‘World a little less funny’ without Jackson Heights’ own Don Rickles

‘World a little less funny’ without Jackson Heights’ own Don Rickles
Don Rickles
AP Photo
By the Greater Astoria Historical Society

In conjunction with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, the TimesLedger newspaper presents noteworthy events in the borough’s history.

Raised in Jackson Heights, Donald Jay Rickles is perhaps best remembered as an insult comedian who skewered audiences from all walks of life and roasted celebrity A-listers in a comic reign of terror spanning seven decades.

The insult king, born May 8, 1926, employed a comedic arsenal of hot-button issues including American culture, ethnicity, self-deprecation and religion. Don Rickles’ comic put-downs endeared him to generations of Americans, and his versatile talents have truly stood the test of time. He once claimed that his grandchildren were more impressed by his role as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the “Toy Story” movies than any of his earlier achievements.

Born to a Jewish immigrant father from present-day Lithuania and a mother from an Austrian Jewish family, the future funny man attended Newton High School before serving in the Navy during World War II.

Originally hoping to star on the Silver Screen, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but earned only bit parts on television shows. Frustrated by his lack of success, he took to stand-up comedy and traveled the country polishing his act. He soon began responding to hecklers with quick, witty insults which the audience enjoyed more than his prepared act. Starting in the early 1950s, he became known for calling ill-mannered audience members “hockey pucks.”

Rickles got his first big break working the night club circuit in Miami Beach when he insulted Frank Sinatra, shouting “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody!” The Rat Pack star encouraged other celebrities to attend his shows and catch some good-natured abuse from the balding, pudgy Queens native. He soon became a popular headline performer in Las Vegas, earning the nicknames “The Merchant of Venom” and “Mr. Warmth.”

The up-and-coming wisecracker soon branched out into movies and television, making his film debut in the 1958 war drama “Run Silent, Run Deep,” and he later guest-starred in the 1960s comedy series “Get Smart.” Perhaps more important, he found a wider audience for his comic gags and jokes on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and “The Dean Martin Show.”

Going into the 1970s and 1980s, the jester from Jackson Heights sharpened his comic barbs and equal-opportunity disparagement for a new generation of fans. Although a life-long Democrat, Rickles took the stage at Ronald Reagan’s second Inaugural Ball in 1985, a performance he considered the highlight of his career. He even made an encore appearance at the inauguration of President George H.W. Bush.

Approaching the new millennium and beyond, Don Rickles showed no signs of slowing down. He appeared in the 1995 mob drama “Casino” alongside Robert DeNiro, and lent his voice to the computer-animated comedy adventure “Toy Story” series. In the twilight of his side-splitting comic career, he was honored in 2014 with a celebrity tribute on Spike TV’s “One Night Only: An All-Star Comedy Tribute to Don Rickles,” and was a frequent guest on the late-night talk shows with Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman and others.

Don Rickles died in Beverly Hills on April 6, 2017, at the age of 90. Veteran newsman Dan Rather eulogized the man who made America laugh by posting on Facebook: “Our world is a little less funny today. And that is something we should all mourn.”

For further information, contact the Society at 718-278-0700 or visit our website at www.astorialic.org.

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