Remembering Don Rickles, The Insult Comic Who Made Fun Of Everything

Apr 7, 2017
Originally published on April 10, 2017 10:41 am
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The famous insult comic Don Rickles died yesterday at the age of 90. He was the kind of comic that got you wincing and laughing at the same time as he berated his audiences and celebrities for their looks, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, reputation, you name it.

Rickles was big in Vegas, and he became a regular on the televised "Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts." He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts intending to become an actor. Although he became more famous as a comic, he was in several films, including "The Rat Race" with Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis, Martin Scorsese's "Casino" and the "Toy Story" movies in which he voiced the character Mr. Potato Head.

We're going to listen back to two interviews with him, starting with one I recorded in 2008. We began with a bit from his album, Don Rickles live at the Sahara Hotel and Casino. It was recorded in 1968, when he was in his prime. It's startling to hear what Don Rickles got away with then and the laughs he got from his jokes mining racial, ethnic and religious stereotypes.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ALBUM, "HELLO DUMMY!")

DON RICKLES: You Mormons never laugh, do you? Just sit there with your pilgrim hat, waiting for your duck to die. Hope you go to Utah and suck salt. I say this, gang - sucking salt, that's a colored dance team (ph). The colored guy went, oh, I never heard of sucking salt. Heard of the Nicholas Brothers, but never sucking salt. It's true. Why do I make fun of the negroes? Because I'm not one of them. I say this though, gang, the greatest - you're a Jewish guy. You can always tell - bald, heavy set and a hooked nose that's sucking up his lip. You're either a Jewish guy or a zeppelin, I'll tell you that right now. I want to put a Goodyear on your ass, a cord in your navel and hope you take off. I'll tell you this - I'll be with you in a minute, lady. God put us on this Earth to laugh, am I right? He made you a Lebanese. He made me a Jew. So what? We are people working for talent. What's your first name? Mohammad (ph)? Habib (ph)? You put that on you when you have your dinner? How the hell did you get in the front?

(LAUGHTER)

RICKLES: Look at where they put him. He could pick me off in five minutes. Right in the front they got ficata (ph) Arab over here, a boozed-up gypsy broad over there, three kids in heat over here, a German pain in the ass over here, two Japs that passed away, trick or treat hobby with the turtleneck sweater, Ma Fricket (ph) sitting over there waiting for the Pillsbury bake-off, the Spanish guy planning to attack the Mexican and two Pollacks on the end waiting for their truck to be fixed.

(LAUGHTER)

RICKLES: And the bald-headed guy going out with the nurse.

(LAUGHTER)

RICKLES: Got to laugh about people, Habib. I've met you before, haven't I? That's right, you hung my uncle. Anyway, gang - I know I remember - where'd I meet you, Habib? Lake Tahoe, that's - Barbara was pregnant. Are you the guy that made my wife pregnant?

(LAUGHTER)

RICKLES: How do you like that? My kid's an Arab. Nah, it doesn't matter. Good to see you, Habib. God bless you. And I say this from my heart. I'm going to get every one of you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: That's Don Rickles live at the Sahara in 1968. And Don Rickles, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you.

RICKLES: Thank you. Nice to be here.

GROSS: I hear you do that routine, and I don't know whether to cringe or bust out laughing. And that's exactly the reaction I'm sure that so many people have (laughter) to your performances.

RICKLES: That was a long time ago. But it's - I must say, it's - the basic things that I do is there, but I have much more - I'm kind of proud to say - I put it together with much more dignity, I think. And it comes out with a little more class, if I may say.

GROSS: What would you not say that you said in what we just heard?

RICKLES: Well, you know, I can't - I don't like to poke with what I might say. But I have a little more rhythm to what I say. And don't forget, those were tough days. I used to work over a bar. That was - there was no stage. I stood over a tiny bar. Louis Prima rest his soul, he worked there. I was the guy that filled in when he was off the stage.

And it was tough those days. People sat having breakfast and drinking right smack in front of me. And I had no really beginning, middle or ending. I just went out there and winged it and said whatever came into my mind. And every night it changed. But that was my performance, just looking down at people right in front of me.

GROSS: You know, usually, though, the way it works is, like, Jews are allowed to do Jewish jokes. African-Americans can do black jokes. Gays can do gay jokes. But you kind of always violated that rule. You would insult everyone in the audience. What made you think you could pull that off?

RICKLES: Well, I never looked at it as insults. And I - I'm sure it's not considered that way because I wouldn't be where I am today, 55 years and now headlining so many years, which is great.

