Comedy legend Don Rickles is 90 years old, but his acid-tongued wit is still intact. He will be dishing out the insults at the Potawatomi Casino August 16th and 17th, but he managed to make time to talk with writer Jimmy McDonough about his six decades in show biz.
What did you admire most about Sinatra?
He had a wonderful magic. Frank walked into a room and everything stopped. He had great charisma, he was a magnificent singer. He had another side of him–I’ve seen his temper…Frank had no grey areas. Either you were a friend, or forget about it. My wife and I, he treated us like family. I adored him.
He’d come over to my table and I’d say, ‘Not now, Frank, I’m eating!’ And he’d fall down laughing. Nobody else could do that.
There’s that incredible night at Murray Franklin’s club in Miami early in your stand-up days when Sinatra walked in and saw your act for the first time and you said, “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody.” Thankfully he laughed—and it changed your career. Did you plan what you were going to say to him in advance?
No, I didn’t know what I was going to say. To this day, I never plan my show. I have a beginning, middle and ending. My shows always change with what I see in the audience–and how I feel. When Frank came in it was always a big thrill for me, because I never knew what kind of comments I was gonna make—but I knew he always enjoyed it. Frank always laughed.
Did anybody influence you? Did you have any heroes?
When I was a very young man starting out, Milton Berle—God rest his soul—was my hero. Later on in life I became his hero. [chuckles]
Before I’d do his show, I’d tell him I was gonna walk out on television and say, ‘Good evening, Milton.’ And he would say, ‘Is that the way you’re gonna do it?’ And then we’d have to have a twenty-minute meeting. I’d say, ‘Well, what’s wrong with that, Milton?’ He’d say, ‘You don’t know?’ And we’d start again. He’d go, ‘It’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong.’
Like Bob Hope, he came from another school. They were very smart and clever. They were always trying to be in charge of people.
You’ve said playing Joe Scandori’s club in Brooklyn the Elegante Club was where your “style came together.”
I used to work in his place, do bas mitzvahs, weddings, anything. Work forty million hours a night. Joe Scandori, rest his soul, became my manager and we were together many, many years. He took care of me. With his influence I started to move up the ladder. It was a great experience working there.
Jules Podell ran the world-famous Copacabana in New York City and was not a fan, at least originally. Is it true Podell was made an offer he couldn’t refuse when it came to booking you at the Copa?
Oh, yeah. My manager and I went to see him he said, [does a gravelly, tough-guy voice] ‘This kid is not gonna work in my club. I don’t need anybody pickin’ on anybody. So get him outta here, he’s not gonna work.’
And unbeknownst to me, some guys my manager knew—Brooklyn guys–called him up. The next night Joe said, ‘Let’s go see Jules.’ I said, ‘He just told me to get out!’ Joe said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ And we went to see him and this time Jules said, ‘You are the funniest kid in the world. And you’re gonna work the Copacabana—as long as you want.’
You’ve said “Wiseguys were great to performers.” Did they ever get mad at your act?
Most of those guys were great to me. I was very fortunate. In fact, we were robbed in New York once in a hotel they took everything and I said, ‘Joe, they really cleaned me out.’ Then I went on Johnny Carson and kidded about it. About two days later there was a bag in front of the door with everything they took.
From what I hear your act didn’t catch on right away.
There were a lot of places they didn’t want me in. I was in the car goin’ home. The joke was, my mother used to say, ‘I’ll keep the car warmed up. You do your act.’ Then people warmed to me, I started to make money—and she never warmed up the car.
You can’t please everybody. You’re out there selling yourself.
Did you ever think, “Maybe I should just stick to telling jokes”?
I started out like a million other guys, doing jokes and doing impressions– I had a lousy act. I can’t tell jokes too well. I didn’t make it, I wasn’t going anyplace. By accident I started talking to the audience–talking about myself, exaggerating things about my mother, my life–and people started laughing. I thought, ‘Hey, this is a good thing’ and I kept doing it.
I’ve heard your Peter Lorre impression, Don. I think you made the right decision.[Laughs.] Thanks.
When did you realize you could improvise onstage?
I didn’t plan it, Jimmy. It just happened. It’s my personality. I started talking to the audience and it came out funny. It’s my attitude.
I always say to young people–for me, the whole thing in comedy is attitude.
What the toughest joint you ever played?
That’s hard to say. I worked at a place called the Melody Club in Union City, Jersey. For a guy called Pete Clunk. That’s a hundred years ago. I worked in a lot of tough spots, because in those days it was burlesque and exotic dancers. I was the comedian. I was filling in the time in between their dance numbers. It’s all experience. When you’re on the stage and starting out, you gotta go through a lot of tough times to get there. That’s the way it was in my case.
Now, the highlight of my career was doing the Ronald Reagan Inaugural with Sinatra. That was great.
You had to go on that night in 1953 at Wayne Room in Washington, D.C. after finding out your father Max had died. Tell me about that show.
My cousin Jerry, rest his soul, came and told me the news before the show. And for some reason I went on and did one of my best shows ever. It was only afterwards that I came down to earth and was in tremendous mourning.
What is it about Don Rickles that you can deal with a tragedy by going out and making an audience laugh?
You gotta ask a psychiatrist. Which I don’t go to. But maybe they can figure out.
I think you’re a tremendous actor. Do you have a favorite film you’ve been in most proud of?
Well, the last one was great–Casino with Robert DeNiro. I loved that. And I loved The Rat Race with Debbie Reynolds. And working with Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable in Run Silent, Run Deep.
What was different about making a movie with Martin Scorsese?
Bob is an outstanding actor. He’s a great man and has a wonderful way about him. It was exciting with Martin Scorsese directing. Quite a thrill for me, being in that film.
Did you think of Casino was an accurate portrayal of that side of Las Vegas?
Well, they take liberties. I don’t know if it’s that accurate. But it’s pretty close.
Got any good Joe Pesci stories?
Joe was a good guy. I think sometimes he believed he was with the Mob. But he got over that.
I hear your mother Etta could sometimes be a tough critic of your act.
My mother was a very modern, very American style lady—a very strong lady. I always kidded her—she was like the Jew Patton.
I’m an only child. We got along great. She was in charge most of the time. She knew I was very talented, and she was very supportive.
The joke was when I started out doing what I do, she always used to say to me, ‘Why can’t you be more like Alan King?’
And then, when I started to make money she said, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about it—You’re very clever.’
But she always used to get nervous when I was pickin’ on people.
Do you remember the very first time you walked onstage and did standup?
No. I’m ninety years old. You find out!
You almost met Jimmy Carter once.
Bob Newhart and I went to the White House. Mondale said, ‘You’re gonna meet the President.’ We went into the Oval Office and all that was there was a sweater on a chair. He was afraid to see me!
How did you actually snag Barbara, your beautiful wife? I hear she wasn’t too impressed originally.
She was my motion picture agent’s secretary. Opposites attract. Barbara was very different than most of the girls I knew and I started to pursue her pretty good. Thank God she realized there’s another side to me. And we’ve been married 51 years.
Does she find Don Rickles funny?
She enjoys me. But when you’re married 51 years you don’t sit in the house and laugh every day.
Who’s funny to Don Rickles?
I adore a guy called Nathan Lane. I just enjoy him. And, of course, my dear friend Bob Newhart.
What’s Don Rickles’ favorite meal?
It used to be steak and potatoes. Chinese food I really enjoy.
If you could be reincarnated, what would you come back as?