"I don't do jokes. Somebody said, 'Don, tell a couple jokes at this party.' I said, 'You could give me a thousand dollars and I can't sit down and say, "Two guys got off a bus and blah, blah, blah."' I can't tell a joke; I can tell a situation and it becomes a joke."
– Don Rickles
Guy MacPherson: Mr. Rickles.
Don Rickles: Hi, how are you?
GM: So we meet again.
DR: Oh, good, we've met before.
GM: We spoke last time you were here.
DR: That was exciting. I still haven't gotten over it, Guy.
GM: I can tell.
DR: Did you come to the show when I was there?
GM: Yes. In fact, it was the best show I saw all year.
DR: Oh! Good, then we can talk!
GM: I loved it.
DR: Oh, did you? Thanks, Guy, that's very sweet of you.
GM: You're back so soon. Obviously everyone – you and management and the crowds – was happy with everything.
DR: Howard Blank has been a big fan, so it seems. He's come to see me in Vegas and what-have-you, and he asked me back and I look forward to it.
GM: Is that an old-school work ethic that you give your all every show and really put on a show?
DR: Well, Guy, you know, after doing it 55 years you can't fake it. In other words, even in my stage of life I get out there shot like I'm in a cannon. I give it, as I always used to say, my best shot. If you hold back, it doesn't come off as a performance. And I like to think of it as a theatrical performance. So when the bell rings, I give it my all. And as long as I have my health and people show up, I'll continue to do so.
GM: Early in your career you must have had bad shows. But I wonder, do you ever have them at this stage of your career?
DR: Well, I never think about bad shows. I always say what I do I know is good and I never think of negative things. But I always say, like anything else, when you sell yourself there are some people who are going to say, 'Hey'.... I never use that expression 'bad shows' because to me there's never a bad show. The audience, they're the ones that vote on it. And I'm sure there are nights when people say they don't think I'm the funniest guy in the world. Same thing with Bob Hope, rest his soul. America loved him but I'm sure was somebody who said, "I don't particularly enjoy..." I don't know why I pick Bob Hope, but I'm saying when you sell yourself, you can't please everybody, you know what I'm saying?
GM: Right. But do you ever get off stage and go, "Ah, I didn't have it tonight."
DR: Well, if I do, they don't know it, let's put it that way.
GM: I'm really excited about this documentary that's going to be coming out.
DR: Yeah, I am, too. John Landis is great. And my son Larry is producing. And John Landis is directing. It's not finished yet but we're very excited about it. A good portion of the industry that we've asked has participated. And for the first time in my career, my performance was filmed. The way John cuts it, in and out backstage, my moods backstage before I go on, sitting in the dressing room, taking pictures of me from the wings while I'm performing. And not only that but the interviews that we've had and the family trips that I've taken with Newhart and his wife in Europe and so forth. So the whole conglomerate looks like it's very exciting. We presented it, I don't know if you know about this, up in Aspen, Colorado, for the comedy festival. About 15 minutes. It's not finished. It's going to wind up to be 90 minutes. It was unfinished. But a lot of young comedians were coming up and I was very pleased, Guy, because we got a great response.
GM: I can imagine. A lot of the young comedians who love to ridicule older comics, they still worship you.
DR: Well, it's kinda nice. I don't know if they worship me, but I certainly get a great deal of respect from most of them, to my knowledge. I'm very flattered with that.
GM: From all styles, too. They all like you.
DR: Well (chuckles), thank you again, Guy. I hope it's true. But from what I noticed in Aspen, they were exceptionally nice. I felt like the master of humour the way they were treating me.
GM: Is it going to be a theatrical release? Or do you know yet?
DR: At this point we might have it in art theatres, but John and all of us haven't decided yet. We know one thing: that it'll be on HBO, it looks like, as a special. And then also in art theatres and, of course, DVD. So there's a lot of outlets to it. I'm really pleased about that. That, with my book coming out at the end of May, makes quite a double whammy for me. Hopefully it's good.
GM: Do you have a potential date for the release of the documentary?
DR: No. I think it'll be some time after the summer.
GM: Were they following you around with cameras?
DR: Yeah. John was, all over the place. He did so much exterior work in Las Vegas. Now he's going to New York to talk with Marty Scorsese and Regis Philbin and a few other people. He follows me, sure, backstage. He still hasn't finished following me! (laughs)
GM: Do you feel like you always have to be on or were you just yourself?
