The moment before an entrance, when anything could happen. The orchestra plays the old "Macarena," a Spanish melodrama of blaring trumpets that might accompany a bullfighter into a ring. But when this curtain parts, he's all bull, and he's still snorting. Forget stand-up, he's on the move, hand-held microphone, stalking the crowd. Who's in his sights this time? Greek? Italian?
No, it's the old man in the front, wearing a knit shirt, just a few threads of hair hanging over each ear, and he's in a neck brace. Don Rickles stops. "Forty million Jews and I get a cripple," he says, wheeling around, glaring back into the crowd. "I saw you laughing, you dirty Nazi."
AT 78, RICKLES HAS BEEN EVERYWHERE. "Did it, done it, had it," he says. The Rat Pack, he was right there with them. "Make yourself at home, Frank, hit somebody," he famously said the first time Sinatra walked into his lounge.
He didn't invent insult comedy, but he brought it to middle America, making a hundred appearances as guest and guest host on Johnny Carson, and thousands more on variety shows, roasts and sit-coms. (After being on The Andy Griffith Show, he said, "Andy originally hired me because he wanted somebody to play the jew's-harp; the way he played it, it came out too gentile.") Frankie and Annette put him in their beach movies, DC drew him into Superman comics, and Disney made him the voice of Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story and Toy Story II.
Rickles started his performing career by enrolling in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but he's made only a handful of serious films. Run Silent, Run Deep in 1958 and Martin Scorsese's Casino in 1995, with a few more acclaimed roles sprinkled through the years. Now he's in The Wool Cap, scheduled for this fall on TNT.
But all this time, it's really been about the act.
The act is what made him Mr. Warmth, the King of Zing, the Merchant of Venom. At the Sahara in Las Vegas, when the late 1960s were approaching and the country out there was tearing apart, he'd go into the crowd and ask a black man, "Why do I make fun of the Negro? Because I'm not one of them." He'd turn to another guy. "You're Polish, right? Welsh? That's better? I'll make you feel at home." Then he'd bellow like a warning siren in a coal mine. The best stuff landed on his own people: "You're a Jewish kid, right? If your father-in-law dies, what kind of work are you out of?"
Rickles' real target is always right in front of him. A couple years ago, he addressed his audience at Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis, where he spoke of his great career that had now brought him to the heights of ... Bay St. Louis.
When Rickles works the Gulf Coast -- as he will again this Friday and Saturday at Casino Magic -- New Orleans trumpeter Milo Mannino assembles the dozen or so musicians for the orchestra. Onstage, Rickles will go down the line, simultaneously introducing and picking off each player. Last time, Mannino, his father and his brother were all up there -- and they got the brunt of the Mafia jokes.
"He's one of my favorite entertainers," says Mannino. "When he's one on one with somebody, face to face, they can't do anything but laugh. Yet I've found some people who were offended, my wife being one of them."
It's one thing to not get a joke. But Rickles' act isn't really jokes at all. It's nearly impossible to retell a Rickles bit with any humor intact. So what's his secret?
Don't expect him to tell you. He doesn't dissect his craft. But sometime around 1967, at a New York Friars Club roast of Rickles, comedian Norm Crosby stood up to offer his theory: "What motivates a man to deviate from the normal, conventional, accepted type of humor and pioneer a whole new concept of insult and degradation? It takes a lot of courage. Some people say he's a pioneer, some people say inventiveness, some people say daring, non-conformity perhaps.
"Nay. I know this man, friends. I know this man a long time. These are not the reasons why Don Rickles insults and puts down and probes into the weaknesses and exposes the frailties of man."
So what is the reason? Crosby found his answer in a word that he intended only for the all-male ears at the old-school, pre-Comedy Central, stag luncheon.
"Nay," Crosby concluded. "He does it because he's a pr--k."
CALL UP RICKLES HIMSELF and you won't get much further. During a half-hour conversation from his home behind a gate in Century City, Calif. -- a place of "trees and waterfalls and all the facilities you need" -- he disarms without ever coming in for a kill. He comes across not as a pioneer, but as an intelligent, well-spoken and businesslike man who just happens to have been a pallbearer for Frank Sinatra.
"You know, a lot of people think the whole show is based on picking on somebody," he says. "It has a good deal of that, it's certainly my reputation, but I'm never mean-spirited and it's all in fun. All I do is just look at somebody and exaggerate how they appear or what their background is. That's pretty much what it is."
