Believe it or don't: comedian Don Rickles--the "Merchant of Venom," "The Caliph of Calumny," "Mister Warmth"--was once a dedicated student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. As a movie-struck kid, Rickles aspired to share the Big Screen with such idols as Clark Gable and James Cagney. He got his wish in his first film, 1958's Run Silent Run Deep, wherein Gable topped the cast. Rickles went on to receive critical plaudits for his villainous performance in 1960's The Rat Race, and also popped up with regularity on such TV series as The Thin Man and The Twilight Zone.
But truly good roles for a short, baldpated young character actor were relatively few and far between. During a long period between acting assignments, Rickles decided to work up a nightclub act. He began as a traditional stand-up comic, but when annoyed by hecklers, he instinctively insulted the insulters back as a defense mechanism. Audiences laughed harder at his impromptu insults than his prepared material, and thus the dye was cast for Rickle's show-business future. The story goes that, upon spotting Frank Sinatra in one of his audiences, Rickles impulsively cried out "Come right in, Frank. Make yourself at home. Hit somebody." The normally combative Sinatra exploded with laughter, and from that point on Rickles was "in."
While the bulk of his fame and fortune rested upon his nightclub work, Rickles still kept a hand in acting, playing guest spots on TV programs like F Troop, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Spy and Run for Your Life (he was particularly good in the last-named series as a washed-up comedian facing a statutory rape charge). As his own vitriolic "self" (though rumors persist that Rickles is a pussycat off-camera), he convulsed the stars of such variety series as The Dean Martin Show and The Andy Williams Show. When Dean Martin altered his series to a "roast" format in the early 1970s, Rickles could always be counted upon for a steady stream of hilarious invectives; conversely, he took it as well as he dished it out when the Friar's Club elected him Entertainer of the Year in 1974.
The one sore spot in Rickles' latter-day career was his failure to sustain a weekly TV series. The 1968 variety outing The Don Rickles Show was axed after thirteen weeks, while a 1972 sitcom of the same name barely survived the season. He had better luck as star of the 1976 comedy series C.P.O. Sharkey, which lasted two years; but in 1993, Daddy Dearest, which co-starred Rickles with "neurotic" comedian Richard Lewis, was on and off in only two months. In comparison, Rickles has done quite well in films, with choice secondary roles in such productions as Where It's At?, Kelly's Heroes (1970) and several of the "Beach Party" frivolities. In 1995, after several years away from films, Don Rickles resurfaced with a solid supporting part in Martin Scorsese's Casino, and as the voice of a singularly abrasive Mr. Potato Head in the animated Toy Story. He had a brief but memorable cameo in the comedy Dirty Work, and was the subject of his own documentary, Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project. He returned to voice Mr. Potato Head in two Toy Story sequels as well as a number of Pixar shorts, and he gave voice to one of the animals in the Kevin James vehicle Zookeeper. Rickles died in 2017, at age 90.