By the time Don Rickles clicked big as a shockingly abusive nightclub comic in the mid-’60s — ”Let me make you feel at home,” he’d say to a black patron, then break into a shuffle so brazenly bigoted the guy had to laugh — he’d pretty much kissed off a side career as a character actor in movies (he was a dance-hall operator in 1960’s The Rat Race) and on TV (he even did Medical Center, the E.R. of the early ’70s). What, that’s news to you? You uncultured hockey puck, you.
But don’t sweat it if you missed Mr. Warmth’s master thespian days. You can make it up to Don, because this month the Merchant of Venom, a.k.a. the Insultan, is back on theater screens: He supplies the wisecracking voice of a hot-pated Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story and plays Robert De Niro’s managerial sidekick in Casino.
”I hope nobody goes in the wrong theater,” quips Rickles, at 69 still headlining in Vegas and Atlantic City four months a year and firing punchlines like a well-oiled pitching machine. ”One movie’s like skipping up the road with the Wizard of Oz. The other one’s a nice, tender story about guys getting beat up with baseball bats.”
Ironically, it’s in the G-rated Disney release that Rickles comes off most like his rude stand-up persona. In Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus, he kept things strictly serious — at least, as long as the cameras were rolling. ”You had to stay out of Don’s line of vision once you finished a take,” says Scorsese. ”Otherwise, he’d go off on you.”
Rickles says he’s not aiming to amuse audiences with his Casino turn. ”I told Marty, ‘If people laugh at me, I’m gonna make you shorter,”’ he deadpans. ”He’ll be reaching for that asthma medicine, and I won’t have it ready.” That’s Rickles for you: never one to let folks breathe easy.