If you follow me on social media, then it probably won’t be a surprise to you that I interviewed Rickles, but you might reasonably raise an eyebrow upon learning that it never made it online. There were a few reasons for that, but the two most prominent were as follows:
- An editor wanted to do the job that editors are supposed to do and – gasp! – edit the piece.
- A writer – one who suspiciously resembled yours truly – didn’t want to dramatically change the piece he’d written.
Having read these two reasons, you have undoubtedly realized that there’s really only one reason that the piece didn’t run, and that’s because I had a rare burst of…ego? You can call it that, I guess, since it really came down to my belief that I thought the piece that I’d put together was better in its existing form than it would have been if I’d gone with the editor’s request, which was to basically cut the word count in half, at which point she’d make any additional trims that she might feel to be necessary. But I don’t see that as ego. Even now, I cannot conceive of how I could’ve cut that much out of the piece that awaits you and still tell the story that I wanted to tell. So I walked away from the outlet, even leaving behind the kill fee that was offered, because…I’m an idiot? Maybe. But I just wanted the piece to remain more or less intact.
At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering why I didn’t just take the piece to another outlet, one which would have been more agreeable to a longer piece, and that’s a fair question. Unfortunately, it’s one that I don’t really want to get into, as the answer would likely detract from the entire point of posting the piece, which is to pay tribute to the man who – among his many other accomplishments – turned the words “hockey puck” into an insult that millions dreamed of having him hurl at them.
Naturally, I asked Rickles to hurl it at me when I talked to him in June 2015, politely waiting until the very end of our conversation to do so, and even though he’d almost certainly been asked it thousands of times by that point in his career, he was still kind enough to grant my request.
Yes, that’s right: Don Rickles was kind. But don’t spread it around. Even in death, I’m sure he wouldn’t want you to ruin his rep.
So here’s the piece, just as I put it together for the original outlet, right down to the original intro that references Rickles’ age as 89 years old. (He was 90 when he died.) I’d like to offer my thanks to the other actors who spoke to me for the piece back in 2015 as well as my apologies that it didn’t run where I’d intended for it to run, but given that everyone who loved, respected, and appreciated Don Rickles is thinking about what he meant to them right about now, I just thought it would be better to let it be seen here than not to let it be seen at all.
Rest in peace, Mr. Rickles. And thanks for calling me a hockey puck. I’ll never forget it.
Whether or not Don Rickles’ stand-up makes you laugh, few would argue that the 89-year-old comedian is anything less than a legend. But even with as much mileage as Rickles has gotten from talk shows and celebrity roasts, he never managed to find full-fledged success on his own as a TV star.
Four times Rickles took a shot at headlining his own series, and three of those series—1968’s The Don Rickles Show (a variety show), 1972’s The Don Rickles Show (a sitcom), and the FOX comedy Daddy Dearest—lasted for a year or less. As Rickles said during a 2005 appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, “I had shows that would go, ‘Fail! BOOM! Forget about it! Fail! BOOM! Forget about it!’ That was my name: Fuggedaboudit.”
As a result, the two-season, 37-episode run of CPO Sharkey, which was part of NBC’s primetime line-up from 1976 to 1978, seems like a rousing success by comparison. While it doesn’t come close to hitting the comedic heights Rickles regularly achieved while stalking any given stage, ripping audiences to shreds and having them beg for more, Chief Petty Officer Otto Sharkey was still the closest prime-time television ever came to capturing the essence of Don Rickles.
Not that he didn’t consistently deliver memorable moments while guest-starring on other people’s shows, mind you. If ever a comedian was gifted with the ability to make a big impression with a small role, it’s Don Rickles.
During the ‘60s alone, Rickles’ list of TV credits reads like TV Land’s greatest hits: The Twilight Zone, Wagon Train, The Addams Family, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Munsters, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gomer Pyle, USMC, The Andy Griffith Show, F Troop, The Wild Wild West, Gilligan’s Island, The Lucy Show, I Spy, I Dream of Jeannie, and Get Smart. Not that he stopped there: he kept up the guesting through the ‘70s, ‘80s, ’90, and ‘00s, and even as recently as September 2015, he popped up on the pilot episode of FOX’s Grandfathered.
After many years and many complaints from outraged Rickles fans demanding its release on home video, CPO Sharkey is now available on DVD through Time-Life. Both seasons are available individually, but they’re also both included within a larger set entitled Mr. Warmth! Don Rickles: The Ultimate TV Collection, which additionally offers four Rickles comedy specials from the ‘70s: The Many Sides of Don Rickles, Don Rickles: Alive and Kicking, Mr. Warmth, and Rickles.
