Mr. Warmth got a warm reception from top comics last week as Don Rickles, the legendary master of the put-down, graciously accepted the Johnny Carson honor at the second annual Comedy Awards, airing Sunday at 9 ET/PT on Comedy Central.
In a career that has (so far) spanned more than 60 years, Rickles, who turns 86 Tuesday, has done films (from Beach Party films of the early '60s to Casino in 1995), sitcoms (CPO Sharkey) and voiced Mr. Potato Head in three Toy Story films.
But he has made his living as an "aggressive" stage comedian. He has outlasted contemporaries such as Alan King, role model Milton Berle (who dubbed him the Merchant of Venom) and Carson, a good friend who hosted him on the Tonight Show more than 100 times and affectionately called him "Mr. Warmth": "It's sarcastic, but it's true," Rickles says.
To many fans, he's known as the prototypical insult comic. He doesn't tell jokes, exactly; his act is the ad-libbed singling out of audience members for ridicule.
Does he like the insult label? "No, I don't, but I got it, and it stuck with me and it didn't hurt me," he said Monday before his 28th appearance with David Letterman, last year's Carson award winner. "Insult, to me, was always something offensive."
Jon Stewart, who presented the award, says: "It's curmudgeon humor more than insult humor. He's a guy who's annoyed at you and things that just bother him." But spend time with Rickles, and you realize it's an act, Stewart says: "He's a comedic actor who created a character antithetical to his heart. Some comedians exist as a cautionary tale; he exists as an aspiration."
Stewart's intro followed a surprise tribute from Robert De Niro, Rickles' co-star in 1995's Casino. "Working with Don Rickles was a turning point in my own career," he told the crowd at Saturday's taping. "That was the last time I worked with Martin Scorsese. Eight pictures together, critical successes, awards, stardom and then — bam! — one film with Don Rickles and it's all down the toilet."
Rickles was especially fond of Frank Sinatra, who had "a lot" to do with Rickles' success and forced Ronald Reagan's 1985 inaugural team to include him, in what became a career highlight, by threatening not to attend. ("That's the kind of guy he was.") Like De Niro, Sinatra warmed to an unbowed Rickles because "I didn't show any fear."
But it was Carson who cemented his stature among viewers. "Johnny didn't mix (socially) as much as Frank," Rickles says. "He'd hide under the chair. But when the lights came on, there was no one better." Among today's late-night hosts, "David, I think, is the closest to Johnny; he's a loner (and) he has that style of laying back. He's a great listener." (And a "sweet" man who dines with him after each appearance and called last December to express condolences for "the terrible heartache of my life," the death of his son Larry, 41.)
Rickles never curses onstage, and his humor is cutting but never mean-spirited. "I'm never unkind, never," he says. "I can't please the world. When you're standing out there doing comedy, not everybody thinks you're funny. But in my case, I've gained a great deal of respect for my age to still be going. I'm by the seat of my pants. I've never had a writer in my life."
And he's still working.
"I just feel like I got a lot of time yet to do. And young people — 35, 22 — they go, 'Hey, Rickles is here, the guy who calls you a hockey puck or dummy.' That's something that always keeps you up there."