A conversation about jokes, dames, and Frank with the late comedy genius.
There have been many things said about Don Rickles, but his comedic essence was summed up most perfectly by Sarah Silverman.“Everyone wants to get shit on by Don Rickles,” she said.
It’s true. Watch any video of Rickles in action—slinging insults at Howard Stern, or Johnny Carson on the old Tonight Show, or countless famous people on countless Dean Martin Roasts, or on stage on Las Vegas (where he still performs regularly to this day)—and you’ll see audiences, famous and otherwise, howling with appreciative laughter. Being mocked by Rickles is our equivalent of being knighted by the Queen in the U.K. You’re a fool if you take it too seriously, but it’s still an honor.
For half a century, Rickles—who recently celebrated his 90th birthday—has been America’s favorite curmudgeon, the cranky old bastard who doesn’t have the patience for anybody, and even when he’s being a little bit racist—he’s been known to say things like, “If you’re not Chinese, you should get your eyes checked”—you still want to root for him. “Being funny is like being a pretty girl,” Chris Rock has said of Rickles. “You get away with a lot of shit.”
But the best and funniest stories about Don Rickles aren’t about his act. They’re the stories that happened off the clock, when Rickles was just having fun with (or at the expense of) his friends. Like the time, many years ago, when he brought a woman to dinner at the Sands casino in Las Vegas, and she noticed Frank Sinatra at a nearby table.
“Do you know him?” his star struck date asked. Rickles slipped over to Sinatra and asked for a favor. Could he come by their table and say hello, help him impress his date? “For you, I’ll do it,” Sinatra told him.
A few minutes later, Sinatra walked over to their table. “Don, how the hell are you?” he asked.
“Not now, Frank,” Rickles shot back with an annoyed grunt. “Can’t you see I’m with somebody?”
I called Rickles at his home in California, expecting the worst. To my absolute delight, that’s exactly what I got.
Don Rickles: What? What is it you want from me?
Eric Spitznagel: Just to hear your sweet voice, Mr. Rickles.
Yeah, okay. Have we ever met before? Who is this? What magazine is this for again?
Men’s what? Men’s Health?
You obviously have the wrong number.
(Rickles hangs up. We immediately call back.)
You’re sure you want to do this?
If you ask me how many push-ups I do, I’m hanging up again.
We want to talk about comedy! Do you remember the first time you got a laugh?
Are you kidding me? That was 90 years ago. Why do you think I’d remember that? I’m not that kind of guy. I can’t remember something that happened 90 years ago.
You got your first laugh when you were born?
What? No, I didn’t say that.
You just turned 90. If you got your first laugh 90 years ago, that’d be around the time you were being born.
I don’t know anything about that.
You weren’t coming out of your mom making wisecracks?
Maybe, I don’t know. Talk to the doctor. I don’t think I was a funny fetus. It’s possible. I was a funny at school. I remember this one time, I was taking a test, and it was a really important test. I was leaning over to the girl sitting at the desk next to me, looking at her answers. The teacher saw me, and he walked over and said, “Mr. Rickles, what are you doing?” I looked up at him and said, “I’m cheating!”
The whole class laughed, just like you’re laughing. Even the teacher enjoyed it. He just nodded and said, “Okay then,” and kept on walking.
Is that when you knew, “Yep, this is it, this is what I’m doing for the rest of my life?”
No. I was a kid. How the hell would I know what I wanted to do with my life?
Well, you got that reinforcement. Your peers laughed. The teacher didn’t punish you. Being funny didn’t feel like magic?
But funny didn’t mean anything. It was just my personality. It was just the way I looked at the world. And it didn’t always help me. When I was in the Navy, I was the funny one, and it never helped me. I told my jokes, and my commanders just said, “Whatever, keep firing.”
What about in social situations? Were you always the one getting the girl?
The opposite. We’d go out, a bunch of Navy guys looking for girls, and the girls all ignored me. I ended up being the driver. I think girls were afraid of me.
I think they thought I was going to make fun of them.
Well, sometimes. But it was harmless. Just a crack here or there.
Can you blame them for being afraid? We can’t think of anything more horrifying than being naked in front of Don Rickles.
Well don’t worry, it’s never happening for you.
We always hear that women just want a guy with a sense of humor, but for you that wasn’t the case?
Being funny, it was never a move for me. It wasn’t something I was doing to impress anybody. It was just my personality. I was shy, so I cracked the jokes. And it drove the women away. I was 38 years old before I got married. I’ve been married to Barbara now, god bless her, for 52 years.
When you first met her, did she think you were funny?
Not at all. I met Barbara when she was the secretary for my picture agent.
My agent. For the pictures. What are you, deaf?
Oh, oh, okay. We didn’t understand “pictures.” You mean movies.
Yes, movies. Jesus. Try to keep up.
She worked for your agent for the talking picture shows?
[Beat.] Oh, you want to tangle, do you?
[Laughs.] No, no, sorry, sorry. You were saying?
