Arts & Entertainment

Comedian Don Rickles, merciless 'Merchant of Venom,' dies at 90

Comedian Don Rickles speaks at the 40th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Shirley MacLaine held at Sony Pictures Studios on June 7, 2012 in Culver City.
Comedian Don Rickles speaks at the 40th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Shirley MacLaine held at Sony Pictures Studios on June 7, 2012 in Culver City.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI
Comedian Don Rickles speaks at the 40th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Shirley MacLaine held at Sony Pictures Studios on June 7, 2012 in Culver City.
Actor John Stamos and Don Rickles attend The Friars Foundation Annual Applause Award Gala honoring Don Rickles at The Waldorf=Astoria on June 24, 2013 in New York City.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Comedian Don Rickles speaks at the 40th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Shirley MacLaine held at Sony Pictures Studios on June 7, 2012 in Culver City.
L-R) Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld, Robert De Niro, Don Rickles, David Letterman and Martin Scorsese attend Spike TV's "Don Rickles: One Night Only" on May 6, 2014 in New York City.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Spike TV
Comedian Don Rickles speaks at the 40th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Shirley MacLaine held at Sony Pictures Studios on June 7, 2012 in Culver City.
Actor Don Rickles poses for photographers during the installation ceremony for director John Lasseter's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Nov. 1, 2011.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Comedian Don Rickles speaks at the 40th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Shirley MacLaine held at Sony Pictures Studios on June 7, 2012 in Culver City.
Don Rickles and Amy Poehler speak onstage at Spike TV's "Don Rickles: One Night Only" on May 6, 2014 in New York City.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Spike TV
Comedian Don Rickles speaks at the 40th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Shirley MacLaine held at Sony Pictures Studios on June 7, 2012 in Culver City.
Comedian Don Rickles and singer Tony Bennett attend the 10th Annual Exploring The Arts Gala at Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 15, 2016 in New York City.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Exploring the Arts, Inc.
Comedian Don Rickles speaks at the 40th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Shirley MacLaine held at Sony Pictures Studios on June 7, 2012 in Culver City.
Comedian Don Rickles accepts an award onstage at The Comedy Awards 2012 at Hammerstein Ballroom on April 28, 2012 in New York City.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images
Comedian Don Rickles speaks at the 40th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Shirley MacLaine held at Sony Pictures Studios on June 7, 2012 in Culver City.
Actor Don Rickles of the film "Mr. Warmth, The Don Rickles Project" poses in the portrait studio during AFI FEST 2007 presented by Audi held at ArcLight Cinemas on Nov. 9, 2007 in Hollywood.
Mark Mainz/Getty Images for AFI


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Before Comedy Central's celebrity roasts, before "American Idol's" Simon Cowell, before Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, one man abused people on TV and in clubs like no other — as one emcee introduced him, "the sultan of insults, the merchant of venom, the pussy cat with claws, Mr. Don Rickles!"

Rickles died of kidney failure Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 90.

He wouldn't be able to get away with it in quite the same way today, but from the 1950s on, Rickles had a simple, successful recipe. Be merciless and spare no one: "That's all Jews do, sit in their underwear, belch, and watch TV," he told one audience. "The Irish guys are staggering around, the colored guys are going, 'Glory, glory hallelujah,' the Mexicans, 'I'm going to the toilet, I don't care what the colored guys do.' And the queers are going, 'Let's go to the park and have a love-out.'"

"Oh, it's very offensive, but not if you're into comedy," comedian Chris Rock said in the 2007 documentary "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project." Rickles didn't use four-letter words — back then that would've been more transgressive than racial and ethnic stereotypes. For personal invective, he called people dummies and hockey pucks.

And when people heckled him in clubs, he shot right back: "Where you from, tiny? Alabama — that's trouble boy, that's trouble. What's your first name? Rufus? Usually from the South they have those flukey names like Booker T. Abraham, Isaac Aloysius Whiteman, Kiss My Sink Alabama Harry."

Rickles was born in Queens, N.Y., in 1926, the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. He served in the Navy during World War II and then began to pursue comedy full time, working East Coast nightclubs and burlesque houses. His career took off in the late 1950s and '60s thanks, in part, to his friend and longtime supporter Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra and Rickles on the Tonight Show

Rickles was the Rat Pack's court jester — Sinatra once appeared on "The Tonight Show" telling a legendary story about an incident in a restaurant, something no one but Rickles could've gotten away with.

"He came over to the table and he said, 'Frank, do me a favor, will you? I'm sitting with a very pretty girl and, uh, I'm trying to make out, you know,' and he said, 'I told her I know you and she really doesn't believe me. Would you stop by the table?' And I said all right, I was just about finished, and I walked by the table and I said, 'How are ya, Don? Nice to see you.' And he said, 'Can't you see I'm eating, Frank?' "

Rickles became a Las Vegas fixture at Rat Pack hangouts like the Sands Hotel, where every audience became a target. In 1968 he recorded a bestselling comedy album live at the Sands called "Hello, Dummy". And in Hollywood, being insulted by Rickles was a compliment. His most memorable — and ubiquitous — performances were on late night talk shows.

Rickles on Leno

For decades, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and David Letterman relied on Rickles' ability to tickle viewers with his infinite arsenal of zingers.

Rickles on Letterman

Rickles also acted in dozens of movies and TV shows, and provided the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the "Toy Story" movies.

Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head

There was always a sentimental side to Don Rickles. Not convinced? Then consider this, ya hockey puck, from that album "Hello, Dummy:" "Will Rogers once said: I never picked on a little guy, only big people. May I say to this entire audience, on a hectic night, you are pretty big and I do thank each and every one of you."

Rickles wanted everyone to know that his insults were all in fun — but let's face it, it's the insults we're remembering. Ya hockey puck.

This story has been updated.