Shared from the 2017-04-07 Chattanooga eEdition

1926 –2017

The king of insult comedy



Don Rickles, whose barrage of barbs upon the meek and the mighty endeared him to audiences and his peers for decades, died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles.


LOS ANGELES — Don Rickles, the big-mouthed, bald-headed comedian whose verbal assaults endeared him to audiences and peers and made him the acknowledged grandmaster of insult comedy, died Thursday. He was 90.

Rickles, who would have been 91 on May 8, suffered kidney failure and died Thursday morning at his home, said Paul Shefrin, his longtime publicist and friend.

For more than half a century, Rickles headlined casinos and nightclubs from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, N.J., and livened up latenight talk shows. No one was exempt from Rickles’ insults, not fans or presidents or such fellow celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Johnny Carson.

Despite jokes that from other comics might have inspired boycotts, he was one

Don Rickles

dies at 90

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 Rickles helped inspire the blustering Sonny Corleone of “The Godfather.” 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 in the late 1950s, a time when comics such as 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 as 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.

In a 1993 Associated Press interview, Rickles’ brassy voice softened when he was asked how he wanted people to remember him.

“If people know me well, they know I’m an honest friend. I’m emotional; I’m caring; I’m loyal. Loyalty in this business is very important.”

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