Rickles spoke with us about his life and career in conjunction with the release of the Mr. Warmth! set, but to get a bit more insight into the mind of the legendary comic, we reached out to a few folks he’s worked with over the decades for their recollections of Rickles.
So how happy are you that CPO Sharkey has finally hit DVD?
Don Rickles: Well, you know, it’s something we did years ago, and Time-Life and a few other people said, “Gee, this is good stuff.” And I remembered it from way back and liked it, so when they decided to make it a box set, I was very happy about it.
Have you had a chance to go back and revisit any of the episodes?
Oh, no. Geez, it’s so long ago. In the process of making it, they asked me questions about it, but I didn’t really need to relive any of that stuff. [Laughs.]
Do you remember how the series originally came about? I know it was created by Aaron Ruben, who’d worked on The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
Well, that’s how it happened: Aaron Ruben. In those days, I was doing a lot of TV, and he said, “Rickles, you’re a Navy man. Let’s give it a try.” And he wrote this stuff, and it had a nice little run.
It seemed like CPO Sharkey was a rare occasion where TV finally worked out how to best utilize you.
Well, Aaron wrote sort of a wisecracking guy, the chief that I played, and it fit into my kind of character. They’ve always had trouble with television writing for Don Rickles, because I am one of a kind. I know that. Nobody does what I do…and lives to do it again. But it was the style that I created, and most of the world found it funny.
The clip of Johnny Carson storming the CPO Sharkey set after you broke his cigarette box on The Tonight Show has become the stuff of TV legend.
Rickles: They still talk about the cigarette box like crazy. [Laughs.] It really happened like that: I had no idea he was coming in until he was there. But what I really loved was when I said, “Johnny Carson, ladies and gentlemen,” and he said, “They know who I am! You don’t have to keep telling them who I am!”
We had a great chemistry together whenever we worked. He was really marvelous. David Letterman was great and was very good to me, and Jimmy Kimmel, he’s kind and adorable and sweet, and I have a great deal of fun with him, too, but no one compares to Johnny Carson.
Johnny Carson was my hero, rest his soul. When I was on with Johnny, the notes would say, “Don’s gonna talk about automobiles.” And we’d get on the show, and instead he’d say, “How’s your mother?” And I’d say, “You never liked my mother. Why’d you bring that up?” And we’d do, like, 20 minutes kidding about our mothers. His expressions were unbelievable. He was a master, he really was.
People tend to think of you almost exclusively in terms of comedy, but you actually attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Yeah, I did, and a lot of people don’t realize that. Yeah, I’m kind of proud of that. I graduated there. After the war, I came out of the Navy and auditioned there, and I was accepted. I was delighted. With my kind of humor, I thought I’d never make it there, but it happened. I was there with people like Grace Kelly, and Jason Robards was a good buddy of mine. People of that caliber were in my class. We had good times there.
When you first started doing TV, you did a number of one-off appearances. Was it a case of people who had come looking for you, or were you just actively seeking out work?
Well, I was an unusual guy. I started out in California at a place called Slate Brothers, and a lot of actors and directors came to see me. But, you know, even to this day, everything I’ve done, I’ve done myself. I’ve never had a writer, except for when I was doing television. And even then I was always being… Well, I wouldn’t say I was being a wise guy, but I was being a guy who was all attitude. I could talk about a million different things, but it was the attitude that made it funny.
Some of those early TV appearances—not to mention your early film work—were in dramas. Was that a conscious effort to do something different on camera than what you were doing on stage?
Rickles: Well, it was tough trying to do the dramatic stuff, because there wasn’t that much for me. Because of my reputation on stage for being the guy who made fun of people in a funny way, not many people thought of me for the acting parts. But I loved it. Run Silent, Run Deep was my first picture. Can you imagine? With Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. That was some beginning. And then I did The Rat Race, with Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds. I was supposedly the first guy ever to slap her onscreen. It worked pretty well. [Laughs.] But I was the heavy in that, and I got a lot of recognition about it. The most recent one was probably Casino, with Robert De Niro, and I had a good time doing that.
When you were doing the one-off appearances on sitcoms in the ‘60s, did you have any particular favorites?