Rickles cherishes the title "Mr. Warmth," a gift from Johnny Carson. He's not so fond of being called an insult comic.
"Well, I got stuck with it, and it took me a long way," he says. "But I never liked to think about it as an insult. I always liked to think of it as an exaggeration and a put-on. See, to me I always thought an insult was somebody that was offensive, you know. And I don't like to believe I'm offensive. In fact, I can't be. Why would I be headlining all this time and why would people come to see me if I was some rude son of a bitch, if you know what I'm saying?"
He's said that he might have inherited some of his onstage brazenness from his mother, the late Etta Rickles. But he's said a lot of things about his childhood in Jackson Heights, Queens, and it's not easy to separate it all out. "After school, I usually sauntered home, had my glass of milk and watched the water from the clothes hanging over the stove drip into my Orphan Annie mug," he told Playboy in 1968.
Anyway, his act didn't start in Queens, he says. It started on the stage.
"In my beginnings, I worked in saloons that weren't exactly the top-grade places in the world," he says. "I was not one to tell jokes, and I did bad impressions. So I started talking to the audience and kidding around, and that was always in my own personality. It's not something you rehearse, or make up. Over many, many years of hard work, it became a performance."
RICKLES PROVIDES MORE DETAILS when asked about what he doesn't do in his act. He doesn't do politics. In fact, the most topical reference heard at a recent Rickles show was Charles Manson. "I never do jokes about George Bush or Clinton or any of that stuff, I never did," he says. But most of all, he never, ever does obscenity. Never goes blue. He says it's not in him. It might also date back to the circumstances of his first big gig in Hollywood, at a club called the Slate Brothers. The owners called on Rickles after canning the previous headliner, Lenny Bruce.
"Everybody in the industry, including myself, thought Lenny Bruce was brilliant, but he was dangerous," Rickles says. "He used the F-word on stage, and nobody ever heard a guy do that. And the boss fired him. And Henry Slate, the owner, said, 'Hey, let's get Rickles.' And unfortunately for Lenny's getting kicked out, I got a big break."
The two comics would meet again. Larry King, in his autobiography Tell It to the King, recalls that he'd have Bruce and Rickles on his radio show together. Rickles would try to talk sense to Bruce, telling him to dress up onstage, make a little money, take care of his mother.
Did Rickles learn a lesson from Bruce's troubles?
"Well, I never did what Lenny did," Rickles says. "To this day, 'S.O.B.' is about the strongest I've ever said. I've never used vulgarity, I never have. And that's my personality."
For a comedian, language is bread and butter, and Rickles takes it seriously. Find a bootleg tape of the old Friars Club roast, and you can hear Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan and Flip Wilson saying things they couldn't and wouldn't say on TV. Some interchanges between the assembled comics -- Rickles' friends and colleagues -- go like this:
Jackie Vernon: "If I had a head like yours I'd have it circumcised, I'll tell you that."
Fat Jack Leonard: "That's right, he is a putz."
Flip Wilson: "For a couple of weeks I've had time to think about it, and the best way to express my opinion about Don Rickles is to say, 'F--k Don Rickles.'"
That roast took place in the Friars' private club and nobody ever revealed just who taped it. Rickles says he hasn't heard the recording. When reminded how blue it gets, he jumps in. "Not on my part, I assure you," he says.
He's right; Rickles was virtually the only comic on the dais that didn't employ a four-letter word. Today, he seems almost apologetic for dirty jokes told by others nearly four decades ago.
"Well, it's a private thing, so it's certainly not their fault," he says. "Even Johnny, they get strong because there's nobody that they even think of as listening to it, except the Friars, you know. Even Jack Benny, who was the kindest, sweetest guy in the world, at Friars Clubs has been known to say many a word that he doesn't say in public. So it's an accepted thing."
Since those days, the line between private gathering and stage show has faded. Rickles offers neither criticism nor advice for young comics, and he turns down the opportunity to name any favorites. "If they laugh at these people, God bless, they're doing it right," he says, and that's the end of it.
THE WASHINGTON POST'S TOM SHALES once compared Rickles to a character out of Ionesco, and Rickles' current show to a "three-act, stream-of-consciousness play." There is a surreal touch to the comic. His 1968 debut album, Hello Dummy!, includes a bit about marital love that Rickles still reprises in his act today: "My wife lays in the room every night going, 'Go, Geronimo, go!' Last night I was Cochise, that was murder. I had to stand on top of the sink in the nude, you hear. In the nude and she was in the bedroom with a bell on her tuchas and she was going, 'Wagon train, come through the pass.' And I had to ring the bell."
Rickles has mastered the well-chosen word. You can't beat the Yiddishism tuchas, or the well-traveled "hockey puck," or even "cookie." There's the one about going to celebrate Christmas with his best friend, Bob Newhart. Rickles and his wife join the Newharts for Mass, and as Rickles staggers up the aisle for Communion, the priest looks down at him and intones, "Jew want a cookie?"
These are the jokes? Not really, says Rickles. "It's an attitude, and it becomes a joke, you know what I'm saying? It's really attitude which makes me go."
It's like the time on The Tonight Show, when Carson sat down at his desk and noticed his pencil box was broken. Rickles had guest-hosted the previous night.
Rickles picks up the story: "Yeah, I broke his pencil box. And he came back and said, 'Who broke my pencil box?' With the cameras following him, he walked across the hall and in the middle of our doing a scene from C.P.O. Sharkey, he walked right in and said, 'Where's Rickles, he broke my pencil box.' And it made all the papers."
Rickles swears that, unlike similar scenes on late-night television today, that one wasn't scripted -- it was "right off the top."
When Rickles himself laughs, it's not really at jokes, either. He doesn't travel around the world so much these days, but the Rickles and the Newharts still get together on occasion. "You know, I enjoy being with my friend Bob Newhart," Rickles says. "When we go on trips together, we laugh at the same things, we laugh at abstract things, or nonsense."
YOU WON'T FIND MUCH NONSENSE, or anything else, in the lounges of Las Vegas anymore. "They've low-keyed it," Rickles says. "In those days, it was very important to the hotel setting. Now, it's usually just for drinks."
Which means no nights like the one crystallized by Gay Talese in his 1966 Esquire article "Frank Sinatra has a Cold." One night in the Sahara, Rickles looks up with delight when Sinatra and his entourage walk into the lounge. Rickles zings both Mia Farrow and Sinatra's toupee. "Joey Bishop keeps checking with Frank to see what's funny," Rickles cackles from the stage.
Then, sometime before pouring a bottle of whiskey over himself, Dean Martin yells to Rickles to quit talking about the Jews and start talking about Italians. Rickles obliges with jokes about Italians keeping the flies of the Jews' fish. Writes Talese: "Sinatra laughed, and they all laughed, and Rickles went on this way for nearly an hour until Sinatra, standing up, said, 'All right, com'on, get this thing over with. I gotta go.'
"'Shaddap and sit down!' Rickles snapped. 'I've had to listen to you sing.'"
The road has changed under Rickles. Walk into Caesars Palace today, and you pass the Frank Sinatra mural on the way to Celine Dion. Casinos are everywhere -- even Bay St. Louis. Women have joined the Friars' Club. Last December, New York Gov. George Pataki gave Lenny Bruce a posthumous pardon for obscenity charges.
And these days, Rickles is receiving belated honors. He didn't get his Hollywood star until 2000 -- and he was joined for photos by Mr. Potato Head. Just this month, The New Yorker gave Rickles a respectable profile. "Are we reading too much into the comedic genius of Don Rickles?" asked the Post's Shales. "We're trying to, yes. But too little has been read into it for too long."
But if Rickles' story has never been told, it might be his own doing. "Autobiography?" he says. "I don't have the patience to go through one of those things. My son is working on something, I don't want to talk about it right now, but it's something that'll come out and tell a little bit of my life, and if that sells, it'll be interesting to see."
Rickles says maybe 10 percent of his act changes every night, depending on who's in the audience. But all these years and you still never really know what you're in for. Onstage, Rickles tightly packs his barbs, jabs and zings (if not insults), and then, just as deftly, defuses his little bomb with a song and dance about being a nice guy, and then a plea for tolerance and getting along.
That's his act, and Rickles is sticking to it. No politics, no F-words, no mercy.
Still, is there anybody he wouldn't make fun of? Rickles doesn't pause. The Pope, he says. If the Pope came to a show, he wouldn't make fun of him. "And I certainly wouldn't say, if there was a tragic automobile accident and somebody came out on the stage and was crippled, God forbid -- in other words, there's a fine line that I know that I wouldn't do," he says.
Not a cripple? But what about this past spring? Closing night at the Stardust? Man in a neck brace? Well, he says. You never know.