DR: No, no. John does it very discreetly. It's whatever I'm doing at the time. He just turns on the light and they do it, you know? It's kinda very natural.
GM: Was this his idea or your son's?
DR: My son came to me with the idea. He said, "Dad, we got so much material. Don't you think we ought to do something?" And we had dinner one night with John Landis, who I met some 40 years ago when I did Kelly's Heroes and he was 17 years old and a gopher, for the lack of another word. We always were friends and he said, "Don, I gotta do this with you." And he became equal partners with my son and Bob Englewood(?) and a guy called Mike Richardson(?). So we're all five equal partners. And John said, "Let's put this together and do it." He was just gung-ho about it. I can't tell you how excited he is to be working on it.
GM: How old is your son?
DR: My son is 36.
GM: How many kids do you have?
DR: They're not kids, but my daughter is 40 and he's 36 and we have two grandchildren.
GM: Was it difficult, do you think, for them with the name Rickles growing up?
DR: At times, yes. Not only me, but anybody else who has children when you're a celebrity. You know, my son, when he was a writer – and he still is – when he would go to present the project, they'd always say, "You know, I remember your father when we had coffee one night in Pittsburgh." Or "When he said to me one night on the stage I'm a dummy, I'll never forget that." And here Larry was trying to sell his project, you know?
GM: Because Rickles is not a name you hear often. It's not like Smith.
DR: True. That's why my book is called Rickles' Book, for lack of another name.
GM: What kind of a father were you?
DR: Well, I was away a lot. I got a great wife. We've been married 42 years. She's been the strength of the family. My children – although they're not children anymore – if they've got minor problems, they always go to their mother. Because I always was on the road to make a living in those days.
GM: So now you're more around your grandkids.
DR: Well, you know, as much as I can. But my wife is the one... I call her the Jew Patton.
GM: (laughs) Is the book an autobiography?
DR: No. It's memoirs. It's about different episodes of my career that I remember. The days with Sinatra, the days in the White House visiting Reagan and during the inaugural, baseball games with Tommy Lasorda, and things that have happened. So it's a montage of all the memorable moments of my life that I thought were very memorable. And about my mother and my father. Let's put it this way, Guy, it's not like the Jewish kid on the Lower East Side playing the violin whose mother died of cancer and his uncle got hit by a bus. It's not that kind of book, you know what I'm saying?
GM: In the process, did you remember lots of things that you thought you'd forgotten?
DR: Oh, yeah. I was sitting with David Ritz, who helped me construct this whole thing. He's a fine writer in his own right. But David sat down with me and he got me. In other words, the book has my voice. When you read it - and hopefully you will - you'll hear Rickles' voice, if you know what I'm saying. You read a chapter, then you can put it down, go on a trip with your wife, come back a couple weeks later and pick it up and never forget where you left off. It's short chapters that tell the story.
GM: It spurred other memories as you were talking?
DR: Oh, sure, oh, sure. You know, it's some 50 years back from my World War II days.
GM: So you've been in show business 55 years. Do you think generally showbiz, and maybe comedy in particular, has gone to pot?
DR: Not really. I always say, you know, I watch the young kids and some of them do the stuff with the heavy language and so forth, but I say, hey, if the audience laughs. Don't forget, my time has come and hopefully not gone. And if they still laugh at what they do, who am I to criticize it? So I feel more power to them. As my wife says always, times have changed. But my attitude in what I do has not changed. And my attitude is something that everybody can relate to, if you know what I'm saying.
GM: It's a different kind of show business, isn't it, from the days of Frank and Sammy.
DR: Oh sure, but times change. That's the way it goes. Those were great days. I loved them; I was part of them.
GM: Do you watch many younger comics?
DR: Not really. When I'm in Vegas or Atlantic City, I don't get a chance because I'm always working. And when I'm home, not to be unkind to these young people, but when I'm home I sit by the television and watch the Dodgers and the Lakers. I love sports. I love to go out with my wife for dinner and theatre and so forth. Not that I try to keep away from it. But I'm around it so much yet I really don't get a chance to see it. Oh, I see people that are very well known, like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and guys of that calibre. Seeing the young guys coming up in comedy clubs, I really don't go to. I just don't have the patience for it because I'm around it myself so much.
GM: A few weeks ago I saw Brad Garrett.
