Happy Birthday Don Rickles: Remembering the Comedy Icon’s Legendary Career

by Keeli Parkey
(Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Spike TV)

Don Rickles was a man who could make you laugh – and keep you laughing and laughing and laughing. His jokes usually came at the expense of others, including the celebrities he helped roast.

He was born in New York on May 8, 1926, according to IMDb. Had he not passed away in 2017, Rickles would have celebrated his 95th birthday today (May 8, 2021). So in celebration of his life, let’s take a look at the iconic comedian’s legendary career.

According to a report The New York Times published around the time of his death in April 2017, Rickles was born in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights. His father, Max Rickles, sold insurance. His mother, Etta Feldman, was a housewife.

It was during World War II that the future comedy star began to develop his comedic abilities. Rickles served in the United States Navy at the time. He once told The New York Times that he was “the class comedian” on the ship where he served.

After the war, Don Rickles went home and joined his father in the insurance business. He did not enjoy the work, so he began to pursue an acting career. As part of that pursuit, he chose to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which is located in New York City.

As fate would have it, acting really wasn’t for Don Rickles either. So, he decided to try stand-up comedy. As part of this pursuit, he did what so many other stand-up comedians did – worked in nightclubs.

Don Rickles Got His Big Break During the Late 1950s

The career of Don Rickles began to take off in the late 1950s thanks to “Ol’ Blue Eyes” himself, Frank Sinatra. According to reports, it was in 1957 that Sinatra went to see the comedian perform. And, in what would become essential Don Rickles comedy, he chose to insult the legendary singer.

Even though Rickles had never met Sinatra, he insulted him! That took courage, but it paid off. Sinatra and his fellow Rat Pack members became fans of Don Rickles. Among those members was Dean Martin, with whom Rickles would go on to work with frequently on “Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts” during the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1958, the comedian appeared in the film “Run Silent Run Deep.” The film was a success and other roles soon followed for Rickles. But, he remained a comedian the entire time. His standup work continued to be enjoyed by his audiences – even though he often insulted them as much as he did the celebrities he roasted. He made many memorable appearances on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.” The first of these came in 1965 and helped push his career forward. It was Carson who gave Rickles the nickname, “Mr. Warmth.”

It was during the 1980s that Don Rickles took a step back. However, by the mid-1990s he was back in a very popular film. That movie was “Toy Story,” in which he voiced the character, Mr. Potato Head. He returned for the sequel, “Toy Story 2.” He also appeared in the Martin Scorsese film “Casino” during the 1990s.

Rickles passed away on April 6, 2017, at the age of 90. He died in Los Angeles, California, and is buried at Mount Sinai Memorial Park there.

You can watch Don Rickles roast Frank Sinatra below. He once even roasted Ronald Reagan. You can check that out here. The future United States president was the governor of California at the time.