GROSS: You'd also have a broken nose (laughter).

RICKLES: No. Really, I've never had a problem that way. What it is is I don't really insult. I exaggerate all our selves, our beings. I make fun of everything, of our life and what we are. But I don't tell jokes, really. I just exaggerate life, and it comes out funny.

GROSS: What would you do, you'd point out people's imperfections or their oddities or what?

RICKLES: Well, no, dear, you see, I worked in what they call striptease joints in those days. It's - they don't have those today. The girls like in we'll say Hooters have less clothing than the girls I worked with in those days. We thought it was wild when they just wore little bells and so forth. But today, in restaurants, some of the waitresses almost work in the nude, you know, to get business. But in those days, it was exciting for what we did. And I was the comedian that while the ladies changed in the dressing room, I went out there and just winged it and just talked to the audience. That's how I developed it because I never had an act. I'd just start talking. Good evening ladies and gentlemen. And I'm fed up with this place and I don't know why I'm here. And the guy on the front, that hat don't - take the hat off. You're looking ridiculous. You know, it became a performance just by talking to the people.

GROSS: Let me ask you - I know your mother was a very, like, strong personality. Was she the kind of woman who would just say whatever came into her mind? And sometimes it would end up being really insulting because...

RICKLES: Oh, no, no, no.

GROSS: ...I've known a lot of people like that (laughter).

RICKLES: No, no, she wasn't that way at all. She was just...

GROSS: No? Oh, OK.

RICKLES: She had great strength, and she had great, great self-esteem. And as many actors, most actors are - I think you might know - are shy when they were very young, as I was. And she would bring me to the front. She would say, stand up there, Don. Make fun of your Uncle Jack. Show him how you make fun of your - and she was very aggressive in the sense of knowing that I was a funny kid, not realizing that I would develop to do the style I did. I think before she passed away, she finally realized what it was because she never was rah, rah, rah (ph) with my style of ribbing people. She would always just say why can't you be like Alan King? Talk nice, you know. She believed in what I did in comedy, but it made her nervous.

GROSS: Now, when you started playing strip clubs, which were basically the first venues that you played...

RICKLES: Yeah.

GROSS: ...What was it like as a young man to be around strippers all the time? I mean, may I ask, was it arousing or was it just like another day at the factory?

RICKLES: Oh, no, you know, in my book, my first book, it tells the story. When the girls took off the makeup, they were just Shirley (ph) and Alice (ph). But when they were out there and they played "Night Train," everybody in the audience was going, yea, yea, yea, yea. In this business and you work behind the scenes, the girls become more or less friends and nothing sexual. I mean, if you like the girl, you might go out personally. But most times, you know, they - half the time, they'd be undressed backstage and I'd be undressed in shorts or whatever, underwear, running to get ready for the next scene, what we were going to do. So we never took it that way.

GROSS: Was it usually a hospitable audience or a tough crowd to play?

RICKLES: Well, in those days, you know, it was whistling guys and Navy guys, as I was, but a lot of servicemen in those days too. And it was - it wasn't easy, but I was lucky that they found me funny. I was one of the first guys in these sleazy places that they put a cover charge on to see me, and I was very, in those days, I was very proud of that.

GROSS: And was there a drummer who could do rimshots?

RICKLES: (Laughter) Always - you always had to have that, yeah.

GROSS: Did they do that? Did you actually get the rimshots?

RICKLES: No. I - my friend Jack Carter was another great comedian in my day. He was also a star before I ever attained anything. But he - they did - Jackie Leonard - as we talk, they did rimshots. I never worked with rimshots to this very day. How do you know about rimshots? You don't seem to be a girl that gets around. How do you know about rimshots?

GROSS: (Laughter) Everybody knows about rimshots, don't they?

RICKLES: No, not everybody. What's your last name?

GROSS: Gross.

RICKLES: Are you a Jewish girl?

GROSS: Yes.

RICKLES: Oh, OK. We can talk more.

GROSS: (Laughter) One of the people who you work with was Lenny Bruce's mother.

RICKLES: Yes. Yes, I did.

GROSS: Yeah. And so was she good?

RICKLES: Oh, she was - she was wonderful and a wise lady, too, and a lot of fun to be with and very, very considerate of an actor. She was very supportive of me, even though her son, at that time, was making his mark. Lenny and I, our lives crossed because he did something. He did the F-word in a club called the Slate Brothers. And Henry Slate, the owner, fired him. And I was working up at a place called the Interlude, and he asked me to come down to the Slate Brothers. And that made history for me in Los Angeles because I became known as the guy that made fun of all the actors and actresses. And they all stood in line to see me, and I was very delighted about that.

