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Tony Oppedisano on the Making of 'Dinner with Don'

Longtime manager and friend of Don Rickles discusses the making of the series and reflects on the comedy legend’s career

Take on Today Podcast

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Bob Edwards:

Hello! I'm Bob Edwards with an AARP take on today.

Andy Warhol reputedly said everyone will get their 15 minutes of fame, but some celebrity outlasts a lifetime.  

More than a hundred books tell the story of Frank Sinatra’s life, even though he died two decades ago.  

Then there’s the legendary stand-up comedian Don Rickles.  His reputation for never pulling a punch earned him the nicknames “Mr. Warmth” and the “Merchant of Venom.”  

[Play Dinner With Don Clip]

It was Sinatra’s support that boosted Rickles’ career in Las Vegas.

But that’s not all the two men had in common.  

One of my guests today, Tony Oppedisano, was Sinatra’s friend and road manager.  Later, he became Don Rickles’ manager.

After Rickles passed in 2017, Winbrook Entertainment, Stamper Lumber and AARP Studios launched an original video tribute series that Rickles had been working on. 

It features an all-star cast – including Jimmy Kimmel, Snoop Dogg, Amy Poehler, Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman, Billy Crystal, Marisa Tomei, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese – and more.  

It’s called “Dinner With Don.”

[Play Dinner With Don Clip]

Bob Edwards:

Tell me about this series. 

Tony O.: 

The Dinner with Don series is something that I came up with and then kind of molded it into what it became with my producing partner Michael Guarnera. And, you know, bouncing ideas off Don. 

It's funny. Don had such an eclectic group of friends and fans, as well. Ranging in every age group from Millennials all the way up to people in his own age bracket. And, you know, I would witness Don getting calls or over dinner conversations from all kinds of people from guys like Ryan Gosling to two guys that were almost like adopted sons to him, Bob Saget and John Stamos. Asking him any range of advice whether it be business advice, or you know romantic advice on girlfriends and stuff like that.  I mean he once even got a call from Japan, I thought it was a joke initially, but he got a call from Japan from a guy that he met. At that point he had only met once: Johnny Depp. And they met at the Shrine Auditorium backstage while we were shooting Sinatra's 80th birthday television special. 

And so, you know this guy is like an armchair psychologist and I'm sure that people are as curious about his life, as you know as he is about theirs. And Don used to love to go out to dinner, usually at least three nights a week when we were not on the road. And that's basically how the concept came to be. Don loved the idea and had fun with it. 

The best part of it was that he didn't actually even have to carry most of the weight. I mean it was a reciprocal kind of thing with the people that sat down with him. These people were all thrilled to be in his company and have their moment in time memorialized for posterity. I mean, I got a beautiful note from Marty Scorsese, just thanking me. Literally thanking me for coming up with the concept and he said I still can't believe that the very last work Don did on this planet was with me and Robert De Niro.

[Insert Clip: Scorses and De Niro]

Bob Edwards:

It's a great idea. Just simple conversation and lots of opportunities for humor. 

Tony O.:

Yeah. And, you know, exploring other people. I mean the one that I really didn't expect and it was an extremely pleasant surprise was the one we did with Snoop Dogg. And the man is very, very, very bright. Very intelligent, very eloquent. He was so reverent in Don’s company. I mean he literally said to Don, you know, forget the publicity and all the stuff that you read. He said, you know, the fact that I've been given the opportunity to sit down with you – an iconic legend –  is maybe, just maybe, an indication that I finally made it in this business. And he said I'm half the man you are. You are who I aspire to be at some point in my life. 

[Play Dinner With Don Clip]

Bob Edwards:

And you get to goof on the servers and do shtick with the check.

Tony O.:

Oh yeah. Well. you know, typical with Don. You know, he's an equal opportunity abuser as we used to say, including himself. And people kind of expected it, then they reveled in it. It was gratifying to be on the road with him and walk through kitchens and, you know, all the help would turn and he would anoint everyone equally. 

