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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Getting insulted is no fun unless the person insulting you is Don Rickles. In which case, it's kind of an honor. He's made his career picking on audience members and fellow celebrities for their age, race, ethnicity, clothing, you name it. He started off performing in strip clubs and made it to the biggest Vegas clubs in the heyday of Vegas. Sinatra helped him get there.

He's also been in a lot of movies, including the 1960 drama, "The Rat Race"; the Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello vehicle, "Beach Blanket Bingo"; the Martin Scorsese film "Casino"; and he did one of the voices in the animated "Toy Story" series. Rickles is now in his early 80s and still performing. He has a new book, called "Rickles' Letters." It's a collection of unsent letters to living and dead friends, family, and celebrities, including Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Marilyn Monroe, Howard Stern, and Jon Stewart.

Let's start with a recording of Don Rickles' live at the Sahara Hotel and Casino in 1968.

(Soundbite of show Don Rickles Live at the Sahara)

(Soundbite of laughing)

Mr. DON RICKLES (Comedian, Author, "Rickles' Letters"): You Mormons never laugh, do you? Just sit there with your pilgrim hat, waiting for your duck to die.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: OK, go to Utah and suck salt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: I say this, gang, sucking salt, that's a colored dance team. The colored guy went, uh? I never heard of sucking salt. Both of the Nicholas brothers were never sucking salt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: It's true. Why do I make fun of the negroes? Because I'm not one of them!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: I say this, though, gang. The greatest thing - you're a Jewish guy, you can always tell, bald, heavy set, and a hook nose that's sucking up his lip.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: You're either a Jewish guy or a Zeppelin, I'll tell you that right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: I want to put a Goodyear on your ass, a cord in your navel, and hope you take off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: I'll tell you this. I'll be with you in a minute, lady. God put us on this earth to laugh. Am I right? He made you a Lebanese? He made me a Jew. So what? We are people, working for talent. What's your first name? Mohammad? Habib? You put that on you when you have your dinner?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: How the hell you get in the front? Look at the way they put him. He could pick me off in five minutes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: Right in the front. I got a ficockeda (ph) Arab over here, a boozed up gypsy broad over there, three kids in heat over here, a German pain in the ass over here, two Japs that passed away, trick or treat hobby with a turtleneck sweater, Mark Frickett (ph) over there waiting for the Pillsbury bake-off, the Spanish guy planning to attack the Mexican, and two Pollacks on the end waiting for their truck to be fixed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. RICKLES: And the bald headed guy going out with the nurse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. RICKLES: You gotta laugh about people, Habib. I've met you before, haven't I? That's right, you hung my uncle. Anyway, gang, I knew I remembered. Where'd I meet you, Habib? Lake Tahoe, that's - Barbara was pregnant. Are you the guy that made my wife pregnant?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: How do you like that? My kid's an Arab. Nah, it doesn't matter. Good to see you, Habib. God bless you, and I say this from my heart. I'm going to get everyone of you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's Don Rickles live at the Sahara in 1968. And Don Rickles has a new book, called "Rickles' Letters." Don Rickles, welcome to Fresh Air. It's a pleasure to have you.

Mr. RICKLES: Thank you. Nice to be here.

GROSS: I hear you do that routine, and I don't know whether to cringe or bust out laughing. And that's exactly the reaction, I'm sure, that so many people have to your performances.

Mr. RICKLES: That was a long time ago. But it's - I must say, it's the basic things that I do is there. But I have much more, I'm kind of proud to say, I put it together with much more dignity, I think, and it comes out with a little more class, if I might say.

GROSS: What would you not say that you said in what we just heard?

Mr. RICKLES: Well, you know, I can't - I don't like to poke with what I might say. But I have a little more rhythm to what I say. And don't forget, those were tough days. I used to work over a bar. That was - there's no stage. I stood over a tiny bar. Louie Prima (ph), he worked there. I was the guy that filled in when was off the stage, and it was tough those days.

People started having breakfast and drinking right smack in front of me. And I had no really beginning, middle, or ending. I just went out there and winged it and said whatever came into my mind, and every night it changed. But that was my performance, just looking down to people right in front of me. So it's a different world today. Today, I have a beginning, middle, and ending, an orchestra and what have you. Those days, I had a piano, a guitar player, and that was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: It was really Mickey Mouse, but it came out. I became very successful in Vegas to start doing that. But it took a long time.

