King of insult comedy roasted the stars

Don Rickles made his debut appearance on The Tonight Show in 1965.
Don Rickles made his debut appearance on The Tonight Show in 1965.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Don Rickles, the acidic stand-up comic who became world-famous not by telling jokes, but by insulting his audience, died on Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 90.

The cause was kidney failure, said a spokesman.

For more than half a century, on nightclub stages, in concert halls and on television, Rickles made outrageously derisive comments about people's looks, ethnicity, spouses, sexual orientation, jobs or anything else he could think of.

He did not discriminate: His unpleasantries were aimed at the biggest stars in show business (Frank Sinatra was a favourite target) and at ordinary paying customers.

Rickles got his first break, the story goes, when Sinatra and some of his friends came to see him perform in 1957. "Make yourself at home, Frank," he said to Sinatra, whom he had never met. "Hit somebody." Sinatra laughed so hard, he fell out of his seat.

Rickles was soon championed by Sinatra, Dean Martin and the other members of the show-business circle known as the Rat Pack.

In 1965, he made the first of numerous appearances on The Tonight Show. He also became a regular on Martin's televised roasts, in which no celebrity was safe from his onslaughts. "What's Bob Hope doing here? Is the war over?"

His mother, Etta, was not immune to his attacks. But off the stage, he did not hesitate to express his gratitude to her for unflaggingly believing in his talent.

He shared an apartment with her and did not marry until he was almost 40. After marrying Barbara Sklar in 1965, he saw to it that his mother had the apartment next door. His wife survives him, as do a daughter and two grandchildren.

His theory of his durability in show business was that he was being rewarded for saying things others wanted to say but could not.

"I'm the guy at the Christmas party who makes fun of the boss on Friday night and still has his job on Monday morning."

In 1995, he found a new audience as the voice of Mr Potato Head in the hugely successful animated feature Toy Story, a role he reprised in its sequels.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2017, with the headline 'King of insult comedy roasted the stars'. Print Edition | Subscribe