Bob Edwards:

Did Don have a favorite dinner guest? 

Tony O.:

Uh, you know, we… You mean on a series?

Bob Edwards:

Yes. 

Tony O.:

That's tough. That's a tough question. I mean, obviously, he had quite an affinity, and developed over a period of years, for Jimmy Kimmel. Who is such a…. The guy, well, to steal a Sinatra's phrase: the man is a bar chocolate. He's just a wonderful, sweet guy and they got along famously. 

[Insert Clip: Jimmy Kimmel]

The only the only thing that I kind of… Regrets a strong a word. But I didn't have the opportunity, unfortunately, to do an episode with Stamos and Saget because they were overseas doing a promotional tour for Fuller House. And so, I mean, they were slated to do something later on and I never got around to doing it. They were so gracious. When we shot a bit of a teaser, they came and they were in the teaser along with Jimmy Kimmel. But, we never got around to doing a full episode with them unfortunately. But to answer your question, I guess it's hard to say. Because, I mean, he was closest with – of all the people that were on the show – he was closest personally with Kimmel. And they enjoyed each other's company immensely. 

Bob Edwards:

So, you made 13 episodes and then the unthinkable happens…

Tony O.:

Well, initially, the order from AARP and Jeffrey Eagle was for 10 episodes. And when they saw how they were coming out, they doubled the order. And, as you said, unfortunately, we were… Well, fortunately were able to get 13 in the can before the unthinkable. And I mean, we literally had slated Ryan Gosling, Seth MacFarlane, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, JJ Abrams. These people were all slated to do an episode. So, you know, the list was growing and growing. Once word got out that we were doing this, my phone lit up. 

Bob Edwards:

There was never anyone like Don Rickles. This must be an enormous loss in your life.

Tony O.:

Don… As I've said a couple of times, that Don and Frank were two American originals. And we will never see the likes of either one of those guys again. I don't think. And I'm fortunate and blessed to, if not only had a professional relationship with them, but a very close personal relationship. 

And you know, Don created a brand of comedy. He took what Jackie Leonard and people like that were doing to a whole new level. 

As a matter of fact, The Friars did a roast of Rickles back in the 70s. I was still a kid. Jackie Leonard was the master of ceremonies and when he introduced Rickles he said, “Right now ladies and gentlemen, a man who not only stole my act, he stole my head.” 

Bob Edwards:

Take us back to the start of the friendship. 

Tony O.:

My friendship with Don? 

Bob Edwards:

Yes.

Tony O.:

We met… We were both under contract at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe. I was a performer at one point in my life, which is how I met both Frank and Don. And on my one night off, I went and Don, as he used to say, was in the Big Room working with a new group called Sister Sledge at the time. 

And he was given a note by the entertainment director that said I was going to be in the audience. And they were trying to help bolster my career. So, at the end of Don's show he always used to introduce people in the audience and talk about upcoming things in his career. And he asked me to stand up and take a bow and he was stumbling all over the place with my name. 

He was calling me Tony Hop-in-the-sauna. He's making up all kinds of names and he stood up and he said so where are you from?

I said. I'm from Brooklyn. 

And he said, and what nationality are you? 

And I said I'm Italian. 

And he dropped the mic and he threw his hands up in the air like he was being arrested. And he had the whole Orchestra do the same thing. And then he picked the mic back up and turned to the orchestra: Simon Says he's put their hands down. 

And he says, so you're Italian and what part of Italy is your family from? 

I said Sicily, he dropped the mic again. You know, the bit that he used to do. 

And he asked me to come backstage after the show, which I did. And when he found out, that at that point, Frank and I know each other for about eight years we kind of bonded and the relationship just grew from there. 

