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A year without Don Rickles: A tribute to Mr. Warmth on the anniversary of his death

On this day last year, we lost Mr. Warmth himself—Donald Jay Rickles, AKA the Merchant of Venom, who died of kidney failure just a month shy of his 91st birthday.  Tonight, Antenna TV pays him special homage by unleashing one of his later inimitable go-rounds with Johnny and Ed (Feb. 7, 1990).

Rickles, who was then nearing his 25th wedding anniversary, loved salting their many matrimonial wounds whenever he returned to the Carson couch.  Arguably the all-time greatest late-night bombshell guest in talk show history — no matter what era — his appearances with Johnny were universally considered to be Event Television.

I knew Rickles well enough to have proudly withstood countless jabs over the years during countless colorful conversations  – and here, just because it’s nice to hear Rickles’ voice again, let me offer up a few relevant sound bites from one such inquisition shortly after the great man’s 80th birthday.

I had gone to the last House of Rickles — a large condo villa tucked away behind LA’s Century City neighborhood — on behalf of Playboy to play 20 Questions with him (more like 50 Questions as he frequently reminded me that afternoon) and this was because he was hot all over again, an octogenarian hit with new projects (book, documentary, ringtones) to promote.

And naturally he waxed nostalgic about Carson, who had died two years earlier, just as he and Johnny would detour regularly into embarrassing tales of their bad-boy exploits together during Carson’s first  10 years back in New York. (Note tonight’s fine awkward memories of shared drunken stupefaction at the long-gone hangout Danny’s Hideaway.)

Historically speaking, it should be stated that Rickles’ made his debut on Johnny’s “Tonight Show” in 1965, greeting him with the now legendary salutation “Hello, Dummy, ”which also became the title of Rickles’ first comedy album. Thus, Rickles had arrived and nothing would ever be the same again on late-night television. Herewith, then, below please find unexpurgated Rickles musing about the Nebraskan who changed his life:

Johnny knew how to play me like a master violinist. He’s the one who gave me the nickname “Mr. Warmth.”  I can say truthfully that every time I went on The Tonight Show, it became an event.  He would have the notes full of questions in front of him and then he’d throw them out and say, “This is what we’re going to talk about instead.” He’d say, “How’s your mother?” I’d say, “You don’t like my mother!  Why are you talking about my mother?” We’d go from there and do 20 minutes on my mother and his mother. I’d say, “Your mother is living in Nebraska begging for money. What the hell is the matter with you? Send her the check!”

Every time we’d get screams.  I’d get off and for days people would say, “Wow!  Did you see Rickles the other night?” Remember, I did the show back when it was 90 minutes, and he’d give me a half hour—nobody gets that kind of time anymore.

Of course, everybody remembers the night he found out I had broken his cigarette box when he was on vacation. So he took the camera across the hall to surprise me where I was taping CPO Sharkey. I didn’t know he was coming.  He said: “You broke my box!” And the great line I said to the audience in my studio was:   “Ladies and gentlemen, Johnny Carson!” Like a moron. He said: “They know who I am! You don’t have to say Johnny Carson!  They know who I am!”

That was a crazy night.  That, and the geisha-girl night when he threw me in the hot tub.  I have a painting of that down at my beach place. A fan made an actual painting—it’s him and me falling into the tub, laughing.  It’s beautiful. He was beautiful. Nobody like him—before, after or ever.

Of course, going out to dinner with Johnny was another story.  He was very uncomfortable amongst a lot of people. He was marvelous if we were just four or six, but forget about any more at a table.

One night, the billionaire Marvin Davis decided to invite Carson and Sinatra and me with all the wives to a restaurant—it was a joke.  I was seated in the middle, next to Marvin Davis, who was hysterical, because Frank and Johnny were never easy in conversation with each other.  Marvin would say to me, “Say something! Get them talking!” I was like an interpreter. I’d say, “Johnny, Frank wants to say hello.” They were staring at each other.

Then Marvin would apologize to them and say, “I can’t understand why Rickles keeps bothering you guys!  Why does he do that?” He thought that was funny.

Here’s bonus material from the interview with Rickles:

I make no secret that I was a mother’s boy, which always throws people.  I say every night at the end of my act: “As long as you live, never forget your mother because she’ll never forget you.”

My mother was the Jewish Patton. She was very strong-willed with a voice that grabbed you, just booming! She would walk into a room and take over:  “HOW ARE YOU, MY DARLINGS!” I’d wind up under the couch, cringing and hiding like a dog. I was basically shy, and probably still am. I defy the actor who says he wasn’t shy when he was a kid; that’s why they become actors.

I would be hiding behind a wall, but my mom, by being herself, made it so I could come out and be who I am. She gave me that strength. And she lived through me. She was a performer through me and gave me the praise—which she gave to others, too.  Sometimes too generously, I thought maybe subconsciously. Shecky Greene was my competitor.

My mother drove me crazy because she’d say, “I love Shecky! Shecky is so great! Shecky is so funny.” I said, “Ma, I’m a comedian, too.” She said, “Yeah, but you have love; he doesn’t have it.  He doesn’t have a family.” That was her big thing. And he loved my mother. But all the time: “Shecky killed them last night.” She felt that he needed that more than me.

Bill Zehme is Antenna TV’s resident Carson expert and longtime biographer (his “Carson the Magnificent” major biography is still-in-the-works for Simon & Schuster).