GROSS: Usually, the way it works is like Jews are allowed to do Jewish jokes. African-Americans can do black jokes. Gays can do gay jokes. But you kind of always violated that rule. You would insult everyone in the audience. What made you think you could pull that off?

Mr. RICKLES: Well, I never looked at it as insult. And I'm sure it's not considered that way because I wouldn't be where I am today, about 55 years and now headlining so many years, is which is great.

GROSS: You'd also have a broken nose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: No, really, I've never had a problem that way. What it is, is I don't really - I exaggerate all ourselves, our beings. I make fun of everything, of our life and what we are. But I don't tell jokes really. I just exaggerate life, and it comes out funny. And I've always been - you know, I crossed the line when nobody else could do it. But it wasn't something I planned on, it was my personality. Because even when I was a very young man, with my family and friends, I always said hey, wait. Where'd you get that outfit? That jacket is ridiculous and so forth. And my style developed from that, just from my personality.

GROSS: But what would you do? You'd point out people's imperfections?

Mr. RICKLES: Well, I think...

GROSS: Their oddities, or what?

Mr. RICKLES: Well no - you see, I worked in what they called clothed strip tease joints in those days. It's - they don't have those today. The girls - like in, let's say, Hooters are - have less clothing than the girls I worked with. In those days, we thought it was wild when they just wore little bells and so forth. But today at restaurants, some of the waitresses are almost working in the nude, you know, to get business.

But in those days, it was exciting for what we did. And I was the comedian that while the ladies changed in the dressing room, I went out there and just winged it, and just talked to the audience. That's how I developed it because I never had an act. And I just used to start talking. Good evening ladies gentlemen. And I'm fed up with this place, and I don't know why I'm here. And you know, and the guys in the front, that hat don't - take the hat off you. You're looking ridiculous. You know? And it became a performance just by talking to the people.

GROSS: But it sounds like even before you did comedy that even when you were like in school, you would say things about people.

Mr. RICKLES: Oh, oh always.

GROSS: That could be very insulting.

Mr. RICKLES: I was known as the class clown in my high school days. And I was the head of the dramatic society and president of the school and not doing very well in my grades. In fact, they were shaky. And I got into World War II with what they called the War Diploma. Otherwise, I'd still be in high school.

GROSS: Let me ask you, I know your mother was a very, like, strong personality. Was she the kind of woman who would just say whatever came in to her mind, and sometimes it would end up being really insulting, because...

Mr. RICKLES: Oh, no, no. She was...

GROSS: I know a lot of people like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: No, she wasn't that way at all.

GROSS: No? OK.

Mr. RICKLES: She was just - she had great strength, and she had great self-esteem. And as many actors, most actors, are, I think you might know, are shy when they were very young, as I was. And she'd bring me to the front. She would say, stand up, and make fun of your Uncle Jack. Show him how you make fun of your - and she was very aggressive in the sense of knowing that I was a funny kid. Not realizing that I would develop and do the style I did, I think before she passed away, she finally realized what it was, because she never was ra ra ra (ph) with my style of ribbing people.

She always used say, why can't you be like Alan King. Talk nice, you know? But basically, she believed in what I did in comedy, but it made her nervous.

GROSS: So are you telling me that she used to tell you to show how you can insult Uncle Jack in front of Uncle Jack?

Mr. RICKLES: Oh, yeah. It wasn't so much - I made fun of the way his socks were, or the way he talk to my aunt, or things like that.

GROSS: And you when you started playing strip clubs, which we were basically the first venues that you played?

Mr. RICKLES: Yeah.

GROSS: What is it like as a young man to be around strippers all the time? I mean, may I ask, was it arousing, or is just like another day at the factory? You know, in my book, my first book, it tells the story when the girls took off the make-up, they were just Shirley and Alice. But when they were out there and they played "Night Train," everybody in the audience was yelling, yay, yay, yay. But you know, when you're in this business and you work behind the scenes, the girls become more or less friends, nothing sexual. I mean if you like the girl, you might go out personally, but most times - you know, half the time they'd be undressed backstage, and I'd be dressed in shorts or whatever, underwear, running to get ready for the next scene and what we're going to do. So we never took it that way. It became more of a social gathering, so to speak.

GROSS: Was it usually a hospitable audience or a tough crowd to play?

