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Comedian and actor Don Rickles passed away this morning, leaving behind a legacy of sharp-tongued comedy and raucous laughter. But he also had a kind heart, according to those who knew him.

Renowned insult comic Don Rickles passed away this morning at age 90, having lived a life cracking jokes on stage, acting in movies like Casino and Toy Story and making waves guest-starring on late-night talk shows, dramas and sitcoms. Behind Rickles’ salty on-stage presence that won him the title “Merchant of Venom” was a thoughtful and generous man, according to David Fantle, chief marketing officer of Milwaukee’s United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF).

Fantle was present at Rickles’ performance at Potawatomi Hotel and Casino last August (yes, he was still performing comedy at 90!) where Rickles gave a speech commemorating UPAF’s 50th anniversary. His show at Potawatomi was his last in Milwaukee, where he had performed several times over the course of his long career (and Milwaukee Magazine even scored an exclusive interview with Rickles while he was here). Though Rickles sat, resting on a cane, instead of the run-around-the-stage-until-he-sweat-buckets strategy of his youth, he still had high energy and a sharp wit in his last Milwaukee performance, according to Fantle.

Fantle first met Rickles in the late 1990s when he was interviewing him as a freelance pop culture journalist. Being a fan of comedy, Fantle had of course seen Rickles’ famous shows in Las Vegas, so he was afraid Rickles would embody his insult-prone onstage persona. But he couldn’t have been more wrong.

“He was really the opposite of ‘the Merchant of Venom,’” said Fantle. “Offstage he was just a genuine person.”

Fantle would go on to interview Rickles two more times, the last at Potawatomi in August. Though he was a kind and genuine person, Rickles’ onstage sarcasm proved to be a real-life attribute.

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“I’m sitting here in this cellar and I have to do this Mickey Mouse conversation?” Rickles quipped in the August interview. “I just think about how much longer I have to live, but I’m very proud that I’m still working at 90.”

That was the beauty of his comedy, according to Fantle. He amplified his own innate sarcasm on stage by insulting people in the audience and, often, his lifelong friend Frank Sinatra. And he was not a stand-up comedian, Fantle contends. He modified his routine based on his own personal experiences and on the vibe of the audience.

Rickles and his sharp wit will be missed by many, including Fantle.

 “It’s the world’s loss,” said Fantle. “He brought so much joy and laughter, and the world needs more of that right now.”

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