Don Rickles, the master insult comic who created laughs with ridicule and sarcasm in a decades-long career that earned him the facetious nickname "Mr. Warmth," died on Thursday at his Los Angeles home from kidney failure, his publicist said. Rickles, a Queens native, was 90.
Rickles, who said he developed his brand of humorous mockery because he was no good at telling traditional jokes, had recently postponed some performances, including a show set for May in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was pushed back to November just this week.
His death was confirmed by his spokesman, Paul Shefrin, who said Rickles is survived by his wife of 52 years, Barbara, as well as their daughter, Mindy Mann, and two grandchildren. He would have turned 91 next month.
The New York-born Rickles had an intense, often-ad libbed, rapid-fire delivery and a wide, impish grin. He delighted nightclub audiences, Hollywood royalty and politicians by hurling invective at them, all in good fun.
Encountering Frank Sinatra for the first time during a stand-up act in 1957, Rickles greeted the mercurial singer as Sinatra walked in with a retinue of tough guys by saying, "Make yourself at home, Frank - hit somebody."
Luckily for Rickles, the line amused Sinatra, who became one of his biggest boosters and took to calling the short, bald Rickles "Bullethead."
Performing decades later at the second inaugural gala of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Rickles did not hesitate to zing the commander-in-chief, asking, "Is this too fast for you, Ronnie?"
But the most frequent targets of the "Merchant of Venom" were the fans who packed his performances for a chance to be belittled as a "dummy," a "hockey puck" or worse. Celebrities often showed up just for the honor of being mocked by Rickles, and no minority or ethnic group was immune to a Rickles tongue-lashing.