I ended up getting involved with him workwise, also as a result of my relationship with Frank. They were going to be honoring Frank on the occasion of his 77th birthday at the Desert Inn and they were flying up a plane load of celebrities. This is back when Kirk Kerkorian owned the Desert Inn. And flying up a plane load of celebrities and whomever was on Frank’s list that he wanted there from Spiro Agnew to name it… RJ Wagner, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Sophia Loren. 

And so, I said to Frank, I said well who do you want to have on the bill with you? And he said, you know, I want someone's going to create some tumult. And I went through a litany of comedians and he says no-no-no-no, I don't need polite laughter. He says, I got an idea. What's that? How about bullet-head, which was one of Frank's loving names for Don. Bullet-head. 

So, long short of it, through various machinations, getting Don out of a contract that he was already involved in in Las Vegas. The man that owned the casino was actually looking to shut the showroom down, so it was to his benefit to buy Don out of his contract. So, Don wouldn't appear and then the deal was made to have Don signed on to the Desert Inn as part of the Desert Inn family. And that was the beginning of it. As a matter of fact, as a quick aside they actually billed a show as “The Voice” and “The Mouth” together.

Bob Edwards:

What a career to work for two larger-than-life characters.

Tony O.:

Yeah. You know, I could never have envisioned that in my wildest dreams. I mean, I always, as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I always knew that I wanted to be in the entertainment industry. 

And those two guys, as I said at Don’s last birthday party that we that we celebrated in a big way, that before anyone came up with the concept of the Twin Towers in New York, I kind of had my own vision of Twin Towers but in entertainment. One in comedy, one of music. And they were Rickles and Sinatra. 

Bob Edwards:

Was one easier to work for than the other?

Tony O.:

You know, quite honestly, I never had any uncomfortable moments with either one. Probably because our relationship was based on having a very strong friendship with both of them before it turned into also a business relationship. And I knew what they needed, having been a performer. I kind of knew what they needed, why they needed it. So, there were a lot of questions that never had to be asked or answered. 

And the fact that I knew them personally, what quirky stuffs I knew. What they would like, what they wouldn't like, especially. And, like I said, I really, I don't remember having any major uncomfortable situations with either one of them. 

Bob Edwards:

Well, the series is plenty of fun and it leaves a record.

Tony O.:

Yeah, in retrospect, you know, I'm really thankful that we got to do it. And, you know, my producing partners and myself are very proud of it. We're thankful that AARP stepped up and did what they did financially, so that we could make it a reality. And it's kind of, apart from all the other stuff that's out there, it is putting a period on the sentence. It's a final plot of Don's legacy and we're very proud of it. 

As a matter of fact, we got a surprise honor a couple of weeks ago. The Caucus of Writers, Producers and Directors with the International Academy of Web Television had an awards ceremony out here in Los Angeles at the Skirball Center. And we were submitted, the show, for Best Comedy Series and lo and behold we won. Very gratifying. Very, very gratifying to be acknowledged by the industry as well.

Bob Edwards:

Thank you so much. 

Tony O.:

My pleasure. I'm really honored to what you have met you. I'm very familiar with your work and it's indeed a pleasure to be speaking with you. 

Bob Edwards:

You're very kind. Thank you. 

[END OF INTERVIEW]

Bob Edwards:

That was Tony Oppedisano executive producer of “Dinner With Don.” To see the series, go to DinnerWithDon.com or search on YouTube.

[OUTRO]

Bob Edwards:

For more, visit AARP dot org slash podcast.

Become a subscriber, and be sure to rate our podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and other podcast apps.

Thanks for listening.  I’m Bob Edwards.

On this week’s episode of 'An AARP Take on Today,' Tony Oppedisano, the longtime manager and friend of Don Rickles, discusses the making of the 'Dinner with Don' series and reflects on the comedy legend’s career. 

The original video tribute series that Rickles worked on before he passed away in 2017 includes an all-star cast – including Jimmy Kimmel, Snoop Dogg, Amy Poehler, Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman, Billy Crystal, Marisa Tomei, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese – and more.

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