Don Rickles, the master insult comic who created laughs with ridicule and sarcasm in a decades-long career that earned him the facetious nickname “Mr. Warmth,” died on Thursday at his Los Angeles home from kidney failure, his publicist said. He was 90.
Rickles, who said he devised his brand of mockery-based humor because he was no good at telling traditional jokes, had developed a bacterial infection in recent months that led him to cancel a number of performances.
His death was confirmed by his spokesman, Paul Shefrin, who said Rickles is survived by his wife of 52 years, Barbara, as well as their daughter, Mindy Mann, and two grandchildren. He would have turned 91 on May 8.
Rickles’ last appeared on stage in Las Vegas in late October. But he continued to work after falling ill in February, taping segments of an upcoming internet series for the American Association of Retired Persons titled “Dinner with Don,” hosting one-on-one conversations with various celebrities, Shefrin said.
The New York-born Rickles had an intense, often-ad libbed, rapid-fire delivery and a wide, impish grin. He delighted nightclub audiences, Hollywood royalty and politicians by hurling invective at them, all in good fun.
Encountering Frank Sinatra for the first time during a stand-up act in 1957, Rickles greeted the mercurial singer as Sinatra walked in with a retinue of tough guys by saying, “Make yourself at home, Frank – hit somebody.”
Luckily for Rickles, the line amused Sinatra, who became one of his biggest boosters and took to calling the short, bald Rickles “Bullethead.” The comedian soon became an ex-officio member of the Sinatra-led group of popular entertainers known as the “Rat Pack.”