Comedy legend Don Rickles has died at the age of 90, his publicist Paul Sherfin confirmed Thursday. He would have been 91 on May 8.
Rickles, known for his decades of comedic work, specifically his mastery of the insult, passed away due to complications from kidney failure at his home in Los Angeles. From the lowliest peasant to celebrities like Frank Sinatra, no one was immune from Rickles’ stinging barbs.
His career took off in 1957 after he delivered a zinger about Sinatra in a Hollywood club, right to the crooner’s face.
“Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody,” said Rickles, referring to the singer’s rumoured violence. Sinatra bellowed with laughter, and the rest is history.
For more than half a century, “Mr. Warmth” (as he was sarcastically called) headlined casinos and nightclubs from Las Vegas to Atlantic City. N.J., and appeared often on late-night TV talk shows. Talk-show host Johnny Carson was such a fan of Rickles, to this day he is still one of the most all-time frequent guests of The Tonight Show.
Despite jokes that might have inspired boycotts for other comics, he was one of the most beloved people in show business, idolized by everyone from Joan Rivers and Louis CK to Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman. He famously called people he thought were dumb as “hockey pucks.”
James Caan once said that Rickles helped inspire the blustering Sonny Corleone of The Godfather. An HBO special, directed by John Landis of Animal House fame, included tributes from Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier and Robert De Niro.
Carl Reiner would say he knew he had made it in Hollywood when Rickles made fun of him.
Indeed, many Hollywood stars tweeted their condolences about Rickles’ passing, some even including jokes.
In lieu of flowers, Don Rickles' family has requested that people drop their pants and fire a rocket. #RIPDonRickles
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) April 6, 2017
Don Rickles was simply the best. He created insult comedy &yet every 1 of his targets felt loved and honored. One of a kind.#RIPdonrickles
— jason alexander (@IJasonAlexander) April 6, 2017
Don Rickles has passed away.
A giant loss.
— Billy Crystal (@BillyCrystal) April 6, 2017
Don Rickles created a style of stand up and owned (!!!) it his entire career of 60+ years. It's unparalleled. No, I mean, NO ONE did that.
— Kevin Pollak (@kevinpollak) April 6, 2017
Hockey puck. We've lost @DonRickles I love him so. Smart, funny, a pro and most important deeply and honestly kind. Kind is what matters.
— Penn Jillette (@pennjillette) April 6, 2017
God Bless Don Rickles, aka, Mr. Warmth! Proud to have been heckled by him from the stage many times! #RIP
— LeVar Burton (@levarburton) April 6, 2017
Don Rickles, you kept us laughing for so many years. We will miss you dearly. Thanks for the zingers. You were one of a kind.
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) April 6, 2017
RIP Don Rickles. One of the funniest people that ever lived, you dumb schmuck.
— billy eichner (@billyeichner) April 6, 2017
Close personal friends Bob and Ginnie Newhart were absolutely devastated at the news of Rickles’ passing.
“He was called ‘The Merchant of Venom,’ but in truth, he was one of the kindest, caring and most sensitive human beings we have ever known,” they said in a joint statement. “We are devastated and our world will never be the same. We were totally unprepared for this.”
Rickles patented a confrontational style that stand-up performers still emulate, but one that kept him on the right side of trouble. He emerged at a time when comics like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl were taking greater risks, becoming more politicized and more introspective.
Rickles managed to shock his audiences without cutting social commentary or truly personal self-criticism. He operated under a code as old the Borscht Belt: Go far — ethnic jokes, sex jokes, ribbing Carson for his many marriages — but make sure everyone knows it’s for fun.
“I think the reason that [my act] caught on and gave me a wonderful career is that I was never mean-spirited,” he once said. “Not that you had to like it, but you had to be under a rock somewhere not to get it.”
Rickles is survived by his wife, Barbara Sklar, and their two children, Mindy and Larry. He also leaves behind two grandchildren. Funeral services will be private.
— With files from The Associated Press