GROSS: So you know, I think in your memoir you wrote that you got into comedy because you weren't finding enough roles as an actor. You'd wanted to be an actor. How...

RICKLES: Well, it wasn't exactly that way. What happened was I graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which I'm kind of proud of. And it's a great school for young people for acting. That was with people like Jason Robards - rest his soul, Tom Poston - he's gone, Anne Bancroft, Conrad Bain, Don Murray - all these people. And I always wanted to be an actor.

But the stand-up stuff - the kidding around came because nothing was happening. So suddenly, somebody would say here, Don. Here's 20 bucks. We're going to the synagogue dance. If you get up for a half hour and just kid around, the guy that's running the affair will give you $20. And another places would give me $10. And all of a sudden, I was appearing at these little places and getting around. And suddenly, I found myself on a legitimate - (unintelligible) legitimate - the striptease clubs, working, doing what I did.

GROSS: From the synagogue to the strip clubs, I like it.

RICKLES: Yeah, that's pretty much the story, right.

GROSS: There's a beautiful story that you tell in your memoir about the day that you got married when - I think you were, like, 38 or something...

RICKLES: Yeah.

GROSS: ...When you got married. And your cantor from - this was the cantor from the synagogue that you grew up in, and he was going to be presiding over your wedding...

RICKLES: Right.

GROSS: ...Ceremony. You describe how he called you. I think it was, like, at 4 in the morning.

RICKLES: Yeah.

GROSS: And tell the story of what happened after that.

RICKLES: Well, my cousin Allen - rest his soul - and I was staying at the Lexington Hotel. And we were getting ready for the wedding the next day. The next night, my cantor, who was the man who I always - he had that - what we call a hazzan voice. It had a wailing sound that always chilled me, and I loved him for it. And so every time he sang, I really felt really emotional about him.

He was very dear friends with my father, and my father passed away at kind of young, at 55. And he knew my father, as I said, very well. And so we were in the hotel, and the phone rang. And it was the cantor. He said you and Allen, come on downstairs. I said Cantor, it's 4 o'clock in the morning. He said, will you please come downstairs? And I came downstairs. He said, get in the car. I want to take you someplace. I said, I knew him well. So I said, it must be important. And sure enough, we wound up at the cemetery where my father was. And he took off his suit jacket, put on a white shawl and a high, white cantor's hat. And he sang "El malei rachamim," which is a prayer for the dead and then said a special prayer inviting my father to the wedding.

GROSS: That's a really beautiful story. Thanks for telling it.

RICKLES: Yeah. Telling it now - (unintelligible) when I think about it, yeah.

GROSS: How old were you when your father died?

RICKLES: Well, I was about 28, 29.

GROSS: Were you close?

RICKLES: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. He was a great guy, yeah.

GROSS: He was, for a while, the president of the congregation, the president of the synagogue.

RICKLES: Yeah, he was very involved in that. So was my mother.

GROSS: So did you grow up with a lot of religion in your life?

RICKLES: No. We were Orthodox Jews, but we really didn't deserve it. I mean, bacon - my father said, don't put bacon in the house, but we had bacon. We didn't keep kosher. And we observed which today would be Conservative Jews. But in those days, we belonged to an Orthodox temple. So we made out we were Orthodox Jews, but we really weren't.

GROSS: A lot of younger comics really idolize you. And...

RICKLES: Really?

GROSS: Yeah. And - you know, like, one example of somebody who really idolizes you and then worked with you briefly in a movie is Artie Lange. And you did a movie with him called "Dirty Work," which is probably famous mostly for one scene (laughter). It's a scene in which you're the new manager of a movie theater.

RICKLES: Right.

GROSS: And you've lined up the whole staff, and you're kind of laying down the new law for them.

RICKLES: Right.

GROSS: And Artie Lange has told many times the story of how when you insult him in this scene, 'cause he's one of the people working for you, that he kept breaking up. And he had to keep doing takes because he and, I think, Norm MacDonald, too, kept breaking up. I want to just play that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DIRTY WORK")

RICKLES: (As Mr. Hamilton) All right, all right, all right (clapping). Everybody, line up. Just line up. Don't be dummies. Just get in line.

That's fine. Gentlemen, members of the national office are coming here tonight for their annual inspection of this theater. Right now, I'm going to explain to you my managing style for the benefit of the new guys.