Mr. RICKLES: Well, in those days, you know, there's the whistling guys, the Navy guys, as I was, a lot of servicemen in those days too. Listen, it wasn't easy, but I was lucky that they found me funny. I was one of the first guys in these sleazy places that they put a cover charge on to see me, and I was very - in those days, I was very proud of that.

GROSS: And was there a drummer who could do rim shots?

Mr. RICKLES: Oh, (unintelligible). Yeah.

GROSS: Did they do that? Did you actually get the rim shots?

Mr. RICKLES: No. My friend, Jack Carter, was another great comedian in my day, and he was also a star before I ever attained everything. But they did - Jackie Lennon, as we talked, they did rim shots. I never worked with rim shots to this very day. How do you know about rim shots? You seem to be a girl that gets around. How do you know about rim shots?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Everybody knows about rim shots, don't they?

Mr. RICKLES: No, not everybody. What's your last name?

GROSS: Gross.

Mr. RICKLES: Are you a Jewish girl?

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. RICKLES: Oh, OK. We can talk more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, one of the people who you worked with when they were a stripper was Lenny Bruce's mother.

Mr. RICKLES: Yes, yes. I did.

GROSS: Yeah. And so, was she good?

Mr. RICKLES: Oh, she was wonderful, and a wise lady too, and a lot of fun to be with, and very, very considerate of an actress. She was very supportive of me, even though her son at that time was making his making his mark. Lenny and I, our lives have crossed because he did something, he did the F word in a club called the Slate Brothers. And Henry Slate, the owner, fired him, and I was working up at a place called the Interlude, and he asked me to come down to the Slate Brothers.

And that made history for me in Los Angeles, because I became known as the guy that made fun of all the actors and actresses, and they were all so delighted to see me, and I was very delighted about that.

GROSS: So I think in your memoir you wrote that you got into comedy because you weren't finding enough roles as an actor. You'd wanted to be an actor. So how...

Mr. RICKLES: Well, it wasn't exactly that way. You see, what happened was I graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which I'm kind of proud of, and it's a great school for young people for acting, and at least it gives you a little background. I was with people like Jason Robards, rest his soul, Tom Poston, who's gone, Anne Bancroft, (unintelligible), and Don Murray - all these people.

And we worked together, and it was a good background. And so, I went to the academy, and I always wanted to be an actor, but the stand-up stuff, the kidding around came because nothing was happening. So suddenly, somebody would say - it sounded kind of simple, but that's the way it worked out - said hey Don, here's 20 bucks. We're going to the synagogue dance, if you'd get up for a half hour and just kid around. The guy that's running the affair would give me $20, and in other places they'd gave me $10.

All of sudden, I was appearing at these little places and getting around. And suddenly, I found myself on a legitimate - well I say legitimate - the striptease clubs working and doing what I did.

GROSS: From the synagogue to the strip clubs, I like that.

Mr. RICKLES: That's pretty much the story, right.

GROSS: My guest is Don Rickles. He has a new book, called "Rickles' Letters." It's a collection of unsent letters to friends, family, and fellow celebrities. More after our break. This Fresh Air.

My guest is Don Rickles. He has a new book, called "Rickles' Letters." One of the movies that you made was - you've made a lot of movies, been on a lot of TV shows. One of the movies that you made was in 1960. It was called "The Rat Race," and it starred Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds. And she played like a dance pole person?

Mr. RICKLES: Dance pole girl, yeah.

GROSS: And you were the owner?

Mr. RICKLES: Bouncer. I was the bouncer.

GROSS: The bouncer? I thought you were like the manager of the club? The bouncer?

Mr. RICKLES: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. I've seen that a few times on Turner Classic Movies.

Mr. RICKLES: Oh, really?

GROSS: And you are so mean in this. I mean, you are really tough, and you're kind of like a gangster in it. And you rough her up in one scene. It's a nasty scene. I think you're just excellent in the movie.

Mr. RICKLES: Well, thank you. You know, at that time, I took off Debbie's dress, and she was in a slip, and it was unheard of then. And it was like oh, it made so many newspapers that Don Rickles in this scene took off - and even Debbie and I kid about it today. And you know, that was pretty racy at that time.

GROSS: I feel like that movie shows a really different side of you because it's not funny. I mean, there's...

Mr. RICKLES: Hopefully not.

GROSS: Yeah. It's not funny at all. Did you wish then that you had more opportunities for dramatic roles? I know you did dramatic films, but would you have wanted to do even more?

