The life and times of comedy legend Don Rickles
Stand-up comedian and actor dead at age 90
Mr. Warmth worked all the way until the very end.
When Don Rickles passed away in April at age 90, he was filming a web series where he gave no-nonsense life advice to some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
AARP Studios is releasing Rickles’ last project, “Dinner with Don” Monday for fans looking to laugh with comedy’s most infamous equal opportunity offender.
The show was announced in March, just weeks before Rickles’ death.
Rickles’ longtime manager Tony Oppedisano told Fox News Rickles was long thinking about creating something special for fans.
“We were initially thinking about an animated series based on a character he created, an expert who appeared to know everything, but actually knew nothing,” said Oppedisano.
However, it took one phone call to inspire a completely different idea.
“The phone rang one time and it was Johnny Depp calling Don from Japan for his advice on something,” said Oppedisano. “He had an eclectic group of friends… Don became a bit of a psychologist in addition to being a close friend. People would call him for advice on anything.”
The idea behind “Dinner with Don” was a no-brainer for the legendary comedian. At age 90, he still went out on the town three nights a week and visited his favorite restaurants throughout Beverly Hills or Malibu, where he would often chat with servers for at least 15 minutes.
For the series, Rickles would arrive at some of those beloved haunts and sit down with a celebrity eager to meet him over a meal.
“The first time I met Don was while we were filming at The Palm,” said Jeffrey Eagle, Vice President of AARP Studios. “Joe Apatow and Marisa Tomei were there. We were in the midst of shooting and he said… ‘I can do this all day.’ When Don would sit there and the lights would go on, this energy would come alive. He was a constant showman. Don would tease, tell stories… You had these super famous people sitting at a table with him, 30-40 crew members, cameras and lights. But these stars were in awe.”
And despite his age, Rickles was as sharp as ever, even behind cameras.
“He loved walking through the kitchen [instead of the front door] and harassing the help,” recalled Oppedisano. “And they loved it as much or more than he did.”
Oppedisano claimed his phone wouldn’t stop ringing from stars who wanted their chance to dine with Rickles. The list was narrowed down for 13 episodes. It includes recognizable names, like Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Amy Poehler, among others. They all wanted to know the secret behind his lasting success.
“Don would only say things that only he could get away with,” he explained. “No matter what he said, he was an equal opportunity abuser… He picked on every ethnicity, every group you can think of. But he was never, ever mean spirited. And the audience got that.
"The purpose of what he did in his mind was that we as a nation, somewhere along the line, began to lose our ability to laugh with one another. And it turned into laughing at one another, which in Don’s mind was absolutely wrong… He would treat everyone the same, whether it was Ryan Gosling, who adored him, or the waiter serving pigs in a blanket.”
But not everyone participating in the series only wanted words of wisdom. Vince Vaughn, a Las Vegas history buff, was eager to learn about Rickles’ relationship with the Rat Pack.
When Frank Sinatra went to see Rickles perform in 1957, the comedian told the crooner in front of a packed audience, “Frank, be yourself! Stand up and hit somebody.” Sinatra laughed so hard, he fell to the floor. They quickly shared close friendship that endured until Sinatra's death in 1998 at age 82.
Rickles was unable to join the Rat Pack due to scheduling conflicts, as well as his unique style in commanding a stage.
“Rickles was, to an extent, a bit too strong to be part of an ensemble like that,” said Oppedisano, who also worked with Sinatra. “[Member] Joey Bishop knew when to stand back and let Frank lead. That’s why Frank was known as ‘The Leader.’ Don didn’t want to infringe on that without meaning to.”
Still, Rickles would later join the Rat Pack in a different way.
“When they would get together in the steam room at the Sands, they all had individual robes with nicknames on them,” said Oppedisano. “Frank was ‘The Leader.’ Dean [Martin] was ‘Drunky.’ Sam [Davis Jr.] was ‘Smoky’ because he was a two-fisted smoker. They had a robe made for Don — ‘The Rhino.’
Rickles earned that nickname from Sinatra for his appearance, along with "Bullethead."
When it was Paul Rudd’s turn to meet Rickles, he became tongue-tied.
“Don found out he was very nervous,” said Oppedisano. “Don was purposely holding back, being reserved and quiet. The longer he did that, the more nervous Paul got. Which at some point caused Paul to say, ‘Maybe I’ll just start insulting myself.’”
According to Eagle, if it wasn’t for Rickles’ death, they would have continued filming new episodes.
“We would have kept it going if it weren’t for Don’s passing,” he insisted.
Still, Eagle believes “Dinner with Don” will celebrate his legacy, as well as share the one message that embodied his career.
“Don would always say, ‘Be yourself, don’t change for anybody, be good to people, have fun with people, be kind and loving to them. And those things will see you through,’” said Eagle. “He was always true to his message. Do what makes you happy, but be unique.”