Don Rickles, the influential and ultimately lovable insult comic who put the phrase “hockey puck” into the language as a putdown, died of kidney failure today at 90.
Rickles aspired to be an actor — and he wound up with co-starring roles in a number of films, including Run Silent Run Deep, Bikini Beach and Kelly’s Heroes— but he made his mark insulting his audiences, who reveled in it.
Rickles credited his big break to a night when Frank Sinatra caught his act. The comic took a chance, razzing the thin-skinned tough guy. “Frank, make yourself at home — hit somebody,” he said, and was met with gales of laughter from Sinatra and his entourage. The two became close friends, and Sinatra became a lifelong Rickles fan.
Rickles, who was called “Mister Warmth” and “The Merchant of Venom,” made several stabs at network television, starring in CPO Sharkey and The Don Rickles Show, but his greatest impact on the small screen was from his constant presence on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. In the ’90s, he wound up with an unlikely new group of fans — kids who knew him from his voicing of the sharp-tongued “Mister Potatohead” in the Toy Story series.
Don Rickles, who would sing “I’m a Nice Guy” after skewering his audiences with two hours of politically incorrect barbs, was the subject of a 2007 John Landis documentary, Mister Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, which won an Emmy.
Rickles leaves behind his wife of more than five decades, Barbara, as well as daughter (their son died in 2011) and two grandchildren.