Mr. RICKLES: Oh, sure. It was very difficult because I really got an image to this very day, which I'm very proud of - In other words, as you said, the insult committee, the master of mirth, the king of sling, and so forth - and it was hard to, with producers at that time, to break through to get parts in what I wanted to do as a dramatic actor because being a dramatic actor was something I trained for.

But I had this image of being such a raucous guy, and I'm making fun of everybody in life and so forth that I think producers were a little afraid of me. And so, it was not easy to get parts.

GROSS: Did you base your performance in "The Rat Race" on an actual bouncer that you knew? You must have known many of them from playing a lot of clubs.

Mr. RICKLES: You know, I never was - you know, I used to kid Robert De Niro, who I think is a great actor, in the thing called "Casino," which I did with him and Martin Scorsese. And a lot of those guys do - well, they do a lot of research, and that's why they make $80 billion. But I just say if you're supposed to be angry, I take it in my own head how to be angry. If you're supposed to be happy, I act happy. And so as a bouncer, I've been around enough clubs to know. I take a whole scene of these guys and put it into one character. So I know them, but it's not something I studied and worked at it. It just comes into my head.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Don Rickles, and he has a new book called "Rickles' Letters." There's a beautiful story that you tell in your memoir about the day that you got married. I think you were like 38 or something when you got married?

Mr. RICKLES: Yeah.

GROSS: And your cantor from - this was the cantor from the synagogue that you grew up in, and he was going to be presiding over your wedding ceremony. You describe how he called you, I think, it was like four in the morning. And tell the story of what happened there after that.

Mr. RICKLES: Well, my cousin Alan, rest his soul, and I were staying at the Lexington Hotel. We were getting ready for the wedding the next day or next night, rather. And my cantor, who was a man who I always - he had that, what we call, Chazan (ph) voice, that wailing sound that always chilled me, and I loved him for it. And so, every time he sang I really felt really emotional about him. And he was very dear friends with my father, and my father passed away kind of young at 55, and he knew my father, as I said, very well.

And so, we were in the hotel, and the phone rang, and it was the cantor, and he said, you and Alan come on downstairs. I said, Cantor, it's four o'clock in the morning. He said, will you please come downstairs? And I came downstairs and he said, get in the car. I want to take you some place. I knew him well, so I said it must be important.

And sure enough, we wound up at the cemetery where my father was, and he took off his suit jacket, put on a white shawl and a high white cantor's hat, and he sang El Ha'Rachamim (ph), which is a prayer for the dead and then said a special prayer inviting my father to the wedding.

GROSS: That's a really beautiful story.

Mr. RICKLES: Yeah.

GROSS: Thanks for telling me that.

Mr. RICKLES: Telling it now, I think about it.

GROSS: How old were you when your father died?

Mr. RICKLES: Well, I was about 28, 29.

GROSS: Were you close?

Mr. RICKLES: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. He was a great guy.

GROSS: He was, for awhile, the president of the congregation, the president of the synagogue.

Mr. RICKLES: Yeah, he was very involved in that. So was my mother.

GROSS: So did you grow up with a lot of religion in your life?

Mr. RICKLES: No. We were Orthodox Jews, but we really didn't observe it. I mean, bacon - my father said don't put bacon in the house, but we had bacon. We didn't keep Kosher, and we observed, which today would be Conservative Jews, but in those days we belonged to an Orthodox temple. So we made out we were Orthodox Jews, but we really weren't.

GROSS: A lot of younger comics really idolize you. And...

Mr. RICKLES: Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. Like, one example of somebody who really idolizes you and then worked with you briefly in a movie is Artie Lange, who is a regular on Howard Stern's show. And you did a movie with him, called "Dirty Work," which is probably famous mostly for one scene. It's a scene in which you're the new manager of a movie theater.

Mr. RICKLES: Right.

GROSS: And you've lined up the whole staff, and you're kind of laying down the new law for them.

Mr. RICKLES: Right.

GROSS: And Artie Lange has told many times the story of how when you insult him in the scene, because he's one of the people working for you, that he kept breaking up, and you had to keep doing takes because he and, I think, Norm McDonald too kept breaking up. I want to just play that scene.

(Soundbite of movie "Dirty Work")

Mr. RICKLES: (As Mr. Hamilton) All right, all right, all right. Everybody line up. Line up. Don't be dummies. Just get in line. That's fine. Gentlemen, members of the national office are coming here tonight for their annual inspection of this theater. Right now, I'm going to explain to you my managing style for the benefit of the new guys. So there you are, tubby. You look like a bucket of lard on a bad day. You, baby gorilla! Why don't you work a zoo and stop bothering people? Got a call yesterday from Baskin Robbins. They said that they're down to only five flavors.

