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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Don Rickles--An appreciation

Outtake from Don Rickles interview for "American Masters--Bob Newhart" (2005)

Don Rickles was the king of insult comedy, but he is remembered now, following his death yesterday at 90, as the exact opposite.

"He was a true legend, hilarious, honorary rat packer--and a lovely guy," said Doug Herzog, the former president of Viacom Music and Entertainment Group and longtime head of its Comedy Central network, who added, simply, "maybe the last of his generation."

"I've been dreading this day for a long time now," said Los Angeles historian Alison Martino, daughter of Rickles' late contemporary, pop vocal star Al Martino. "I mean, Don Rickles is supposed to live forever!"

Martino said she was very fortunate to spend "a lot of quality time" with Rickles.

"I was with Don and his family when I received the news that my father suddenly died," she said. "My mother still has Don's voicemail on her phone comforting her. But the first time I met him was at his home. He had sugar packs on the table with his caricature on them--I got such a kick out of that. His good pal was singer Jerry Vale, who was also a friend of my father's. So Don took one of the sugar packs off the table, grabbed a pen and wrote this to give to my dad, 'Dear Al, Jerry Vale's friend.' That's how Don broke the ice! I cherish it now more than ever."

Martino recalled how Rickles would always tease her at the dinner table or in the car.

"But he always made sure at the end of the night that I never took his teasing too seriously. He told me I had a great sense of humor. Coming from him that meant the world."

Via tweet, Richard Lewis, who co-starred with Rickles in the 1993 sitcom Daddy Dearest (Lewis played a psychologist who lived with his young son and his father--who was played by Rickles and whose obnoxious car salesman character constantly insulted him), said: "I'm heartbroken. It was surreal being ridiculed by him. I was honored to be Don's pal and work with him. For sheer laughs and fearlessness, he's king."

Likewise, Bob Newhart and his wife Ginnie said in a statement, "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."

And New York comedian Eddie Brill, who long served the Late Show with David Letterman as stand-up talent coordinator/warm-up comedian, saluted Rickles as a true original.

"He was one-of-a-kind--authentic, powerful and when necessary, beautifully vulnerable," said Brill in an email. "The foundation for the best kind of comedy has always been the truth. Don hammered that home. He held a mirror up to us and made us all laugh at ourselves."

He recalled a dinner with Rickles and Letterman, at which he laughed for two and a-half hours.

"Don was so good to me, so generous and so kind. I loved him and my heart is broken that he is gone. Yet at the same time, I am thankful and honored that I got to know him."

Brill concluded with one of Rickle's most famous put-downs: "Rest in peace, you hockey puck!"



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