Oh, geez, there were so many. I thought Gomer Pyle was a whole lot of fun, with Jim Nabors, and working with Don Knotts and Andy Griffith on The Andy Griffith Show. And I worked with Don Adams on Get Smart. I did the cycle, I really did. And then more recently I did Hot in Cleveland with Betty White. But, you know, when I look back on it, I did a lot. [Laughs.] I mean it! You know, people still call me and say, “I just saw you on television,” because they repeat that stuff.
Before CPO Sharkey, you had a variety show called The Don Rickles Show, but then you also had a sitcom called The Don Rickles Show, which was by Sheldon Leonard and Hy Averback.
Rickles: Yeah, right! Hy, rest his soul, and Sheldon, too. They were great. We did The Don Rickles Show, and…well, again, that was a fun thing to do. But the competition in those days was real strong, and so I had a run at it, but I never had something that lasted until CPO Sharkey. That’s why I’m so excited about this box set. But, you know, there’s also going to be a Don Rickles Show box set coming out in the fall, and I’m delighted about that, too.
It always seemed like TV had trouble trying to bring the essence of Don Rickles to prime time.
They always did. Because they tried to write what I do, and you can’t. It’s an attitude that’s very difficult to put in print, if you know what I’m saying. It comes with my personality. Did you see the inaugural with Ronald Reagan?
I did. It’s hysterical.
Oh, thank you! I mean, how many people have done that? And I’ll never forget: Frank Sinatra, rest his soul, he said, “We’re gonna have Rickles at the Reagan inauguration.” And they said, “Oh, no, no, no.” And Frank said, “If you don’t have Rickles, you don’t have me.” That’s what he said! I was thrilled. And they never censored me. They never said, “You can’t say this, you can’t say that.” Frank said, “Don, you just do what you do.” And I did. And I thought it was very funny! In fact, it’s one of the highlights of my life.
I also got to know George Bush and Barbara Bush during the inaugural. She was great, and she still is, but she wrote me a letter about a year ago which I thought was very funny. She said this and that, but then at the end, she added, “And I must say, you were so good in Beach Blanket Bingo.” [Laughs.] I just thought that was great.
When it came to your own prime-time series, did you try to find some sort of happy medium where it would work for you, or did you just say, “Give me what you want, and I’ll see what I can do”?
No, pretty much they would write stuff and I would embellish on it, or not use it at all and just use the idea, just to make it as funny as possible.
Were you disappointed when The Don Rickles Show didn’t take off?
Well, sure, you’re disappointed. You’d like it to go longer. But in those days, I was doing something that nobody else did, so I was grateful that they let me get that far, let’s put it that way.
How do you look back on your episode of The Twilight Zone?
Rickles: Ah, yeah, [with] Burgess Meredith. It was great. I thought it was damned good. I had a lot of fun doing that, too. It was good fun.
You also did an episode of Run for Your Life.
With Ben Gazzara! Yeah, that was a very dramatic part. Working with Ben was great, and I was playing the heavy then. It was great that they could see me in that kind of a role. You know, another one that I did where I was the heavy was with Ray Milland: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. [Laughs.] So when I think about it, I had a pretty good circle of shows and films to do. I did Wagon Train, and I did F Troop, with Forrest Tucker. That was the first time I’d ever gotten on a horse! I played a chief in that. As I’m talking to you, I’m going, “Man, I did a lot of stuff!”
Including The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Where I held them up in an elevator. [Laughs.] Lyle Delp, that was my name in that, and I held Mary and Dick up in an elevator. Dick still talks about that. You know, when they talk about shows like that, it’s kind of nice, because it brings memories of fun.
I’m talking to your buddy Bob Newhart for this piece.
Rickles: I never liked him.
That’s what I hear.
[Laughs.] God bless him. We’ve traveled the world together. Here we are, two American kids from two different worlds, and we became great friends. A lot of it had to do with the wives, as I say in my shows. His wife and my wife are almost like sisters. But Bob and I have had some great times together. We first crossed paths when I was working in Vegas, and Ginnie, his wife, was there with Bob, visiting. Ginnie said to Bob, “Why don’t we go and see Don? He’s working here at the Sahara Hotel.” He says, “Oh, okay.” And she said, “He’s very nice. He’s wonderful. You’re going to enjoy him.” And the joke was, he came in and sat in the front, and I said, “Here’s Bob Newhart and his wife, Ginnie, a hooker from Detroit.” And he said, “Jesus Christ, you told me he was going to be nice!” [Laughs.] But Bob got a kick out of it.
I also talked to Fred Dryer, from Hunter.
Rickles: Oh, yeah, the football player.
