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Performing Arts

Don Rickles, king of insult comedy, dies at 90

Don Rickles, the hollering, bald-headed “Merchant of Venom” 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. He was 90.

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, New Jersey, and livened up late-night 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 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 that 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 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. “Not that you had to like it, but you had to be under a rock somewhere not to get it.”

In 2008, he won the Emmy for best individual performance in a variety show for the HBO film, “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.” In 2012, he received the Johnny Carson Award for Comedic Excellence, a fitting tribute for a man whose big breakthrough came on “The Tonight Show” more than 40 years earlier.

Rickles was a stage comic and occasional movie actor when he sat down on the couch next to Carson’s desk and muttered, “Hello, dummy.” The studio audience was initially startled, but when the host began laughing uncontrollably, so did everyone else. He would appear countless more times, haranguing Carson about not being invited more often or mocking his own love life.

“My wife just lays there, saying, ‘Help me with my jewelry,’” was a typical joke.

For his standup act, Rickles would begin a show by charging on stage and berating the people sitting down front. To an elderly lady he might say, “What are you doing up, Mom? Go lie down.” After kissing a woman’s hand: “What’d you have for dinner? Fish?”

His bald heading shining, he would gleefully croon his theme song, “I’m a Nice Guy,” and make fun of blacks and gays, the Irish and the Italians, with special attention for his own people, the Jews. A favorite epithet was the nonsensical “hockey puck,” as in, “You’re a real hockey puck.”

To his great disappointment, Rickles was never able to transfer his success to a long-running weekly situation comedy. “The Don Rickles Show” lasted just one season (1972). “C.P.O. Sharkey,” in which he played an acid-tongued Navy chief petty officer, fared slightly better, airing from 1976 to 1978.

Rickles’ films ranged from comedies to dramas and included “Run Silent, Run Deep” (starring Clark Gable), “The Rat Race,” (Tony Curtis), “Kelly’s Heroes” (Clint Eastwood) and Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” (Robert De Niro). He also appeared in four “Beach Party” films in the 1960s and provided the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the animated “Toy Story” films.

Rickles set out to be a serious actor but had little luck finding acting jobs and supported himself by selling used cars, life insurance and cosmetics – badly, he said. (“I couldn’t sell air conditioners on a 98-degree day.”)

He finally decided to try comedy, appearing at small hotels in New York’s Catskill mountains and in rundown night clubs. The turning point came at a strip joint in Washington, D.C. “The customers were right on top of you, always heckling, and I gave it right back to them,” he said in 1982.

He married Barbara Sklar, his agent’s secretary, in 1965, and they had two children, actress Mindy Rickles and writer-producer Lawrence Rickles, who died of complications from pneumonia in 2011.

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.”

The late AP entertainment writer Bob Thomas contributed biographical material to this report.