CelebVet: Don Rickles

Don Rickles displays the Emmy he received in 2008 for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety, Music or Comedy Special for his work in “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.

Don Rickles, WWII Navy Vet and the “King of insult comedy”, passed away from kidney failure last Thursday at the age of 90. His death symbolizes the end of a golden era of entertainment - he brushed elbows with the likes of Frank Sinatra and was an honorary member of The Rat Pack, slinging insults on their character freely and often, despite their celebrity.

Humble Beginnings
Rickles was born into a Jewish family in New York on May 8, 1926. He joined the navy shortly after graduating high school, and served as a first-class seaman on the USS Cyrene, a motor torpedo tender ship, which served to resupply torpedo carriers with fuel and provisions in remote areas. He was honorably discharged in 1946.

Don Rickles began his career in comedy several years after leaving the Navy, and quickly began known as an insult comedian when he shamelessly gave his hecklers grief for interrupting his performances. His audiences ended up enjoying his insults more than the routines he had prepared, so he focused his act around this and it became his specialty.

Don Rickles and his spouse Barbara (right) with President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan
Don Rickles and his spouse Barbara (right) with President Reagan
and First Lady Nancy Reagan

The Unofficial Sixth Member of the Rat Pack
Rickles first met Frank Sinatra while working at the “Murray Franklin’s” Nightclub in Miami Beach, Florida. Sinatra loved his routine and respected the fact that he paid no heed to celebrity. Rickles roasted anyone and everyone – even the leader of the Rat Pack. Sinatra became Rickles’ greatest supporter, and encouraged other celebrities to attend his performances.

In addition to Rickles, the Rat Packers who served in the military were Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop, all three of whom served in the Army during World War II. Sinatra and Peter Lawford did not serve.

With Sinatra’s help, Rickles soon became a headlining performer in Las Vegas, performing at iconic Rat Pack hangouts like Sands Hotel. He went on to appear in feature films and popular television programs like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Dean Martin Show, The Addams Family, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan’s Island.

A Comedy Legend
To be insulted by Don Rickles was a rite of passage and great compliment in the entertainment industry. He was affectionately referred to as “The merchant of Venom” and “Mr. Warmth.” Upon his passing, late-night personalities like Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman lamented on how much his comedy meant to them, and how he helped set the bar for their careers.

Don Rickles, we thank you for the laughs you gave us and for your service to our country. Your legacy will live on forever, and we are honored to pay tribute to you as a Veterans Advantage CelebVet.

Photo Credit: DonRickles.com

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