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The Unbearable Lightness of Don Rickles

His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one — it is too offensive to be offensive. – Gay Talese

don_ricklesDon Rickles is bigger than stand-up comedy. The same way Frank Sinatra is bigger than singing. They each developed a style which would, in essence, become its own genre. They were both actors and, more accurately, entertainers. And they both forged their respective careers by refusing to compromise or vainly chase ephemeral trends. Such stuff as icons are made.

Don Rickles studied acting formally at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Spencer Tracy and Kirk Douglas studied. Rickles admits he wasn’t the best student at the Academy, but he received advice and direction there which he applied throughout his career. Rickles landed some film and television roles and appeared in a few stage productions, but the loudmouthed Jewish kid from Jackson Heights made a name for himself with his quick, merciless wit.

Don Rickles never hesitates to credit his mother for much of his success. Like most comedians of his era, Rickles got his start playing mob-run dives and strip clubs. Etta Rickles, who he affectionately refers to as “General Patton,” hustled all the comedian’s early gigs, marching into club owners’ offices and demanding her son be given a slot.

Shortly after the Rickles family moved to Palm Beach, Etta learned that Frank Sinatra was performing in town, and that the famous singer’s mother, Dolly Sinatra, was staying at a nearby hotel. Etta somehow met, and charmed, Dolly. The two mothers hit it off and Dolly assured Etta that her son Frank would be at Don’s show that night. Dolly Sinatra made good on her promise; Frank and entourage showed up for Rickles’ set. Upon seeing Sinatra enter, Rickles quipped, “Make yourself comfortable, Frank, hit somebody.” Silence. Sinatra’s entourage looked to the Chairman for direction. Sinatra howled. Rickles doubled down, “Frank, believe me, I’m telling you this as a friend: Your voice is gone.”

That was it. Continue reading →