So there you are, tubby. You look like a bucket of lard on a bad day. You baby gorilla, why don't you work a zoo and stop bothering people? Got a call yesterday from Baskin Robbins. They said that they're down to only five flavors. You're swelling up as I talk to you. Look at you. How's this? How is it doing? (Vocalizing) Hello, ice cream. Having a good time running around? (Laughter).

GROSS: And that's Don Rickles in a scene from "Dirty Work." And the person he's insulting in that scene is the character played by Artie Lange of "The Howard Stern Show." So that scene has been kind of immortalized through Artie Lange. What was the scene like for you? Were you improvising that?

RICKLES: Well, actually - actually, Bob Saget is a good friend. He directed it. Bob's a good guy...

GROSS: Right.

RICKLES: ...A good talent - talented guy. He just said, Don, you do you. That was never written, just the beginning of the rules of the theater manager. But the rest of the stuff was - we did about 10, 12 takes. I mean, I just kept doing different insult remarks, so to speak, making fun of each guy in line. And the guys (laughter) seemed to get a kick out of it each time. And I changed it each time, and we kept doing it. And that's how it all came about.

GROSS: That's an excerpt of my 2008 interview with Don Rickles. He died yesterday at the age of 90. We'll continue our remembrance after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES MOODY'S "THE SONG IS YOU")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering insult comic and actor Don Rickles. He died yesterday at age 90. One of his best friends was Bob Newhart whose mild-mannered, cerebral persona was the opposite of Rickles' in-your-face style. I interviewed Bob Newhart in 1998 and asked him about his friendship with Rickles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Well, you know, you mentioned Don Rickles. I know you and he are, or at least were, best friends. And it seems like such an incongruous pairing...

BOB NEWHART: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Because, you know, I mean, the last thing in the world you would do is insult people on-stage. And Don Rickles is, like, Mr. Insult Comic. Your temperaments couldn't seem more opposite.

NEWHART: Well, I don't know...

GROSS: Are you really nasty off the stage, and is he really nice?

NEWHART: Oh, he's very nice. Yeah, he's - yeah, I'm probably nastier off the stage than I appear, and he's nicer than he appears. Our wives enjoy each other's company, and we enjoy each other's company. And we go away on vacation, and we're together for two or three weeks. And we have laughs. We just have a good time. It's something - I wish everybody could have a friend such as the Rickleses. And...

GROSS: Where do you guys go on vacation? Not to Vegas.

NEWHART: Oh, no, no, no. That would be - no, that would be a working vacation.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

NEWHART: We would - the last trip we made, we went to Southeast Asia. We went to - we flew to Singapore and got aboard a liner and made stops in Bangkok, South Vietnam, North Vietnam. It was a wonderful, wonderful trip.

GROSS: You know, I'm wondering - I'm thinking, like, how odd it would have been if, like, say I were a journalist in Vietnam and there was Don Rickles and Bob Newhart (unintelligible) I thought I was hallucinating or something.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did you run into any people who...

NEWHART: Well, actually...

GROSS: ...Did a real double-take seeing you and he go by?

NEWHART: Met a man - I'm confused now whether it was China or Vietnam - but anyway, he - they kind of knew who I was, but they didn't know who Don was. And I think that upset him. And I derived a great deal of satisfaction from it.

But that has happened before. We traveled in Europe. And of course, they don't really know either of us, and they certainly don't know what to make of Don. Here's this loud American (laughter) who's just yelling things at people and insulting them. And...

GROSS: Well, does he do that when he's touring?

NEWHART: Oh, yeah. Oh, sure. And so they don't quite know what to make of Don when (laughter) we're on vacation.

GROSS: I mean, does he do that as shtick? Or does that - is that just the way he treats people when...

NEWHART: He can't help it. He sees things, and he makes observations that are just - they're scary at times, that they're so on - they're so right, you know.

GROSS: That's an excerpt of my 1998 interview with Bob Newhart. Don Rickles talked about his friendship with Newhart when our TV critic David Bianculli interviewed Rickles in 2007 after the publication of his memoir.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I want to ask you about one other part of your book where you're actually very tender, and that's talking about your friendship with Bob Newhart. And you talk about traveling with Bob Newhart. We've interviewed - we on FRESH AIR have interviewed Bob Newhart where he's given his side of your traveling stories. And here in the book, you talk about it as being like a tour of the loudmouth and the librarian.

RICKLES: Yeah (laughter).

BIANCULLI: What's the ongoing appeal of traveling with Bob?

