Don Rickles, Comedian and Actor Known as ‘Mr. Warmth’, Dies

The "insult comic," perhaps best known for his heckling routines, was 90.

  • Published 6 April 2017
Don Rickles

Don Rickles, an actor and stand-up comedian who was legendary for his prickly routines and willingness to take on public figures of any stripe, died of kidney failure at his home on 6 April 2017. He was 90. 

Rickles (who was sarcastically known as “Mr. Warmth”) heckled everyone from Ronald Reagan to Frank Sinatra:

After toiling in relative obscurity for years as a more conventional stand-up comedian, Rickles unwittingly discovered his biggest laughs came when he turned the table on his hecklers. His career then skyrocketed after he insulted the hot-tempered Sinatra, who normally did not take kindly to such treatment.

When the superstar singer and actor walked into a Hollywood club in 1957 where Rickles was performing, the comedian greeted the “Chairman of the Board” from the stage: “Make yourself at home Frank. Hit somebody.” Sinatra roared — with laughter.

He began performing in Las Vegas in the late 1950s.  Gay Talese wrote about him in 1966, in the acclaimed Esquire piece, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”: 

They stopped at The Sahara, taking a long table near the back, and listened to a baldheaded little comedian named Don Rickles, who is probably more caustic than any comic in the country. His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no oneit is too offensive to be offensive. Spotting Eddie Fisher among the audience, Rickles proceeded to ridicule him as a lover, saying it was no wonder that he could not handle Elizabeth Taylor; and when two businessmen in the audience acknowledged that they were Egyptian, Rickles cut into them for their country’s policy toward Israel; and he strongly suggested that the woman seated at one table with her husband was actually a hooker.

His acting and comedy career continued for the next several decades, including a stint as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movies and a 2012 racial joke about then-president Barack Obama that shocked Hollywood. He was also a bestselling author.  

Rickles is survived by his wife of 52 years, Barbara, his daughter Mindy Mann and her husband, and two grandchildren. 

  • Published 6 April 2017
Sources

Brownfield, Paul.    “Comedy Legend Don Rickles on the Art of the Insult.”
   Los Angeles Magazine.    30 May 2016.

Escobedo, Monica and Messer, Lesley.   “Legendary Comedian Don Rickles Dies at 90.”
   ABC News.     6 April 2017.

Kilday, Gregg.     “Don Rickles Shocks Hollywood Crowd With Racial Obama Joke.”
   The Hollywood Reporter.    8 June 2012.

Talese, Gay.     “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”
    Esquire.     April 1966.