Well, you’ll be pleased to know that he had nothing but fond memories of working with you.
Oh, he remembers me? Well, how do you like that? Isn’t that funny? I haven’t seen that man in, God, I can’t even remember when. Isn’t that nice, that he’d still talk so well about me.
The last time you had a TV series of you own was when you did Daddy Dearest for FOX.
Rickles: Boy, you really checked me out, didn’t you? [Laughs.] God love you.
Richard Lewis said that the show would’ve been huge if it had been as funny as its outtakes.
That’s what a lot of people involved in the show have said. But Richard was fun to work with. When they said, “Cut,” I always kidded around, and some of the stuff came out really funny. I got a big kick out of that.
Outside of sitcoms, you made a big name for yourself on the celebrity roast circuit.
Rickles: Oh, yeah, with Dean, Frank, Sammy, and so forth. They were always so fun for me. There’s one in particular, the Jerry Lewis one. It wasn’t so much about Jerry as it was the people who were there. Not to be too egotistical, but I thought I was very funny on that. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll have to look at it. I mean, if I start laughing, then you know it’s pretty good! [Laughs.]
Sinatra was another hero to me. Frank was great to me. I went out with him for the last two years of his life, and we had great fun. He treated me like a kid brother. He was terrific.
Are you ever surprised when someone is shocked by something you’ve said?
Well, unless they live under a rock, you’d think they’d get the idea by now. [Laughs.] My father, rest his soul, was a salesman, and he taught me something which, as a writer, I’m sure you already know: when you’re selling yourself, you can’t please everybody. When I started out, they used to stare at me in the tough joints that I worked, and eventually, little by little, they started to say, “That’s funny!” And now today, young people are coming to see me, which I’m thrilled about. Now, when I say “young,” I mean 22, 23, 24, 25. But they’re big supporters of mine, and that makes me feel real good at my age.
You’re truly multigenerational: I’ve got a 10-year-old daughter, and I was able to use the frame of reference that “Daddy’s talking to Mr. Potato Head today.”
Hey, my grandchildren get a kick out of that, too! [Laughs.]
I mentioned that Daddy Dearest was your last series, but it almost wasn’t: you did a pilot in 2005 called The Catch that was created by J.J. Abrams but ultimately wasn’t picked up.
That’s funny you say that, because I still keep in touch with J.J., and I just got a note from him. He said, “This is a can’t-miss, Don. We’re gonna roll with this! This is definitely a hit!” [Laughs.] They didn’t pick it up, but it was an hour show, and I was a bounty hunter or something. J.J.’s a great creator and a damned good director, but because it didn’t make it, I always rib him about it.
Do you ever look back with regret at your series that only lasted for a single season or find yourself wishing that CPO Sharkey had gone longer?
You know, it’s the old story: it wasn’t to be. But I can’t complain. At all. I’ve got a wonderful wife of 50 years, that’s pretty good. I’ve got wonderful grandchildren and a wonderful daughter. Unfortunately, I lost my son, rest his soul, but otherwise God’s been good to me. I’ve never been in trouble. I’ve never been into dope or anything like that. And I’m really proud of the fact that… Not that the other guys don’t deserve applause, because people laugh at it, but I’ve never done anything off-color. Never. If you’ve ever seen my act, I’ve never said anything that’s off-color. I’m actually kind of proud of that. Today there’s lot that “Up Your Kazoo” stuff.
Was it frustrating that TV writers so rarely managed to find your voice?
Well, yeah, that was always the problem. I said, “No, no, no, if a guy comes and submits something to me, they’ve got to try to say things that I would say.” But then it’d end up being, “No, no, I don’t say it like that.” It has to be me saying it. That’s why writers and I have never been able to make it run smoothly: I always had to inject myself into it. Not because I was egotistical, but…it’s all about your attitude. If I’m talking to you and I say, “I’ve got to be very honest: this is annoying doing your show,” well, we’re on the phone, so you haven’t seen my expression when I’m saying that. But if you were sitting next to me, you’d laugh, because it’s the way I say things and how I say them. That’s been a good gift for me.
Nowadays people might call some of your material politically incorrect? Does that bother you?
Not anymore. Not today. When I first started, I had cancel-itis. My mother, rest her soul, used to sit outside of the club in the car, waiting to take me home. She used to sit in the kitchen at these joints and tell the owner how great I was, and they were staring at me. But I worked a lot of tough places in those days, doing what I do. It was dangerous. But that’s what got me there, you know? I believed in it. And I just kept on going.