Comedy legend Don Rickles has died at the age of 90, his publicist Paul Sherfin confirmed Thursday. He would have been 91 on May 8.
Rickles, known for his decades of comedic work, specifically his mastery of the insult, passed away due to complications from kidney failure at his home in Los Angeles. From the lowliest peasant to celebrities like Frank Sinatra, no one was immune from Rickles’ stinging barbs.
His career took off in 1957 after he delivered a zinger about Sinatra in a Hollywood club, right to the crooner’s face.
“Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody,” said Rickles, referring to the singer’s rumoured violence. Sinatra bellowed with laughter, and the rest is history.
For more than half a century, “Mr. Warmth” (as he was sarcastically called) headlined casinos and nightclubs from Las Vegas to Atlantic City. N.J., and appeared often on late-night TV talk shows.
Despite jokes that might have inspired boycotts for other comics, he was one of the most beloved people in show business, idolized 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“. An HBO special, directed by John Landis of “Animal House“ fame, included tributes from Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier and Robert De Niro.
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 at a time when comics like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl were taking greater risks, becoming more politicized 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.”
Rickles is survived by his wife, Barbara Sklar, and their two children, Mindy and Larry. He also leaves behind two grandchildren. Funeral services will be private.
Rickles’ close friends, actor Bob Newhart and his wife Ginnie, released a statement remembering Don: “He was called ‘The Merchant of Venom,’ but in truth, he was one of the kindest, caring and most sensitive human beings we have ever known. We are devastated and our world will never be the same. We were totally unprepared for this,” they said.
Tim Allen also released a statement in honour the comedian, “Don Rickles is one of the biggest reasons I am a comic today. I feel bad, mostly for everyone in Heaven who will now learn first hand from the sharpest wits ever, what it’s like to be Rickled,” Allen said.
Jim Carrey released a statement as well. The actor shared an intimate story of his friendship with Rickles: “Don once begged me for a couple of bucks then told me to twist myself into a pretzel. Ego slayer! Comic Everest! Spank you, Mr Rickles. ;^)” Carrey shared.
Rickles’ longtime friend Carl Reiner released a statement to ET remembering him: “There were two sides to Don: The professional comedian-actor, and, when you talked with him about his wife, Barbara, and his family, a very soft side. He was a very sweet person and this is sad news,” he said.
Robert De Niro also shared his thoughts on the passing of the legend and joked that he’s disappointed in Rickles. “I’m a little disappointed with Don. He had promised me he would live to be at least 95. In all seriousness, he was not only a great friend, he was a great man with a great heart. I really loved the guy. I will miss him,” De Niro said in a statement.
Celebrities are reacting to the sudden passing of the comic legend. Everyone from Billy Eichner to Jimmy Kimmel are sharing their memories and thoughts of the icon: