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Billy Crystal Remembers Don Rickles: ‘There Was No One Like Him’

Variety logo Variety 4/11/2017 Billy Crystal
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Don Rickles was an event comic. Every time you saw him with Johnny or Frank or Dean, and later Leno and Letterman, it was an event. He was hilarious, he was explosive, and he had that extra ingredient that few have: He was dangerous.

He didn’t have a famous routine; there was no one piece of material that you can point to as you can with the other great ones. He wasn’t the brilliant character actor that Sid Caesar was. He didn’t have what Gleason had, or Phil Silvers. He wasn’t the inventive genius of Kovacs, or the storyteller that Alan King was, or the subtle conceptual master that Newhart is.

What he had was more precious, and perhaps more difficult to come by. He had himself. He was totally Rickles. There was no one like him. He could insult anyone with hilarious unscripted jokes that, if examined, would unfold like rare flowers. People actually looked forward to being insulted by him. It became a huge compliment, and you felt insulted if he didn’t insult you. And what makes it more amazing was that he worked clean. No easy crutch for Don. No F bombs, no nasty words. Just pure funny.

He took on the great Carson, Hope, Benny, Lucy, George Burns, even President Ronald Reagan. After I heard of Don’s passing, I watched the grainy video of him at Reagan’s first inauguration. Stunning, brave, like a hilarious bull in Washington’s china shop, he goes after everyone, and they all sit there getting smacked around by comedy’s biggest puncher. He’s introduced by diminutive Emmanuel “Webster” Lewis, then the three-foot-tall African-American young man hands him the mic and says, “Be funny.” Huge laugh. Don waits, and then says, “First black kid I’ve seen who will never play basketball.” Instantly he claimed the stage as his. Stunningly edgy, probably couldn’t get away with it today, but it was a statement. I’m dangerous. Anything goes folks, this is my house now. You wanted me, you got me.

Our current President is too thin-skinned to even attend the Correspondents Dinner, but the Reagans sat there on network television and were laughing as hard as everyone as Rickles went after them.

Deaths like Don’s are markers on our own lives. The memories come flooding back, and you realize as you sort through them, that Don Rickles was funny for most of our lives. What a gift to have been given to us.

I always loved being with him. He was kind and sweet, respectful, incredibly charming, and for someone who had achieved so much, very humble.

I did perhaps his last television appearance a few months ago. AARP produced a series called “Dinner with Don.” Sitting together in a restaurant, I interviewed him for an hour. We found we had some common people in our lives. His mother lived in the same building as mine in Florida. He remembered that Momma Rickles boasted that she lived one floor higher than mine. His cousin was our family doctor when I was growing up, and ended my Yankee career by telling me when I was 12 that I’d be “maybe 5 foot 9.”

We had similar stories about some of the folks we both got to work with. He was frail, embarrassed to be brought into the restaurant in a wheelchair, and spoke so softly I could barely hear him, but yet what was most touching to me was that he still wanted to play dates — still wanted to get out there, even though now the curtain would rise and he would be found on stage, because he could no longer walk out there to start his assault.

“So you’re now a sit-down comic,” I told him, which made him laugh hard and then say, “God, I’m so tired of you.” He was excited when I told him I was going out on a 35-city stand-up tour. “Have fun out there,” he said to me. “It’s what we do.”

I loved every second of our talk, as I loved every second that I saw Don Rickles be Don Rickles.

We’ve lost too many big chunks of our comedy world recently. Robin, Shandling, Joan Rivers, and now Don Rickles. All of them giants. All with a different way to make us have that strange physical reaction to a thought, a word or phrase, a funny face, a sound or an image. That precious reaction that makes our face curl up, our eyes brighten, and we make a noise that is called a laugh.

Don Rickles did that to us for a long time. He made us laugh. I’m sad he’s no longer with us, and I bet he’s the only angel that had the balls to call God a “hockey puck.” Like I said, dangerous.

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