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Jax Hts. native Rickles still in limelight after 7 decades

TimesLedger Newspapers

Best known as an insult comedian and comic actor, Donald Jay Rickles was born May 8, 1926, and spent his early years in Jackson Heights. His father, Max, came to the United States from Lithuania in the early 20th century and his mother Etta was born to Austrian immigrants.

The Jewish parents and their only child spoke Yiddish at home. He has been married to Barbara Rickles for more than 45 years and they have two children: a daughter Mindy and a son, producer Larry Rickles, who died in 2011 at age 41.

Following graduation from Newtown High School, Rickles joined the U.S. Navy during World War II, attaining the rank of seaman first class aboard the torpedo boat tender USS Cyrene. After returning home, Rickles enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and began landing small roles on TV.

Finding work scarce, the youthful actor turned to stand-up comedy, finding a special knack for heckling audience members. By the early 1950s, he began referring to his victims as “hockey pucks.”

Later in the same decade, the Queens native caught a big break while doing stand-up at a Miami Beach nightclub. Spotting Frank Sinatra in the audience, he shouted, “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody!”

The Hoboken, N.J., crooner enjoyed Rickles’ routine so much, he encouraged his Hollywood pals to see his new friend, inevitably falling victim to the comedian’s jabs. Sinatra opened doors for Rickles, helping him find work entertaining crowds in Las Vegas.

While making a name for himself putting down his audience, often to the tune of Spanish matador music before goring fully suspecting fans, the versatile comedian branched out into film. He debuted on the silver screen in a more serious role in the 1958 World War II drama “Run Silent, Run Deep.”

Rickles also found work on television in the following decade, appearing in the comedy “Get Smart” and in the drama “Run for Your Life,” where he played a comedian who strangles a fan while pleading with him to laugh at his jokes.

Having found success on stage, screen and television, Rickles showed no signs of letting up, always exploring new outlets for his comic shtick. In 1965, he made the first of what would number more than 100 appearances on “The Johnny Carson Show,” in one episode secretly switching places with a Japanese masseuse while softly whispering into Carson’s ear.

The comic also enjoyed a long-running relationship with Dean Martin as a frequent guest on “The Dean Martin Show” and “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts,” which ran until 1984. Viewers of comedy series including “The Addams Family” and “Gilligan’s Island” were also treated to surprise appearances from the actor.

For more than 60 years he has changed with the times. In the 1970s, Rickles found yet another venue for his comic routine in the television series “The Don Rickles Show” and C.P.O. Sharkey and amused audiences on the game show “Hollywood Squares.”

He later brought his act to a new level, performing with old pal Frank Sinatra at President Ronald Reagan’s second Inaugural Ball. He even made a return to Hollywood in his later years, appearing alongside Robert DeNiro in the 1994 Martin Scorsese film “Casino” and providing the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the computer animated “Toy Story” movies.

As he approaches his 86th year, Rickles has not lost a step. In 2007, he released his memoir, “Rickles’ Book,” and he still does stand-up in Las Vegas. Never failing to reinvent himself, in 2010 he even appeared in a Snickers commercial with Joe Pesci, which highlighted the unpredictable, short-fuse nature of both personalities.

Commenting on a career spanning seven decades and counting, Rickles said, “I’m in good health. I’m working better than I ever have. The audiences are great. Why should I retire? I’m like a fighter. The bell rings and you come out and fight. My energy comes alive. And I still enjoy it.”

For more information, call 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.

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