In director John Landis’s Emmy-winning documentary on Don Rickles, titled Mr. Warmth, the iconic actor-comedian points to a wall of celebrity photos: “Dead, dead, should be dead soon, doesn’t know he’s dead!”
Rickles, however, is alive at 89, and more popular than ever. Children know him as Mr. Potato Head from the Toy Story movies. College students relish his irreverent appearances on the late-night TV talk shows. Their parents grew up watching him in classic films like Run Silent, Run Deep, and Beach Blanket Bingo, and later, in the lasting action-packed adventures Kelly’s Heroes and Casino.
Now his television sitcom, C.P.O. Sharkey, which ran for two years, is on DVD for the first time. The debut season reveals Rickles’s likeable character: basically a G-rated version of his adult-oriented nightclub persona, only set in the peacetime Navy. (The DVD wisely includes the extremely funny incident—more on that later—where an upset Johnny Carson disrupts a C.P.O. Sharkey taping). Rickles still performs 25 shows a year including two weekends at the Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Doing a phone interview from his Malibu beach house, Rickles is a very engaging entertainer to spend time with.
Was the country receptive to a military comedy when C.P.O. Sharkey debuted on network television December 1, 1976?
You know, anything I’ve ever done my entire career, I’ve been fortunate nobody does what I do. The public has always been great to me and always accepted what I say about race, creed, color, Jews, whatever the hell it is. I’ve never been what you’d call progressive in the sense of being hateful or anything like that. The public has always received me great, even in those days. Nobody has ever done what I’ve done, people have tried it, but I know they didn’t have success with it. That’s just been my personality for me to say things. It’s very obvious it’s just an exaggeration.
How much of your naval service in World War II was integrated in the series?
It’s so long ago I really couldn’t tell you. I’d have to look at it again myself, but the spirit of the Navy was certainly in every episode. I spent two and a half years in the Philippines, you know, playing that part. I knew that atmosphere pretty good.
Johnny Carson once interrupted a taping of your sitcom after he discovered you had broken his favorite cigarette box the previous evening when he was away. As a result, did you ever think you’d never eat lunch in Hollywood again?
Why would you say that?
It was a joke.
Oh...Can I tell you something? You have a great style to you. I’m on the floor laughing. You’re funny. How old a guy are you?
Old enough not to joke with a legendary comic like yourself!
You sound like a nice guy. Now look up from your notes and say, “I'm really old, so Don told me I gotta pick it up a little bit.”
I’ll keep that in mind
OK, call me when you’re 70. Hopefully I’ll be awake by then.
What effect has political correctness had on comedy today?
The comics I’ve watched and listened to.... It hasn’t affected me at all. One thing a comedian does, when you step on the stage you’re selling yourself and certainly I don’t think the whole world can love you. But if you can get the majority on your side, you’re really in business. Thank god for me and my public embracing my work, people—especially the young people today—really enjoy what I do, and it’s all an exaggeration about everything I say and do. Today a lot of guys are doing heavy blue stuff but I’m not in a position to be a critic about it, and if it works for them, fine, I don’t do that at all. I just do conversation and every night the show changes because I say a lot of things I didn’t know I was going to say.
What made David Letterman a special late-night host for so long?
Well, he had that kind of charm for television. He was... still is a very bright man and he had a way of working his guests in, and playing up to their side; that makes them look good. He worked almost towards the world of Johnny Carson, who I adore. Johnny Carson was king of the kings in my opinion. Jimmy Kimmel has a wonderful style, but David had his own way and it was accepted and he is very bright and became a good friend to me.
Who are your favorite young comedians?
That’s a tough call. There are so many young guys out there. Hard for me.... throwing out one guy because all the guys I know in my world at my age, I don’t know. I don’t see much of it. It’s really not my world. Bob Newhart is my dearest friend, but he’s not one of the young comedians. But of the young comedians, there are so many guys out there that it’s hard for me to sit in judgment. I probably will hang up and say, “Oh, why didn’t I mention so and so,” but off the top of my head I really don’t know.
Speaking of Bob Newhart, he once said he constantly wonders why god made him your best friend. Why do you and Newhart get along so well?
When he said that he was doing a joke. The whole key to our friendship was his wife and my wife became like sisters. They were friends way back before I even knew Bob, and it’s like two Joe American guys that come from two different worlds, and yet we respect each other tremendously and we laugh at the same stuff socially. We enjoy each other’s company and he’s a very loyal friend. You don't find too much of those kind of guys around.