DR: He's great.
DR: I never saw him in person.
GM: I love him on TV and think he's a funny talk show guest, but it was the worst show I've seen.
DR: Oh, really. That's too bad.
GM: He was essentially doing Don Rickles but it didn't work.
DR: How did the audience like him?
GM: Well, you know, we're polite Canadians. But I was thinking that maybe the reason it didn't work for him is that you've cultivated your personality over decades, so maybe it was more of a slap in the face coming from him.
DR: It's interesting, Guy, what you said because he wrote me a letter a few years ago admiring and being a great fan of mine, telling me how much he enjoyed me. I thought that was kind of nice. But I'm sorry to hear that. I saw him on television a couple of times. I know he's sarcastic but I didn't know he was doing sort of a Don Rickles.
GM: You always have boundaries that you don't cross.
DR: Well, thank you. You really know me pretty good and I appreciate that.
GM: Do you tailor your show when you play up here?
DR: Remember that Yankee Doodle Dandy number I do? So somebody said to me, "You're going to Canada..." Well, Joe Nealy, my conductor, is a Canadian, and he said, "What about Yankee Doodle Dandy?" It's the world; it's not only Canada. It's the world. The way I do it, I don't sell a pro-American and America's the greatest. I tell a little story with it. And I did it the last time I was in Canada and it was fine. And in my humour, now I include Canada. If I make any jokes, I always try to include Canada in it, you know what I'm saying? And I don't do jokes. Somebody said, "Don, tell a couple jokes at this party." I said, "You could give me a thousand dollars and I can't sit down and say, 'Two guys got off a bus and blah, blah, blah.'" I can't tell a joke; I can tell a situation and it becomes a joke.
GM: We don't have large Mexican or black populations. We didn't go to war in Iraq, and things like that.
DR: Absolutely. You have troupes over there, so, you know...
GM: Do we? I didn't think we did.
DR: Yeah. But it's not a key thing in my performance. I never get into politics and I don't dwell on the war or anything like that.
GM: At the end, though, you said, "We will win the war in Iraq!"
DR: Oh, yeah, I do say that, in Afghanistan. Hell, yeah. That's how I feel. You could say it in France and they might not agree with it...
GM: But that's slightly political. Especially these days. It seems harder...
DR: How did you remember that? In the heat of action, so to speak, it fits in with what I'm doing. And so I say that. But that's about the extent of my... I don't delve into the president. You know, some of these guys get into the president and blah, blah, blah. By the way, you had Dennis Miller the last time I was there. I followed him in. And Dennis is very clever. He does a lot of politics and the audience treats him pretty good.
GM: And he's married to a Canadian.
DR: Is he really? That's funny. I like Dennis. I always say to him, "Talk English, Dennis, I can't understand what the hell you're talking about."
GM: You've managed to stay relevant over the years, while many of your contemporaries haven't. Any idea why?
DR: It's my attitude. I've always been that way. I don't rehearse it or anything like that. It's always been me. Even when I was a young kid in the navy in World War II I always was the ship's clown. And when I was in high school I was the president of the dramatic society and a fun guy who was always doing the remarks and the jokes. So my whole life was that. My mother always got a kick out of me but they always worried that I should get a job.
GM: You did commentary on the Get Smart DVD.
DR: Oh, yeah, yeah, that's on there. Don Adams was a good friend of mine so we did a lot together.
GM: Will CPO Sharkey ever come out on DVD?
DR: I don't know. Gee whiz.
GM: Everything is out now.
DR: Yeah. I don't know. Some guy bought it. I don't know if he's going to put it out or what.
GM: The last thing I wanted to ask you was about the famous Carson cigarette box incident. I remember seeing it at the time, and of course now you can see it on YouTube. Somebody asked me recently, "Do you think that was staged?" And at the time I thought, no, there's no way that was staged.
DR: Absolutely. Guy, you're right. I swear, well, not on my mother's life, but I will, that was not staged. It happened and he did it that way and I did it my way and that's what happened.
GM: So it was just an accident. You broke it.
DR: Right. He wasn't going to shoot me or anything. It was a cigarette box. But he made a big funny thing out of it.
GM: And nobody tipped you off that he was going to come over to your set?
DR: No. Oh, no.
GM: You could tell the reactions were real.
DR: Oh, I was stunned by it. Johnny was great. I miss him. He was terrific.