Don Jay Rickles
Don Jay Rickles was born on May 8th, 1926 in Queens, New York to Max Rickles, an insurance salesman and his wife Etta Feldman. Growing up an only child he left home at 18 and enlisted in the Navy, serving the United States in the Philippines during World War II. Shortly after he was discharged from his post he returned to New York City and began studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After this major career change Rickles found it hard to find any acting jobs and worked a mix of sales jobs while performing at bingo parlors, churches, and synagogues. A few years later he moved to Los Angeles with the dream of landing an acting job and finally starting his career in the limelight. While in LA he accepted a few part time roles on television shows and began honing in on his stand up comedy routine. During his performances he began to notice his audience would laugh far louder at his off the cuff responses to hecklers in the audience than to his written jokes, Rickles realized he had found his comedic niche of poking fun and simply being loud. Rickles’ witty and boisterous personality blossomed into a full fledged comedic personality that celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin idolized.
Finding His Voice
The story goes that one night in 1957 Frank Sinatra and his friends came to see Don Rickles perform in Hollywood. As Sinatra took his seat, Rickles looked down on the world-famous singer songwriter and said, “make yourself at home, Frank.” Apparently, Sinatra laughed so hard he just about fell out of his seat. Although a favorite of Sinatra’s, Rickles spent almost a decade trying to break through to a national audience. During the glory years of “The Tonight Show,” with Johnny Carson, Don Rickles made numerous appearances poking fun at Johnny Carson. This led him to a slew of cameos on Dean Martin’s television roasts where he soared at heckling the celebrities that adorned the stage. It was often said that no matter the man or woman that took the stage they were never safe from Don Rickles’ jokes and jabs. Carl Reiner, a popular American screenwriter at the time said, “if they hadn’t been insulted by Rickles, they weren’t it.”
The 1960s and Beyond
In 1968 Rickles landed his first variety show called, “The Don Rickles Show.” Although only lasting a season, viewers loved the hour a day they spent laughing with Rickles. In 1972, “The Don Rickles Show” was revived as a sitcom, but again only on air for a short period of time. His 1993 sitcom, “Daddy Dearest” starred Richard Lewis as his son. Although his time starring and producing his television shows was short-lived, his career was far from over. Critics found it hard to describe his energy on stage, his affinity with his audience, and his resilience to all obstacles. Rickles explanation of his ability to bounce back: “I’m the guy at the Christmas party who makes fun of the boss on Friday night and still has a job on Monday morning.” Rickles truly was a comedic master with a unique enough delivery to get through any blow he delivered.
Later in his career he was cast in “Casino” with Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone, a movie that quickly became a cult classic for movie lovers. Rickles also found huge success as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the highly popular movie, “Toy Story,” and in 2011 played Betty White’s husband in the sitcom, “Hot in Cleveland.”
In 2007, Rickles published a memoir called “Rickles’ Book” which was later loosely adapted into a HBO documentary about the Stardust Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas and the stars that performed and hung around there. In 2014, Spike Cable channel threw him a TV tribute featuring David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, and Bob Newhart – some of Rickles’ closest friends from the industry. As health issues began to inhibit Rickles from performing as frequently as he had before, resilient as ever, he continued to make television and concert appearances and was one of the final guests on “Late Night with David Letterman” in 2015.
Don Rickles died on April 6th, 2017 leaving behind his wife, Barbara Rickles, their two children, Larry and Mindy, and two grandchildren, Ethan and Harrison. Rickles was a force of nature, a comic with a distinct voice, and the ultimate roaster, he will always be remembered for the mark he left on Los Angeles and the film and television industry.
Little is known about Don Rickles time as a Mason in his hometown of Queens as a member of Service City Geba Lodge No. 1009 in Astoria, New York. He was raised a Master Mason on June 6th, 1953 after attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. His life is an example of how with hard work, time, patience, and perseverance, a person can achieve great success. One can assume he upheld the tenets of Relief, Truth, and Brotherly Love and found a few ways to poke fun at his fellow Brethren.