Comedian Don Rickles, Merciless 'Merchant Of Venom,' Dies At 90 : The Two-Way The famed insult comic and showbiz veteran worked well into his 80s. In his prime, Hollywood elites like his friend Frank Sinatra considered it an honor to be roasted by Rickles.
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Comedian Don Rickles, Merciless 'Merchant Of Venom,' Dies At 90

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Comedian Don Rickles, Merciless 'Merchant Of Venom,' Dies At 90

Comedian Don Rickles, Merciless 'Merchant Of Venom,' Dies At 90

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Before Comedy Central's celebrity roasts, before American Idol's Simon Cowell, before Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, one man abused people on TV and in clubs like no other.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ladies and gentlemen, here is the sultan of insults, the merchant of venom, the pussycat with claws, Mr. Don Rickles.

MCEVERS: Comedian Don Rickles died today at age 90. NPR's Ted Robbins has this look at Rickles' long career.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: He couldn't get away with it in quite the same way today, but from the 1950s on, Don Rickles had a simple successful recipe. Be merciless, and spare no one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DON RICKLES: That's all Jews do - sit in their underwear, belch and watch TV.

(LAUGHTER)

RICKLES: The Irish guys are staggering around. The colored guys are going (singing) glory, glory, hallelujah. The Mexicans - I'm going to the toilet; I don't care what the colored guys do. And the queers are going, let's go in the park and have a love-out.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MR. WARMTH: THE DON RICKLES PROJECT")

CHRIS ROCK: Oh, it's very offensive but not if you're into comedy.

ROBBINS: That's comedian Chris Rock in the 2007 documentary "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project." Rickles didn't use four-letter words. Back then, that would have been more transgressive than racial and ethnic stereotypes. For personal invective, he called people dummies and hockey pucks. And when people heckled him in clubs, he shot right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICKLES: Where you from, tiny?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Alabama.

RICKLES: Alabama - that's trouble, boy. That's troubling.

(LAUGHTER)

RICKLES: What's your first name, Rufus?

ROBBINS: Don Rickles was born in Queens in 1926, the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. He served in the Navy during World War II, then began to pursue comedy full-time, working east coast nightclubs and burlesque houses. His career took off in the late 1950s and '60s thanks in part to his friend and longtime supporter Frank Sinatra. Rickles was the Rat Pack's court jester. Here's Sinatra on "The Tonight Show" telling a legendary story. No one but Rickles could have gotten away with this. It happened between them at a restaurant.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON")

FRANK SINATRA: And he came over to the table, and he said, Frank, do me a favor, will you? He said, I'm sitting with a very pretty girl, and I'm trying to make out, you know? And he said, I told her I know you, and she really doesn't believe me. Would you stop by the table. I said, all right. I was just about finished, and I walked by the table, and I said, how are you, Don? Nice to see you. He said, can't you see I'm eating, Frank? What are you...

(LAUGHTER)

ROBBINS: Rickles became a Las Vegas fixture at Rat Pack hangouts like the Sands Hotel where every audience became a target. In 1968, he recorded a best-selling comedy album at the Sands called "Hello Dummy!"

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "HELLO DUMMY!")

RICKLES: Don't scratch, Sir. It clears right up. There's a new thing out called soap and water.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBBINS: In Hollywood, being insulted by Rickles was a compliment. His most memorable and ubiquitous performances were on late night talk shows. For decades, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and David Letterman relied on Rickles' ability to tickle viewers with his infinite arsenal of zingers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICKLES: You're not married.

DAVID LETTERMAN: No, no.

RICKLES: I wonder why.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBBINS: Don Rickles acted in dozens of movies and TV shows. He did the voice of Mr. Potato Head for the "Toy Story" movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOY STORY 3")

RICKLES: (As Mr. Potato Head) Oh, you're a sight for detachable eyes.

ROBBINS: There was always a sentimental side to Don Rickles. Not convinced - then consider this, you hockey puck, from that album "Hello Dummy!"

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "HELLO DUMMY!")

RICKLES: Will Rogers once said, I never picked on a little guy, only big people. May I say it to this entire audience on a hectic night. You are pretty big. And I do thank each and every one of you.

(APPLAUSE)

ROBBINS: Don Rickles wanted everyone to know that his insults were all in fun. But let's face it. It's the insults we're remembering. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANTO AND JOHNNY SONG, "SLEEPWALK")

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