You're swelling up as I talk to you. Look at you. How is this? How is it doing? Hello, ice cream! Having a good time running around? What are you laughing at? 'Cause I called your friend a fat pig, huh? You think that's funny?

Mr. NORM MCDONALD: (As Mitch Weaver) Oh, no, I was just laughing earlier when you were talking to his belly.

Mr. RICKLES: Why don't you get a horse and live in the mountains some place and don't bother anybody? Got a personality like a dead moth. OK. The fun's over. Anybody messes this thing up for me tonight is through. Not only are you fired, your life is over. I'll see to it that you never work again and that you wind up tearing tickets off in Kuwait. (Speaking Arabic) and everybody's sucking sand. Nobody messes up. You understand me? Don't mess up!

GROSS: And that's Don Rickles in a scene from "Dirty Work," and the person he's insulting in that scene is the character played by Artie Lange of the "Howard Stern Show." And Artie Lange has talked about that scene so much, and the whole baby gorilla thing that you call him has become famous. So that scene has been kind of immortalized through Artie Lange. What was the scene like for you? Where you improvising this?

Mr. RICKLES: Well actually, Bob Saget was a good friend. He directed it. Bob's a good friend.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. RICKLES: Well, he just said, Don, you do you. That was never written - just the beginning of the rules of the theater manager - but the rest of the stuff, we did about 10 or 12 takes. I mean, I just kept doing different insult remarks, so to speak, making fun of each guy in line, and the guys seemed to get a kick out of it each time, and I changed it each time, and we kept doing it, and that's how it all came about.

GROSS: Don Rickles will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Rickles' Letters." I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with the legendary insult comic Don Rickles. He has a new book called "Rickles' Letters" collecting unsent letters to friends, family and fellow celebrities. We were talking earlier about how you sounded back in 1968. And we played an excerpt of a recording live at the Sahara. I want to go back to that recording and play the very end of it. And this is after like 35 minutes of you - I know you don't like the word insult, the word that you use is - what? It's OK?

Mr. RICKLES: No, it's ok, sure.

GROSS: So after 35 minutes of you insulting the audience, this is how you end it.

(Soundbite of a Don Rickles' performance)

Mr. RICKLES: I am no rabbi, priest or reverend, you know this. I stand here and speak of all faiths, creeds and colors. And why not? Really, why not? Because in my experience in the Navy, when things were rough, nobody bothered or cared to ask. Color, church, synagogue - who cared? Frightened to death, we stood together on the bow of the ship and said please. And that is the truth, please. When our time is up, we will all be on one team. So why do we need bigotry and nonsense? Let's enjoy while almighty God gives us time. Will Rogers once said, I never picked on a little guy, only big people. May I say to this entire audience, on a hectic night, you are pretty big, and I do thank each and every one of you.

GROSS: That ending really surprised me.

Mr. RICKLES: Wow! I kind of just - you brought back a lot of memories. I did that a long time ago.

GROSS: Do you still do anything like that at the end of acts?

Mr. RICKLES: No. I say a little bit, something but very, very - two or three minutes of that sort of attitude. That's about it.

GROSS: So when did you start including something like that in your performances?

Mr. RICKLES: Well, because I came on so strong with what I did about making fun of life and people and so forth, and I wanted people to get the idea that I am a human being. And so even in my regular performance to this very day at the end I do a little thing about life and friendship and so forth, but it's very short and it fits in with what I do and it's done with music too. And so I always felt that it just shows that I'm a guy. You know, maybe it gives you an insight of my soul and my feelings.

GROSS: So, I'm wondering, like, when you walk around, since you are so good at making fun of people and you do it improvisationally, when you're working around do you have a constant thought balloon that is making fun of people as they walk by or whoever you were talking with? I mean, is that part of you always going on?

Mr. RICKLES: No, except in fun. Like Bob Newhart, who was a dear friend of mine and he's a wonderful comedian and as you mentioned comedians before, the guy that's always with me a great deal and I never mentioned and here I am saying it now. Well, we would laugh. For example, when we were in Rome, I would sit in the piazza and while the wives went shopping before 9/11, we used to do that a lot. And we'd pick out people saying that girl is a hooker, that guy is a doctor, that guy is gay, that guy is a tap dancer and exaggerate all these different people. So we both had that basic thing of making fun of what we saw in front of us, which I still do today in my own head, but I don't do it out loud. It's just a thing that's part of me.