RICKLES: First of all, as I say in my performance, the wives are key. He always laughs. Again, they're key. The wives are like sisters. They're very dear and close to each other. And had not Ginny and my wife, Barbara, been friends, I don't know if Bob and I ever would have gotten together. But that was the first secret. The two wives adored each other, and they said, let's work it out that Don and Bob meet. And in Vegas and as they say in the book, we met and so forth and so on.

But the basic thing is we both have, believe it or not, the same sense of humor when we're alone socially. Onstage, it's apples and oranges. He does brain humor, and I do what I do. And so - and he's beautifully funny.

BIANCULLI: How long have you known each other now?

RICKLES: Oh, my God - I'm married 42 years - oh, about 35 years.

BIANCULLI: Well, that's amazing. What is it about you that allows you to claim as close friends not only Bob Newhart, you know, who's so quiet and shy, at least on stage, but Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra, who could be so aloof and hard to approach?

RICKLES: Well, what can I tell you, David? I've been - it's my personality. And Frank, I always - he always had a thing about me that was kind of warm and sweet. And Johnny got a kick out of me. So - and Johnny was a loner, as David Letterman is. And I became good friends with David Letterman. Anyway, so I hit it off with them. What can I say?

GROSS: Don Rickles speaking with our TV critic David Bianculli in 2007. We'll hear more of their interview and more of my 2008 interview with Rickles as we continue our remembrance after this break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENNY CARTER'S "CHERRY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering the insult comic and actor Don Rickles, who died yesterday at the age of 90. A little later, we'll hear more of my 2008 interview with him. First, let's get back to the conversation Rickles recorded in 2007 with our TV critic David Bianculli after the publication of Rickles' memoir.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BIANCULLI: You start the book with a great anecdote about the time that you got up the nerve to ask Frank Sinatra to come to your table and say hello to impress a date.

RICKLES: What it was is that - the punchline is I was with a - I was in my single days. (Laughter) I'm married 42 years. I don't want to blow it now. My - I was with this young lady, and we had this evening, and we went to the Sands' lounge. And she was all dressed up and, you know, kind of a good kid but not my cup of tea for life, let's put it that way. And she - and Frank Sinatra was over at the other end of the lounge. In those days, they had walking - strolling violins. And they had the caviar and, you know, the flaming things for hors d'oeuvres. It was really plush.

Anyway, so I was sitting there with her, and she said to me, oh, this is a lovely evening. She said, is that Frank Sinatra over there? And he was there with some - a couple of security officers and some - Lena Horne, I remember, and some other stars of that caliber and all sitting with him and Dinah Shore. And she said, do you know Frank Sinatra? I said, are you kidding, sweetheart? He's like a brother, don't be ridiculous, of course I know him - because I figured if this works out, it'd be a big help. She said, wow, you think we could ever meet him? I said, it's done, forget it, relax, boom. Just you wait here, OK? And I got up, and I went over and I went, Frank. And he had the security guys and he always called me Bullet-head and the guy said Rickles is here. And he said, oh, what is it? He wants to talk to you. My pleasure. I said, Frank, if you could walk over - I know you're busy with these people - and just say, hi, Don, it would help me a lot. He said, it's done. But don't come right away. And so I went back to the table. She said, what happened? Oh, I just chatted with him, sweetheart. Don't worry.

And we had (unintelligible) had another drink and boom. And with that, Sinatra walked over, and the violins are playing and he walked over, and he said, Don, how are you? It's your old buddy, Frank Sinatra. And I went, not now, Frank. Can't you see I'm with somebody? And I stood up and did that loud and the whole lounge stopped. The violins stopped. The waitresses stopped. Everything stopped. And she - the girl went into sugar shock. That resulted in good things for me.

BIANCULLI: Also in the book you talk about your days working the nightclubs in Miami Beach. And you describe a nightclub where you say they actually had rocking chairs in the audience. What was that like to perform? I mean, when people were restless, if you weren't going over well, did they rock more or...

RICKLES: Dave, I never went over bad, Dave.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

RICKLES: Snap out of it, Dave. I never was lousy. The audience might be lousy, but I was never lousy. But no, it was - it was very - Dave, it was very intimate just almost like sitting in your house. And we had fun that way.

BIANCULLI: And then, of course, you had Frank Sinatra come to see you when he pretty much ran not only Miami but the world. And in the book - well, you credit your mom with making that connection. How did she do that?

