Don Rickles, comedy’s “Merchant of Venom,” is taking a seat to his stand-up routine.
Just shy of his 90th birthday and coping with physical afflictions that have limited his mobility, Rickles, who turned the act of insult into a high art and a celebrated career spanning more than a half-century, no longer prowls the stage during performances hunting for victims in the audience. He now zeros in on his prey with a cane while seated center stage.
But just because he’s slowed a step or two doesn’t mean “Mr. Warmth” is cooling off. In fact, Rickles appears to be as hot as ever, continuing to perform in large venues and being fawned over by younger entertainers who first connected with him through his outrageous appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and now are dazzled by his longevity and continuing relevance. The adoration has given him renewed energy.
“For my age, I’m feeling pretty good,” said Rickles in his Century City home, sitting in a room filled with memorabilia. Framed photos of Frank Sinatra, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Billy Crystal and other stars line the walls.
“It’s important to keep working,” he continued. “You know, at my age, if you sit around, you start to lose it. Thank God I’ve been working pretty heavy.” As he spoke, Rickles was unfailingly polite and gracious — no one in the room was called a “hockey puck” or “dummy.”
His small-screen legacy is being saluted in a new DVD box set from Time Life: “Mr. Warmth! Don Rickles: The Ultimate TV Collection.” The eight-disc set features four TV specials starring Rickles, both seasons of his ’70s sitcom “CPO Sharkey,” and a collection of outtakes and other footage showing Rickles in comic combat with Sinatra, Don Adams, John Wayne, Robert Goulet, Michael Caine and others.
The collection is a time capsule of a simpler time when comedians headlined specials composed of skits, kooky and movie spoofs and glittery production numbers. But Rickles didn’t fit easily fit into conventional TV vehicles, as evidenced by “CPO Sharkey” and his other ’90s sitcom, Fox’s “Daddy Dearest” with Richard Lewis. His spontaneity and his edgy brand of humor — poking fun at race, religion and personalities — was too big for mainstream series. Guest shots on Carson and other talk shows where he could let loose were his wheelhouse.
The Time Life set has numerous highlights of Rickles showing off his mischievous side, as well as offbeat moments. One special, “The Many Sides of Don Rickles,” broadcast in 1970 and directed by the late Bud Yorkin, was structured like a backstage party, with Rickles informally sparring with Adams and Harvey Korman while the crew and extras milled around.
Rickles filmed new brief introductions for the set. “I went back and watched some of it,” he said. “But to be honest, I’m not that guy that likes to go back. In fact, I don’t like to watch comedy shows unless I’m watching for someone who is a personal friend, When you do something like I do for 60 years, you see comedy so much that I don’t have to watch it. I like to watch detective shows, the Dodgers.”
In an age of political correctness, Rickles, as he has for his whole career, has always remained above the fray of controversy, despite his reliance on humor that leans heavily on racial, ethnic and religious material. He said the key to his effectiveness is not the joke, it’s the delivery.
Said Rickles, “I did the Ronald Reagan inauguration with Frank Sinatra. Now who says to the president of the United States, ‘Ronnie, do you understand what I’m talking about?’ It’s the way you say it, it’s almost like saying ‘I love you.’ My goal is never to be hurtful.
“It’s like you’re at a huge party and you’re putting everybody on,” he said. “I can’t say that the whole world loves me. But I can say, at this stage of my life, the respect that I’ve getting from our industry and from the public has been wonderful.”
Retirement doesn’t seem to be close on his horizon: “To be honest, all my hobbies are gone. I can’t play golf anymore. I can’t play tennis anymore because of my legs. Plus performing is something that gives me a lot of energy and pep. As long as they keep showing up, I will show up.”