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“I only insult big people,” Don Rickles said on his 1960s TV show — adding the caveat, “And you’re all big people.”
Indeed, for half a century no public figure could say they’d truly arrived until they found themselves in the gunsights of the man Johnny Carson dubbed “Mr. Warmth.”
Rickles, who died April 6 at age 90, insulted people’s looks, their race, their physical impairments, their politics, their spouses, their children, even their ancestors.
And they loved every venom-dripping moment of it.
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There was really no secret to why Rickles got that kind of carte blanche even in today’s “snowflake” society: He was transparently lovable, a bald teddy bear with rubber teeth. He still adored the wife he married in 1965 (attracted to her because she didn’t get his jokes), doted over his kids, and delighted in the fact that his grandchildren knew him mostly as Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movies.
He wasn’t the first insult comic; that tradition dates back to the Catskills and the likes of Jack E. Leonard (who once introduced Rickles as “a man who’s been doing my act for about 12 years now”). But Rickles softened the edges of the insult art, delivering his lines with a frantic desperation that hinted at his own frayed bundle of insecurities.
“My whole act is attitude — the attitude makes the joke,” Rickles told an AARP radio show in 2008. “Like I’m talking to you now, and I’m a little bit fed up with the whole thing…”
Rickles was a regular on the dais at celebrity roasts, mercilessly skewering the likes of Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, who made him an honorary member of his Rat Pack.
“You have to kiss his ring,” Rickles said of Sinatra. “It’s in his back pocket.”
To his fans’ unending delight, he was an equal-opportunity insulter. “I’m always afraid,” he said, “that somewhere out there is one person in the audience that I’m not going to offend.”
So Rickles, jaw jutting, veins popping from his forehead, would stalk among the tables, or up and down the aisles, seeking targets for his time-sharpened barbs.
“I spoke to the home — you’re going back!” he’d bark at an elderly audience member (when he himself was in his 80s).
Rickles made one of his last public appearances Feb. 6 at the AARP Movies for Grownups Awards in Beverly Hills. He sat at a table near the back, close to a door to the outside, so he didn’t have to walk far from his car. But in a room that boasted star power like Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and Warren Beatty, there was a steady stream of celebrities, young and old, who wanted to share a quiet moment with the man who reveled in his nickname “The Merchant of Venom.”
The reason for that enduring affection may well be summed up in the words of Morgan Freeman, who helped celebrate Rickles’ career at a New York event in 2014.
“I love you,” Freeman said, “because you never discriminate.”