Don Rickles, the comedian known as the ‘merchant of venom’ for his unique brand of insult comedy, died Thursday about a month shy of his 91st birthday.
Don Rickles was one of my favorites.
I’ll let you in on a little secret, kids: once you reach a certain age, you begin to see all of the greats you grew up watching start to disappear. Rickles was one of those people for me. There weren’t many like him, and there are even fewer left these days.
Rickles left us Thursday morning because of kidney failure. His wife, Barbara, was at his side, TMZ reported.
I think my first exposure to Rickles was watching him frequently guest star on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts in the 1970s.
I found a great clip from one roast in particular when he unleashes his trademark comedic attacks on heavyweights like Man of the Hour Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Milton Berle and Martin himself. Watch:
When asked about the “insult comic” title he had been given over the years, he said it really didn’t fit:
“What I do is exaggeration. I make fun of people, at life, of myself and my surroundings.”
He was an equal-opportunity offender, saying things in the 1960s and 1970s that would raise eyebrows these days. In fact, when you consider some of the comments he made decades ago about race, nationality and religion on shows like the Martin Celebrity Roasts, you wonder how censors ever let his comments get by.
But there always seemed to be a kindness to Rickles, even when he was hurling a knockout punch towards you.
Dan Rather once asked Rickles what he’d hope would be said about him after he was gone. Rickles said, “Greatness is gone,” then quickly said, “No, that’s a joke.”
Dan disputed that, saying that in terms of what he does, the saying would fit.
And he was right.