My obituary of Don Rickles is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, apart from his description as a turtle. I had already described him using canine similes, but I then described his delivery being as 'aggressive as a snapping turtle'. This description of an action became a description of either Rickles or the turtle: 'thin-lipped and hood-lidded', which I not only would not have written, but which doesn't resemble Rickles. Tant pis.
I went back and watched a lot of Rickles' roasting, and the ethnic stereotyping has aged very badly. In the roast of Sammy Davis, Jr. he makes a lot of very old fashioned jokes, and it's interesting to watch Sammy and Nipsey Russell rolling with laughter, while Wilt Chamberlain responds with a distinctly cold eye. I understand that he was different than, say, Bernard Manning--not least because he eschewed the profanity that added a touch of real-seeming anger to his epithets. But the cracks that seemed planned also seem somewhat anodyne; it was in the ad-lib that Rickles shone. And he was also a master of patching up the insult with faux bonhommie.
too to note how important Frank Sinatra was to his career. I managed to
leave an unintentional repetition of Hollywood celebrities flocking to
his stand-up shows: my intended line at the start of the fourth
paragraph would be "Sinatra's
endorsement attracted Hollywood's attention, and in 1958 he also
landed his first movie role, a small but effective part in the submarine drama Run Silent Run Deep' (above right). Call me dummy.
Rickles' real genius lay in what Scorsese sensed, his unpredictability. As I suggest, it's what made him so good at roasts (he was probably more important than Dean Martin in Martin's roasting serie) and as a talk-show guest (and explained why he had to wait so long for that gig, since networks do not like that which they cannot control) and what limited his efficiency as an actor. He was good in Innocent Blood and Casino because he was playing characters he knew well from his career in Vegas, playing variations of himself.
And I was lucky to be able to include Henny Youngman's final zinger at Rickles' own roast. Watch the whole routine; Henny basically delivers a standard routine, and interacts with Milton Berle brilliantly. It has everyone in stiches, not least Rickles, who seems almost unable to figure out what the hell Henny is doing. You hockey puck!