RICKLES: Well, my mother was sort of a Jew Patton, as I said in the book.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

RICKLES: She was a very strong-minded lady and American-born in a sense that she knew what was going on. And Dolly Sinatra lived in the Fontainebleau at the time. That was the very major hotel. And my mother said, I want to get Sinatra to see you. I said, Ma, take it easy. She said, don't worry, dear. I know what to do. And she went up to Dolly Sinatra's house - apartment in Fontainebleau and said, Dolly, darling - because she knew Dolly, as I did. And she said, Dolly, would you get to see - and she called me my sonny boy - would you get Frank to see my sonny boy, Don, in Murray Franklin? She said, Etta, it's done. It's done, darling, don't worry. And sure enough, a few days later, in walked Frank with an army of people, and that was the beginning of our friendship.

BIANCULLI: And I know this is a familiar story but one more. I can't resist hearing, as you tell it, what you said to Frank Sinatra from the stage when he was watching you perform that basically launched your career into a different level.

RICKLES: Well, for some reason, the press - for some reason - the press picked up on it right away and it got all over Miami. I said, Frank, stand up, be yourself, hit somebody. And nobody ever talked to - nobody ever talked to Frank like that. And in my style, in my - which is - which I take pride in when I perform - I have a funny attitude, which is very important. And he - thank God - he laughed like crazy. And the guys with him went, Frank, we find that funny. Had they not, I would have been on the Jerry Lewis telethon.

BIANCULLI: When you were starting out as a stand-up comic, did you make a conscious decision not to work blue or was that just the tenor of the times?

RICKLES: It was just never in my personality to do it. I never used any - son of a B's my biggest word on stage. I've never done that and I don't know. People said, well, Rickles doesn't do that. And I really don't to this very day. I mean, it wasn't planned. It was just in my personality that I never thought of doing it that way.

BIANCULLI: You're widely known as an insult comic, but you don't even like that term and...

RICKLES: No, I don't.

BIANCULLI: And why not? And what description suits you best?

RICKLES: Well, because people that don't know me that have never seen me think of somebody that's rude and mean. And I'm not mean-spirited and I'm not rude. I have an attitude that's different than I think than anybody else. I know. Somebody else tries what I do, I don't think that success will be very easy for them. I just happen to have a knack to make fun of people without telling a joke and without hurting them. I've been blessed to be this far along at 81 years to headline to this very day, which I'm very proud of.

BIANCULLI: And are there things in your act that were OK for you to say decades ago in terms of the ethnic jokes that you make? You haven't had to change any of those through the times. You're OK with what you did then, what you're doing now and the audience is OK with the way you're doing them.

RICKLES: Well, I say - David, they say politically incorrect, you know, they say today is very strong. But after so many years of having this reputation, that people accept me for my ethnic humor because I'm an established person. They know it's not somebody that came up Thursday and made up these things. They know my reputation, and they know how far and long I've been doing it, and I've been accepted.

BIANCULLI: A few things you don't clear up in your book that I'd like to ask you about.

RICKLES: Sure.

BIANCULLI: Where did the insult hockey puck come from?

RICKLES: Well, if I could clear that up, I would have said it. I have no...

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

RICKLES: ...I can't - I can't really pin it down, David. To best of my recollection, it started in these tough clubs that I was working on. I had hecklers and so forth. And to shut them up, I would always say don't be a hockey puck. And they laughed at that, and it worked. And even to this day in New York - I'm a New Yorker. I was born and raised in New York. And so when I get back to New York, I walk down the street and I'm very approachable, which is, you know, I've walked with Robert De Niro, a great fellow and a great actor. But guys like that and Clint Eastwood, people don't run up and say hi, Clint. Hi, Robert. Me, they come right up and they go, hey, Rickles, a hockey puck. How are you, you know? But I have guys working on the buildings, you know, the hardhats. And I'll walk down the street and they'll go, hey, hockey puck, how are you? And it stuck with me.

BIANCULLI: You were in "Casino" opposite Robert De Niro. And how did that offer from Martin Scorsese come to you?

RICKLES: Marty Scorsese, who's the best, and he somehow said Rickles would be perfect for "Casino." And a lot of people didn't know it, but the part of Billy Sherbert was not in the original script. Marty wrote that in, and the joke was that Rickles played a mute. But everybody - because I didn't have much dialogue, but they said I was pretty damn good in it, and I was kind of happy to hear that. And Marty said, I want that - I said, Marty, I don't have a lot of dialogue. He said, but your presence, Don, your presence is going to be great. And he was very demonstrative about it.

