Don Rickles, a Jackson Heights native who went on to become one of the nation’s beloved actors and most notorious comedian, has died in California of kidney failure. He was 90.
Born in 1926, Rickles grew up in Jackson Heights and graduated from Newtown High School in Elmhurst. He lived in an apartment house at 89-09 32nd Ave., across the street from P.S. 148, according to a 2015 article in The Wall Street Journal.
After high school, Rickles enlisted in the Navy and served on USS Cyrene during World War II. After the war ended, Rickles attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he trained to be a serious actor.
When that didn’t work, he then began doing stand-up comic routines across New York City as well as in Miami and Los Angeles. Sarcastically nicknamed “Mr. Warmth,” he developed a reputation as an insult comic as he engaged with hecklers (whom he called “hockey pucks”) and audience members along the way. His equally opportunistic use of ethnic humor, while offensive to some, endeared him to many.
Rickles eventually made his way into television and the movies in a career that spanned nearly 60 years. Younger generations know of him today as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the “Toy Story” movie franchise.
Prior to that, however, Rickles starred opposite Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster in the 1958 classic “Run Silent, Run Deep” and, later, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci in the 1996 Martin Scorsese film “Casino.” He also hosted his own variety show on ABC; had several short-lived sitcoms on the major networks; was a frequent guest and occasional guest host on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” (including one infamous appearance in 1976, in which he broke Carson’s cigarette box, see below); and brought his acerbic humor to the “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts,” poking fun at Hollywood legends including Frank Sinatra, who had become a close friend.
At Sinatra’s insistence, Rickles also got the opportunity to perform at President Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural ball in 1985.
Well into his 80s, Rickles continued to tour the country, bringing his biting stand-up humor to a new generation of fans. His life was chronicled in “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” a John Landis documentary that debuted to critical acclaim in 2007.
Rickles is survived by his wife, Barbara, and their three children. According to WPIX-TV, the family requests that memorial tributes be made to the Larry Rickles Endowment Fund at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.