More than 20 years ago, Martin Scorsese set out to make a movie about Las Vegas in the 1950s. The legendary director says the decision to cast Robert DeNiro in the role of Sam Rothstein, a gambling handicapper brought in by the Italian Mob to oversee day-to-day operations at a casino, was an easy one. The role of Billy Sherbert as a casino manager alongside DeNiro fell to Don Rickles. It was another easy choice; Casino was the outcome.
Rickles knew the turf intimately. When the characters on whom the film was based actually ran the places, he was there. Rickles, running with Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack at the time, knew them as “wise guys.” They were, says Rickles, class acts.
But making the film was not as easy as they expected. Rickles proved even harder to manage than the notoriously tempestuous DeNiro. The problem was that most of Rickles scenes called for him to stand quietly beside DeNiro and glower. Keeping quiet does not come naturally to Don Rickles, as our outtakes from the film attest.
Casino was the last time Scorsese and DeNiro worked together on a film. They appeared together in 2014 to roast Rickles -- in typically Ricklesian fashion -- at the Apollo Theater, but until we sat the three of them down together in early 2017 they had not met to reminisce about standup comedy, filmmaking and the legends of Hollywood since the film. It was to be the last time they met with Rickles.
After Rickles’ death in April 2017, Scorsese praised his old friend in the warmest of terms. Watching Rickles work "was like listening to a great jazz musician wail,” he said. “Nobody else did what he did. He made comedy into an art form. And like all geniuses, comic or otherwise, he's irreplaceable. He was much loved. I'm really missing this man."
As are we all.
Watch 'Dinner with Don'
Episode: Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro
The series was produced by AARP Studios, Winbrook Entertainment and Stamper Lumber Company.