Don Rickles was a famous “insult comic” who, early in his career, made a name for himself by heckling tough-guy singer Frank Sinatra.
Audiences probably remember him best for his numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show” during Johnny Carson’s tenure, but he also appeared on numerous TV shows, including “The Bob Hope Show,” “The Dean Martin Comedy Hour” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and, as recently as 2010, “Entertainment Tonight” and the “Late Show with David Letterman.”
The comedian also appeared in dozens of movies – including “Toy Story,” in which he was the voice of Mr. Potato Head.
Rickles was born in the New York borough of Queens and raised in a Jewish family, the son of an Eastern-European immigrant father and a formidable mother.
After high school, he went into the Navy and served in the Philippines during World War II. After being honorably discharged, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York before moving to Los Angeles. He began doing stand-up comedy when acting parts were scarce and found that the audience loved his acerbic responses to hecklers.
In Los Angeles Rickles became a stand-up regular at a club called Slate Brothers. The club was the site of his now famous heckling of Sinatra. The singer’s mother Dolly was a friend of Rickles’ mother, and according to Reuters, Dolly forced her son to go to one of the comic’s performances.
When Sinatra walked in, Rickles greeted him with, "Frank, make yourself at home. Hit somebody."
A documentary on Rickles by director John Landis, “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” came out in 2007. The film won two Emmy awards, including one for Rickles as a performer.
Rickles died April 6, 2017, of kidney failure at his Los Angeles home. He was 90.