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Offstage, Rickles slaps fewer hockey pucks

Chatting about his autobiography, the comedian, known for his insults, displays the nice guy underneath.

June 29, 2007|Arthur Spiegelman | Reuters

There's a secret to the success of 81-year-old insult comedian and beloved American institution Don Rickles: He cannot tell a joke.

He's a comedian famed for telling off all and sundry -- calling everyone a "hockey puck," from his wife to a mercurial Frank Sinatra, whose old blue eyes would give no hint of whether he was going to laugh or hit. Talk about flirting with danger.

Over a Bloody Mary, Rickles tried to explain his style, how he came to insult anyone who wandered across his path.

"I just can't tell jokes. It wasn't that someone gave me a hard time and I insulted him back. It's just that I tell jokes badly, and as a young man I had a personality that I could rib somebody and get away with it. My father was the same way. My mother was a Jewish Gen. Patton."

In his just-published autobiography, "Rickles' Book," the man nicknamed "Mr. Warmth" recounts his finest "hits," or insults, especially his assaults on Sinatra.

The singer's mother was a friend of Rickles' mother, and because of entreaties from "Gen. Patton," Dolly Sinatra forced her son to go see Rickles at a club. Sinatra walked in with a coterie of tough guys, and Rickles looked at him and said: "Frank, make yourself at home. Hit somebody."

"Sinatra paused and then smiled. No one ever talked to him like that before," Rickles said, fondly recalling that Sinatra "liked to call me 'bullet-head.' "

Then there was the time that he privately asked Sinatra to join his table to impress a girl he dated. As Sinatra went over, Rickles said: "Not now, Frank. Can't you see that I am with someone?"

"He laughed like crazy, and he signaled to his security men to carry me out of the casino. The whole place laughed," said Rickles, whose show business career was filled with famous friendships and unexpected collaborations.

"Sinatra had a lot of mood swings, but he was wonderful to my wife, Barbara, and to me. He made no bones about who he liked and who he loved, and he had this great charisma. When he walked into a room, it stopped. I've only seen that happen with Ronald Reagan."

That never stopped him from throwing in the zingers when he performed in front of Reagan. "Is this too fast for you, Ronnie?" As he speaks, a fan materializes out of nowhere with a napkin to be autographed. "You're the greatest, the funniest," he tells Rickles, the man who can't tell a joke.

Since Rickles is not working, he doesn't insult him but mumbles a humble thank you. Off-duty, Rickles is a gentle man who instantly calls his interviewer by his first name and continually offers to buy the drinks. It is hard to believe that he earns his living by snarling at people.

Rickles says his insults are all ad-libs, no matter how many times he recycles them. He also claims that that they are never mean-spirited, and he is probably right.

"In my heart and soul, I have no idea what I am going to say. You laugh because of the way I say it. It is the attitude you convey, not the joke," Rickles said.

That freewheeling method of working caused problems for him when he worked on Bob Hope's television show.

"Bob Hope was totally regimented. I go in and say a line like 'Hi, Bob,' and I'd have to do it five times, and then Bob would take me to the writers to say the line different ways. He wouldn't let me ad-lib. Like I'd meet George Foreman and joke, "I'm gonna drop you," and Hope would change it back to whatever was in the script, like 'Hi, George.' "

Over the years, Rickles questioned whether he received the respect he felt he deserved.

"I was never considered 'the guy.' Alan King, a comedian I adored, was considered society, and I was considered the Jewish kid from the neighborhood. It was like, 'Don't worry about Rickles' and 'Oh, hi, Alan, what can we do for you?' I never got respect, but now I do."

Now he is a show business icon with a bestselling book to boast about. Not bad for a man who played the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the "Toy Story" movies.

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