I come in to meet my agent, and Barbara stops me, asks who I am. And I tell her, “I’m a butcher. I want to know if he wants porterhouse or sirloin.” She didn’t even crack a smile. She just said, “Being a wise guy won’t get you in to see him.” I asked her out right then and there.
After all these years together, does she laugh at your jokes? Or does she just roll her eyes?
I never watch her eyes. Maybe you do. You can come over to the house, watch her eyes for awhile. What are you, a goddamn psychologist? Why are you asking so many questions about my wife?
I’m in the business 70 years, I’ve never had anybody say to me, “Does she roll your eyes at you?” Only you.
Idiot questions. A waste of my time!
Your friend Bob Newhart once said that he couldn’t figure out “how you do what you do and yet still live.” Does that surprise you as well?
Does what surprise me?
That nobody has ever tried to take a swing at you?
It’s just my personality. It was a rough road in the beginning, early in my career. Sometimes people would be like, “What the hell is that all about?” But you just have to get better at selling yourself. If you sell yourself the right way, everybody will walk out loving you, even if you’ve insulted them.
One of the biggest breaks of your career was also the biggest risk. Frank Sinatra came to your show, and you made a joke about him beating up people.
No, no, Frank and I were friends. I could say almost anything to him.
We’re talking about the first time he saw you. When he walked into that club down in Florida.
Oh yeah, right.
When your mom convinced Sinatra’s mom to make Frank come to your show. Which, coincidentally, is an amazing story in itself.
My mom was always sort of a Jewish Patton. A very strong lady. I was working in Miami at some dumpy joint, and Frank was starring at the Fontainebleau at the time. My mom makes it a point to find Dolly Sinatra, Frank’s mother, and they sit down and have a long talk. My mom tells her, “It would be great if Frank went to see Don’s act.” Dolly was like, “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure Frank shows up.” And he does!
Because moms are all powerful.
They were both really magnificent women.
So Frank walks in, and you tell him, “Hey Frank, make yourself at home. Hit somebody!”
When that came out of your mouth, were you as shocked as anybody? In your head, were you like, “Holy shit, did I seriously say that?”
No, no, not at all. I wasn’t worried. What did I have to be worried about?
He was Frank Sinatra. One of the biggest celebrities in the world. You were an unknown comic playing, in your words, “dumpy joints.” The Chairman of the Board comes to see your show, as a favor to his mom, and you insult him. And then you upped the ante. You tell him, “Your voice is gone.” That is amazing!
How is that amazing?
It’d be like one of us going to a job interview and saying to the boss, “Listen, you bloated old bastard. Your glory years are behind you, and I’m pretty sure you beat your wife.” That’s some brass balls right there, my friend.
I didn’t think of it that way. I thought, that’s my personality. This is what I do. Win, lose, or draw, it’s what I do. Fortunately for me, Frank thought it was funny.
But if he didn’t, you blew your one chance to make an impression on the guy who could change your life.
So what? So what if it never happened for me? You got to be true to yourself, right? You play the room the way you need to play it. That’s all that matters.
We’ve heard a lot of stories about you pulling pranks on Sinatra. Did he ever get revenge?
So many times. He once pulled me out of the steam room at the Sands and threw me into the swimming area. I wasn’t wearing a thing. I was in my birthday suit. I tried to convince people I was a beach umbrella. And one time, I ended up in handcuffs. . .
Wait, this is a different story? This didn’t happen while you were naked, right?
Different time. He sent two cops over to the Sahara where I was working, and they pulled me off the stage and put handcuffs on me and took me over to the Sands. Frank was doing a show, and these cops brought me to the stage. Frank and I kidded around for like 20 minutes. And then they locked me in his hotel room.
It was a different Vegas back then.
It really was. Frank was wonderful. God rest his soul, when he walked into a room, it stopped. Any place we went. He had that kind of charisma.
How long do you want to keep doing this?
Doing what? Talking to you?
Performing. Doing stand-up. You’re 90 now. How many more years do you have in you?
As long as my health keeps up, and the audience shows up, I’ll keep doing it. When it doesn’t come anymore, I’ll know it’s time to quit.
That’s hard to imagine. You don’t seem like the quitting sort.
No, you’re right. It’s not really in my character. My mom was the same way. Even towards the end.
She wasn’t ready to go?
Not at all. She had emphysema and cancer, and it wasn’t easy for her. I tried to cheer her up. I remember visiting her at the hospital, and she looked so frail and weak. I said, “Mom, you’re 84 years old! A lot of people don’t make it that far. You should be happy. You’re 84!” She looked at me, and with this sad look on her face, she said, “I can’t be 85?”
Do you feel the same way about your own life? Anything for just one more good year?
I know what she meant. You want to be happy for everything you’ve had, grateful for how long you’ve been around. But whenever I think about it being over, it’s just . . . I want a little bit more.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the July/August 2016 issue of Men’s Health.)