And sure enough, I got to be in "Casino" just because Scorsese reached out for me, and of course I had to meet Robert De Niro. You went through a cycle. You had to first go and sit with Marty and talk. Then you had to go and see De Niro. And I went over to his place at the Bel Air Hotel and I said, Bob, I'm here to - I'm supposed to talk to you. And he said, (mumbling) OK, OK. It was good to see you. And he mumbled, and that was it. And that was the beginning of our friendship.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, you tell a story in the book - I don't remember whether it was at rehearsal or during first day of filming - where you actually make fun of him, which, again, is sort of like Frank Sinatra all over again.

RICKLES: I did. I did. They told me, David, they said, don't make fun of De Niro, Don, when you do it. Don't kid around. He's a very serious actor. And he likes to work very hard. I said, well, I do too. But, you know, just cool it with the kidding around. I was like, OK. But I don't listen. You know, the first day we do a scene and he was - of course we talked and so forth. But he walked and he said - we had what they call a handheld camera walking down the casino. And he went, (imitating Robert De Niro) you know, Don, it's so good, you know, (mumbling).

And I said, I can't, Marty. I can't work with a mumbler. I walk out. I don't need this. I got a lot of money, and I'm walking. I don't need it. Stop making him mumble, otherwise I walk. And he started to laugh. And that broke the ice, and I kidded him ever since.

BIANCULLI: You dance around it or allude to it gently through most of your book. But at one point, you actually acknowledge that mob connections simply were part of a successful Vegas nightclub career back then. Would you consider that a fair assessment?

RICKLES: Absolutely. I mean, when you say, you know, mob - they were great guys. And I didn't get involved into delving into what time they went to bed or what gun they had. It was nothing like that. But they were the guys that ran Vegas, and they were the guys that ran nightclubs. And I was very - they were very kind to my mother and to me at the time. I was single then, and I knew a lot of them by first names. But I never delved into their personal life 'cause I wanted to live. That's a joke.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter) Yeah.

RICKLES: But...

BIANCULLI: Late on the laugh but I got it.

RICKLES: Yeah, yeah. But they were always great to me. And you needed them. Without them, the Copacabana in New York - I don't think I ever would have got to the Copa unless certain people made some calls and they said, you've got to put Rickles into the Copacabana. And that was a big shot for me to be in the Copacabana. My God, to headline there was a highlight of my career, really.

GROSS: Don Rickles speaking with TV critic David Bianculli in 2007. After a break, we'll hear more of my 2008 interview with Rickles in which he talked about why he was so at ease insulting people. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENNY CARTER SONG, "CRAZY RHYTHM")

GROSS: We're remembering insult comic and actor Don Rickles. He died yesterday at age 90. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with him in 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: We were talking earlier about how you sounded back in 1968 and we played an excerpt of a recording live at the Sahara. I want to go back to that recording and play the very end of it. And this is after, like, 35 minutes of you - I know you don't like the word insult. The word that you'd like to use is...

RICKLES: Oh, that's OK.

GROSS: What? It's OK?

RICKLES: No, that's OK, sure.

GROSS: OK. So after 35 minutes of you insulting the audience, (laughter) this is how you end it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICKLES: I am no rabbi, priest or reverend. You know this. I stand here and speak of all faiths, creeds and colors. And why not? Really, why not? Because in my experience in the Navy, when things were rough, nobody bothered or cared to ask. Color, church, synagogue, who cared? Frightened to death, we stood together on the bow of the ship and said, please - and that is the truth - please, when our time is up, we will all be on one team. So why do we need bigotry and nonsense? Let's enjoy while almighty God gives us time.

Will Rogers once said, I never picked on a little guy, only big people. May I say to this entire audience, on a hectic night, you are pretty big. And I do thank each and every one of you.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: That ending really surprised me.

RICKLES: Wow, I just - you brought back a lot of memories. I did that a long time ago.

GROSS: Do you still do anything like that at the end of acts?

RICKLES: No, I say a little bit something but very, very - two or three minutes of that sort of attitude. That's about it.

GROSS: So what - when did you start including something like that in your performances?

RICKLES: Well, because I came on so strong with what I did about making fun of life and people and so forth, and I wanted people to get the idea that I am a human being. And so even in my regular performance to this very day, at the end, I do a little thing about life and friendship and so forth. But it's very short, and it fits in with what I do. And it's done with music, too. And so I always felt that it just shows that I'm a guy. You know, it maybe gives you an insight of my soul and my feelings.

GROSS: So I'm wondering, like, when you walk around, since you are so good at making fun of people and you do it improvisationally, when you're walking around, do you have a constant thought balloon that is making fun of people as they walk by or whoever you're talking with? I mean, is that part of you always going on?

