Emmy Award-winning “insult comic” Don Rickles, who got his big break thanks to musical icon Frank Sinatra, died Thursday morning at the age of 90.
According to a statement from his publicist Paul Shefrin, Don Rickles’ cause of death was kidney failure, as the comedian succumbed to the disease just weeks before his 91st birthday, which would have fallen on May 8.
A report from the Hollywood Reporter briefly looked back at the highlights of Rickles’ career, as his knack for cracking jokes at people regardless of their background earned him the sarcastic moniker “Mr. Warmth.” As a younger man, Rickles struggled as a conventional stand-up comedian, but when he discovered he got a much better crowd reaction when he’d fire back at hecklers, his career began to take off.
— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 6, 2017
Don Rickles’ game-changing moment as a stand-up comic came in 1957, when he flung an insult at Frank Sinatra, a man who was known for his fiery temper almost as much as his musical talent. Rickles was then performing at a Miami Beach club, and as Sinatra walked in, Don greeted him with the following wisecrack, which, instead of making the “Chairman of the Board” furious, made him laugh:
“Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody.”
Thanks to Sinatra’s positive reaction to his brand of insult comedy, Rickles established himself in his field, taking shots at “Jews, Asians, African-Americans, the Irish, Puerto Ricans, red-headed women, short guys, you name it,” as the Hollywood Reporter recalled. He wouldn’t even lay off then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan when he performed at his second Inaugural Ball in 1985, asking Reagan, then 74-years-old, if he was “going too fast.”
After landing one of his best-known film roles in the 1995 Martin Scorsese film Casino, Rickles’ career continued into the 21st century, as he voiced Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story film franchise, including 2010’s Toy Story 3.
Unrelated to Don Rickles’ cause of death were health problems cited in a report from the New York Times, which stated that the veteran comic suffered a leg infection in 2014. This didn’t stop him from performing on occasion, including an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman in May 2015.
Just two months prior to Don Rickles’ untimely death, the comedian spoke to Closer Weekly, saying that even at 90-years-old, he had no plans to retire from the entertainment business.
“Honestly, I didn’t realize it — all of a sudden I was 90. The years skipped by quickly. When it happened, I said, ‘Where did the time go?'”
Although Don Rickles earned a reputation for humor that Fox News said might have been the type to “inspire boycotts,” his legacy lived on with younger comedians such as Louis CK, Chris Rock, and Sarah Silverman, as well as the late Joan Rivers. Rickles was also quoted by Fox as having once owed his success to never being mean-spirited when cracking his jokes.
“I think the reason that (my act) caught on and gave me a wonderful career is that I was never mean-spirited. Not that you had to like it, but you had to be under a rock somewhere not to get it.”
He also told the New York Daily News in 1996 that he wasn’t comfortable with the term “insult comedy,” as he stressed that everything he said onstage was a “friendly jab,” as opposed to a mean-spirited insult.
“I don’t think I’m offensive onstage. I wouldn’t be hanging around for 35 years, God knows, if I was. I like to think I’m like the guy who goes to the office Christmas party Friday night, insults some people, but still has his job Monday morning.”
In lieu of flowers, Don Rickles' family has requested that people drop their pants and fire a rocket. #RIPDonRickles
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) April 6, 2017
Don Rickles, you kept us laughing for so many years. We will miss you dearly. Thanks for the zingers. You were one of a kind.
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) April 6, 2017
Don Rickles was simply the best. He created insult comedy &yet every 1 of his targets felt loved and honored. One of a kind.#RIPdonrickles
— jason alexander (@IJasonAlexander) April 6, 2017
Further details of Don Rickles’ cause of death are mostly unknown at the present, and his passing may come as a shock to some fans, as he did tell Closer Weekly that even in his advanced age, he had “no plans to slow down.” But an article from VeryWell.com describes his cause of death – kidney failure – as a “gentle” kind of death, where pain is “rarely a problem.” The disease, however, has some noticeable symptoms, such as a lack of energy and a tendency to sleep longer as the disease progresses, as well as mental changes that may progress from confusion to delirium.
Don Rickles is survived by his wife Barbara, daughter Mindy, son-in-law Ed, and grandsons Ethan and Harrison. Rickles was preceded in death by his son Larry, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 41 after a battle with pneumonia.
[Featured Image by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Spike TV]