The kid from Queens was just a regular Joe, cut from the cloth that all of that generation shared. Self described as shy and frightened as a child, much like many children who lived through the Great Depression, he took nothing for granted and didn’t expect much from life.
When he joined the Navy for World War II, he was doing what all the average Joe’s were doing; enlisting. The Greatest Generation was formed and the USA was on its way to building and earning the greatest country in the world title.
At some point after the war the shy kid enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He became an actor and went where the work was available. Like the birth of the internet, television was a novelty at the time - desperately looking for content (radio was still king media) and the struggling thespian began doing parts in television dramas.
At only 5’6’’ and balding, he realized that roles for him were very limited (even on the small screen), and inspired by Milton Berle’s huge success on the new medium, he decided he might make it as a comic.
Just like that.
Performing in club’s and delivering mundane material invited drunk hecklers, the shy kid from Queens suddenly realized his offhand comebacks got more laughs then the stale jokes. Don Rickles was born. Yeah it’s like a brand, a household name. Everyone knows what to expect when they hear the name.
Once, early in his career he spotted Frank Sinatra in the audience. In his persona as the insult comic the shy and frightened kid went right for him. "I just saw your movie The Pride and the Passion and I want to tell you, the cannon's acting was great." He added, "Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody!" Sinatra (known for not taking crap) loved him. He told all his Hollywood friends and encouraged them to attend. If you weren’t insulted by Rickles, you actually felt insulted (does that make sense?). The concept for the celebrity Roast found a new champion.
Rickles went on to becoming a big star in television and movies.
Bob Hope may have invented the talk show “walk on” but Rickles perfected it. His so-called spontaneous (maybe planned) interruptions on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show were hysterical, especially one with Sinatra.
It saddens me that he’s gone, because with his passing, it helps mark the end of that great generation who leave us every day (he was 90 after all). Jerry Lewis comes to mind as one of the few survivors of that great post war group of entertainers.
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