He once said you were very polite when you met his wife for the first time, and then he took her to your show—
—Yeah right... she introduced us. It was in Vegas. I was working in the lounge in those days. Bob had never met me and she said to my wife, “Bob has never met Don, he’s gotta go see him. Bob says, “I don't want to.” So she talks to Bob and sure enough, Bob came to the show. I’m up on stage and made the remark, “There’s Bob Newhart and his lovely wife. She used to be a hooker in Jersey.”
What’s the funniest thing Frank Sinatra ever said to you?
Oh golly, so many things... You know he always called me “Bullethead.” He was a great man in my mind. Frank was wonderful to my wife and I. He was always great. Over the last twenty years of his working life we traveled together and we always had a good time. I was one of the few guys in life that if we were eating and he walked by and he would say hello, then I would say, “Hey Frank, can’t you see I’m eating?” And he would fall on the floor laughing. I’ve always had that kind of camaraderie with him, and those are the kinds of things that make me laugh. There’s nobody else that ever did that with me. He was dear to me and I miss him and I respected him tremendously.
How did you get him to accept your humor?
Well it’s not that he accepted it. My dear mother went out to see his mother and he was working in Florida at the Fontainebleau Hotel, and his mother was staying there. My mother was a Jew Patton. She said, “Donny, darling.” I was working a little joint down there in those days, and she says, “I’m gonna tell Frank to come and see you…” “Please, no, let me handle it.” And sure enough, about three or four days later, he came into this little joint with all his friends. He came to see me and I said to him, “Frank, be yourself, sit down, and hit somebody.” I knew when he laughed I was going to live through the show. He always responded with great laughs, and we went to Europe together with his wife and my wife. We always had a good time with him. I would kid him on stage and tell him, “Say Frank, I gotta be honest with you... the voice is gone. It’s over. Quit bothering the public with those songs.” The way I did it, they laughed their asses off.
You acted in the hit action comedy Kelly’s Heroes with Clint Eastwood. Why do you think he became a huge movie star, and you had a harder time?
I’ve always wanted to be an actor. Clint was an actor all his life, and I was a stand-up comedian, although I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and graduated. Clint never got close, except he stood by the building and tried to get a cab. He was an actor, not a director back then, and I always wanted to be an actor, not a comedian. So I was moving around Broadway all the time, trying to get lucky, and I developed a style to rip people and started to make money doing what I do now. I did a few movies, but the word star... I cannot compare to a star like Clint Eastwood. I used to call Clint “Larry Dickman” when he would come to my show, then he started using the name when he would go under cover in a Dirty Harry movie. That’s why he’s a movie star... he’s so creative.
How did you and Martin Scorsese hook up for the film Casino?
Oh Marty… in Casino, the original script didn’t have me in it. That’s the truth. Marty said, “We’ve gotta get Rickles in this picture,” and I said, “Why?” This kind of life he knows well. Marty’s been around those guys a lot. He fits perfectly in character in one of these roles. Marty would say, “In this scene Don, do what you feel.” Do what I feel? I wanna take a nap. Robert De Niro was stiff and I did some dialogue with him, and after the first take I say to Marty, “You know this guy mumbles... I can’t work with this man. Get somebody that knows how to talk; this is ridiculous. This guy’s mumbling and spitting up all over himself.” Bob and I became great friends.
What kind of research did you do to play Mr. Potato Head in the three Toy Story films?
I researched the check. I’ve never said, “What’s my motivation?” I actually said, “I don’t do cartoons,” and 17 years later I’m still doing it. They say there’s another Toy Story on the way, but I’m not sitting in my house opening the window looking for it.
What’s the real reason you’ve been married for so long?
I’ve been married 50 years to my lovely Barbara. My wife is great. She always goes to the bank to see if the check has cleared.
Is that because she loves you?
No, no, she’s got a couple of guys on the side and they’re expensive.
What’s your opinion on the numerous rape allegations against Bill Cosby?
Bill has always been good to me, so I don’t want to make any negative comments on him because I really don’t know anything about it.
Did you ever think you’d survive acting in the beach party movies of the early sixties?
That was my whole life. The former First Lady Barbara Bush—a lovely woman—and I became friends. She writes me periodically, and one day she writes me, “Dear Don, god bless you, what a great movie Beach Blanket Bingo was.”
At 89 is there anybody currently alive that you’d still like to meet?
Would you believe it? I’m gonna say his name now, because I haven’t said it before: Liam Neeson. I’ve never said that to anybody. I’m taken by that movie, which I actually just watched again this morning, Schindler’s List. It’s that kind of movie. If you’re a Jewish guy that hits your heart, but besides that, I just thought he was great and he touched me and I’ve never met him.
Is there anything we didn’t talk about that you’d like to talk about?
Yeah, why are you still bothering me?