Don just checked out at age 90, and it brings back memories. After my Navy service in the Korean War, I got a job in 1955 as as a reporter on the now-long-gone daily Beverly Hills Citizen newspaper.
My $75 at week didn’t get me any of the wealthy city’s perks. However, some assignments gave me opportunities to meet and interview entertainment celebrities of the era. Among them Peter Lorre, Yul Brynner, Groucho Marx, Jerry Lewis, Carol Channing and many others.
I first met Don Rickles in 1957, when he was doing stand-up comedy at Slate Brothers on Sunset Boulevard. I believe his act was an introduction to a singing star whose identity escapes me. I was there to interview Don, who had recently experienced sudden national attention.
Don, as would be his theme throughout his career, used insults against current politicians, movie stars and other famous figures. I believe that night he took a few swipes at Richard Nixon, Harry Truman and a young upstart named John Kennedy. I laughed as hard as everyone in the small club audience, and then sat with him in the dressing room.
We shared some stories about our Navy service in World War 2, then I asked him about his sudden popularity. It was a recent interruption at the club, when Don was performing. He noted that a waiter brought in a group of people, who sat down at a table near the stage.
Don stopped for a moment, then identified Frank Sinatra as one of the guests. In the comedian’s most snide voice, he shouted, “Make yourself at home, Frank. Go ahead, hit someone!”
Most of the audience just gasped, because Sinatra was infamous for his hot temper, angry confrontations and alleged connections with the Mafia. Who would dare to insult and risk his career, possibly his life, for a very personal joke?
As news reports described it: Sinatra at first just glared at Rickles, then almost fell from his chair laughing. That was the beginning of the comedian’s very successful career, as well as a lifetime friendship with Frank Sinatra.
I’m sure Don is now doing the same stand-up act somewhere up there. And, of course, his insults are sending the saints and all the angels into heavenly fits of laughter.