction in my soul and in my heart that I believe it's right. And so I say it. But I never say something and then walk off saying, "Dammit, I shouldn't have said that."
DR: Never. Because I believe in it. I may have said, "They're not going to love that," but at the time when I said it, I believed in it.
GM: Any idea how many shows you do in a year?
DR: Oh, God. That's a tough question. Well, let's put it this way: I just signed a deal in Atlantic City again for another year for two appearances a year there and three appearances a year in Las Vegas at the Golden Nugget. So that'll give you an idea. And then all the indie [Indian?] casinos around the country I've been working. So my dance card is pretty full, let's put it that way.
GM: Do you still love it?
DR: Oh, yeah. The only thing tough is sometimes the travelling. But I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't enjoy it. And I wouldn't be doing it if people didn't show up.
GM: You're a legend.
DR: Well, that's sweet of you to say but you never know when somebody says, "I'm tired of this guy." Hopefully that hasn't happened as yet.
GM: You guest hosted The Tonight Show numerous times. No one ever gets that chance anymore. I used to love seeing the guest hosts.
DR: Well, it's up to the guys who are doing the shows, David Letterman and Jay Leno, two of the top guys. Jay Leno, to my knowledge, doesn't have a guest host. David doesn't either, to my knowledge. Don't ask me why. I don't know why.
GM: Was Johnny Carson more generous and more confident?
DR: Maybe that's it. I can't answer that question. But I was grateful that Johnny gave me the opportunity to host it a few times. It was great fun to do.
GM: Who chose your theme music?
DR: Oh, gee, you really follow me. That all started with me just humming it. And then some guy started an arrangement and little trios started to do it. And all of a sudden it was the matador thing because... I have all kinds of bulls and matadors, antique things, all round my house. But that theme, I always pictured myself as the New York kid that stood in front of the audience and went, "El Toro", which I do say, fighting the audience, so to speak.
GM: The bulls and other artifacts came prior to the theme song?
DR: No, no, right after. And I went to bullfights in Spain and Tijuana. I always loved bullfights. And I always pictured myself facing the audience as the matador. Funny that you would... You know, you're one of the few guys that's ever asked me that, I swear to God.
GM: Like I say, I'm a fan.
DR: Well, thank you.
GM: You say your act was once primarily all ad libbed. Now how much of it is?
DR: Well, today I have a beginning, middle and an ending. But every night I'd say about ten percent of my performance changes according to what's in front of me and what's around me. But there's always a beginning, middle and ending. And now I have some music. I'm not Pagliacci; far from it. But I sing songs that are themes to what I do.