Don Rickles, the legendary stand-up comedian who became world-famous not by telling jokes but by insulting his audience, died on Thursday from kidney failure at his Los Angeles home, according to his publicist Paul Shefrin.He was 90.
Rickles enjoyed a career which spanned centuries and found him performing in everything from nightclubs to a Martin Scorsese film. Mr. Rickles made outrageously derisive comments about people’s looks, their ethnicity, their spouses, their sexual orientation, their jobs or anything else he could think of. He didn’t discriminate: His incendiary unpleasantries were aimed at the biggest stars in show business (Frank Sinatra was a favorite target) and at ordinary paying customers.
Born in the Jackson Heights section of Queens in New York City, Rickles was the only child of an insurance salesman and housewife.
After he graduated from high school in the 1940s he did a two-year stint in the Navy before following in his father’s footsteps as an insurance agent.That career didn’t take off and Rickles enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.He tried his hand at performing comedy in nightclubs in between acting gigs and it was there he found his true calling by taking on hecklers.
His rise to national prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s roughly coincided with the success of “All in the Family,” the groundbreaking situation comedy whose protagonist, Archie Bunker, was an outspoken bigot. Mr. Rickles’s humor was similarly transgressive. But he went further than Archie Bunker, and while Carroll O’Connor, who played Archie, was speaking words someone else had written — and was invariably the butt of the joke — Mr. Rickles, whose targets included his fellow Jews, never needed a script and was always in charge.
Critics were often not sure what to make of Mr. Rickles. John J. O’Connor of The Times wrote in 1972 that for some his humor “will always remain tasteless,” while for others “it has its delicious moments of madness.” Tom Shales of The Washington Post, 26 years later, was more enthusiastic, praising him as “mythic, timeless, fearless — endowed by the gods with some absurd miraculous gift.”
No critic, however thoughtful, could quite explain Mr. Rickles’s durability in show business, given that until the end of his career he was peppering his act with slurs and stereotypes long out of favor. And yet he not only got away with it, he flourished.
He shared an apartment with his mother and did not marry until he was almost 40. After marrying Barbara Sklar in 1965, he saw to it that his mother had the apartment next door. His wife survives him, as do a daughter, Mindy Mann, and two grandchildren. Mr. Rickles’s son, Lawrence, died in 2011.