RICKLES: No, except in fun like Bob Newhart, who is a dear friend of mine. And he's a wonderful comedian. As you mentioned comedians before, the guy that's always with me a great deal is never mentioned. And here I am saying it now. While we were - for example, when we were in Rome, we'd sit in the piazza while the wives went shopping - before 9/11 we used to do that a lot - and we'd pick out people - that girl's a hooker, that guy's a doctor, that guy's gay, that guy is a tap dancer - and exaggerate all these different people.

So we both had that basic thing of making fun of what we saw in front of us, which I still do today in my own head. But I don't do it out loud. It's just a thing that's part of me.

GROSS: And did you have a joke writer or did you write all your own material?

RICKLES: I never had a joke writer in my life, except on a television show, naturally. But in person, everything I did, I did on stage. And I just made little notes on a piece of paper and looked at them periodically. Today, once in a while, I'll listen to a tape. But I never - everything I've ever said that was funny came from me on the stage.

GROSS: Are you still performing onstage?

RICKLES: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Pretty steady, too. My dance card has been quite full. I'm very proud of that.

GROSS: And what's your material like now?

RICKLES: Same, you know, making fun of life and people, same. I do something that took me to the dance years ago, and I'm still doing it because they laugh and still show up to listen.

GROSS: Now, I don't think I've ever ended an interview this way before, and I know that you don't really know me. But before we say goodbye, can I ask you, please, to make fun of me - to insult me?

RICKLES: No, I would just say that this show took up a lot of time, and I was crazy about you. But, hey - listen, you can't have everything.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. Thank you.

RICKLES: Thank you. Thank you, dear.

GROSS: Can I actually ask you to stay for one more minute? My producer has a question she wants me to ask you. Is that all right?

RICKLES: Sure.

GROSS: Great, thanks.

RICKLES: Five dollars.

GROSS: (Laughter) What my producer wants to know - and this is a great question - tell us a little bit about what your experiences were like in the Navy, which you alluded to at the end of your act at the Sahara in 1968. I mean, you were drafted - right? - during World War II.

RICKLES: No, no, no, no, no, no. I enlisted...

GROSS: You enlisted, OK.

RICKLES: ...In the Navy. And the reason I enlisted in the Navy at that time - my father said, don't go in the Army; you'll get dirty. The Navy, you don't have to lay in the mud or anything like that (laughter). That was his participation.

And I wanted to be in special service, so I said I'll be - and I say in my book, they said fine. They kept stamping my papers. And fast-forward, make a story short, I wound up in the Philippines on a PT tender, then on a PT boat for a little while, then back on a PT tender. And I kept saying, I do jokes, and I'm a comedian. And I belong in show biz. They said keep firing - keep firing, bum-bum-bum (ph).

And I was the one on the ship that made everybody laugh and got through two and a half years of pretty involved - and kind of proud that, at this stage of life, that I'm one of the few that - not many of us are left, the veterans of World War II. And I was proud to be part of the Navy.

GROSS: Do you feel like you were really changed by that experience, by being under fire?

RICKLES: Oh, gee whiz, I went in the Navy, I was a kid. I didn't know what time it was. And when I came home at 22, 23, I was like a man, in those days, as you would say. I saw so much of life and so many different situations that made my whole being different.

GROSS: You said that you were the guy on the ship who kept other people laughing. Was it hard to find the funny side when you're at war?

RICKLES: No, no because, you know, not every day was a gun going off. And we all were 300 men all locked into one little tiny ship, so to speak. Ship was small considering. And we were all, you know, holding hands practically to stay with it and not get homesick and not worry about getting hurt or, God forbid, the other word - killed. And so we all hung out together pretty much. And I was the guy that always made fun of everybody.

And some guys laughed, and some guys - I had a guy called Mike Flora - rest his soul - he was like my buddy. He was a little older. In those days, when you're 22 - and I'm 18 - 22, 23 was like an old man. And he was my bodyguard. He took care of me 'cause I was always making jokes, never was a fighter - always said, you take care of it. And so when anybody didn't particularly - on the ships - but he made it so I became so popular I could say anything.

GROSS: Are you really going to charge me $5 for having asked you that question?

RICKLES: Twenty.

GROSS: Twenty (laughter) 'cause there were follow-ups (laughter).

RICKLES: That's right. That's right. That's right.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you again for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure to have you on our show. Thank you so much.

RICKLES: I certainly hope so. Thank you, dear.

GROSS: (Laughter)

Don Rickles recorded in 2008. He died yesterday at age 90. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIOR CHRONIK'S "WE ARE ALL SNOWFLAKES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.