GROSS: And did you have a joke writer or did you write all of your own materials?

Mr. RICKLES: I never had a joke writer in my life except on a television show, naturally. But in person everything I did I did on stage, and I just made little notes on a piece of paper and looked at them periodically. Today once in a while I listen to a tape, but I never - everything I've ever said that was funny came from me on the stage.

GROSS: You're still performing on stage?

Mr. RICKLES: Oh, yeah. Pretty steady, too. My dance card has been quite full. I'm very proud of that.

GROSS: And what's your material like now?

Mr. RICKLES: Same, you know, making fun of life and people. Same. I do something that took me to the dance years ago, and I'm still doing it because they laugh and still show up to listen.

GROSS: Now, I don't think I've ever ended an interview this way before and I know that you don't really know me. But before we say goodbye, can I ask you, please, to make fun of me? To insult me?

Mr. RICKLES: No, I would just say that this show took up a lot of time, and I wasn't crazy about you, but hey, listen, you can't have everything.

GROSS: OK. Thank you.

Mr. RICKLES: Thank you. Thank you, dear.

GROSS: Can I actually ask you to stay for one more minute? My producer has a question she wants me to ask you. Is that all right?

Mr. RICKLES: Sure. For five dollars.

GROSS: Great. What my producer wants to know, and this is a great question. Tell us a little bit about what your experiences were like in the Navy, which you alluded to at the end of your act at the Sahara in 1968? I mean, you were drafted, right, during World War II?

Mr. RICKLES: No, no, no, no, no. I enlisted.

GROSS: You enlisted? OK.

Mr. RICKLES: In the Navy. And the reason I enlisted in the Navy - at the time my father said, don't go in the Army, you'll get dirty. In the Navy, you don't have to lay in the mud or anything like that. That was his participation. And I wanted to be in special service so I said, don't be - and it's in my book and I said they said fine, I kept stamping my papers. Fast forward and make a story short, I wound up in the Philippines on a PT tender, then on a PT boat for a little while, went back on a PT tender. And I kept saying I do jokes and I'm a comedian and I belong in - and they said, keep firing, keep firing. Boom, boom, boom. And I was the one on the ship that made everybody laugh and got through two and a half years of pretty, pretty involved and kind of proud that at this stage of life, that I'm one of the few - not many of us are left, the veterans of World War II. And I was proud to be a part of the Navy.

GROSS: Do you feel like you were really changed by that experience, by being under fire?

Mr. RICKLES: Oh, gee whiz. I went in the Navy. I was a kid. I didn't know what time it was, and when I came home at 22 or 23 I was like a man, in those days as you would say. I saw so much of life and so many different situations that made my whole being different.

GROSS: You said that you were the guy on the ship who kept other people laughing. Was it hard to find the funny side when you're at war?

Mr. RICKLES: No. No, because not every day was a gun going off, and we all were 300 men all locked into one little tiny ship, so to speak. The ship was small considering, and we were all holding hands, practically, to stay with it and not get homesick and not worry about getting hurt or, God forbid, the other word, killed. And so we all hung out together pretty much, and I was the guy that always made fun of everybody, and some guys laughed and some guys - I had a guy called Mike Flor(ph), rest his soul. He was like my buddy. He was a little old. In those days, when you're 22 and I'm 18 - 22, 23 was like an old man, and he was my bodyguard. He took care of me because I always making jokes. Never was a fighter, I always said, you take care of it. And so when anybody, particularly on the ship, but he made it so I became I so popular, I could say anything.

GROSS: Are you really going to charge me five dollars for having asked you that question?

Mr. RICKLES: Twenty.

GROSS: Twenty because there were follow-ups?

Mr. RICKLES: That's right. That's right.

GROSS: I want to thank you again for talking with is. It's really been a pleasure to have you on our show. Thank you so much.

Mr. RICKLES: I certainly hope so. Thank you.

GROSS: Don Rickles' new book is called "Rickles Letters." Coming up, we talked with actor Jeffrey Wright. After playing Colin Powell in the movie "W," he's now playing blues man Muddy Waters in the new film "Cadillac Records." This is Fresh Air.

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