Jamie Dornan on Don Rickles: ‘The world just lost a lot of laughter’
Don Rickles was my friend. I feel truly honoured that I can write those words with conviction. Although I didn’t know him for long or particularly well, he was still a friend and someone – along with his wife, Barbara – that I cared for very much.
I was first introduced to the genius of Rickles via YouTube about eight years ago. While searching for Frank Sinatra interviews, I stumbled upon a series of grainy uploads from the original Dean Martin show comedy roasts. The format is simple: in each episode, there is a different known personality that is made to sit on a dais in front of a large audience and television cameras while flanked by other well-known faces from the world of comedy, politics and film. They then, in turn, get up to a microphone and proceed to ridicule the celebrity in question.
In every single roast that I watched – and I’ve seen them all – Don Rickles was the runaway funniest participant. The bravado, charm, menace and soaring wit with which he ripped these guys apart was simply monumental and I was hooked. In those days, the chosen participants were proper stars. Huge names: Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Orson Welles, Ronald Reagan, Gene Kelly, and they all loved being taken apart by Rickles. Roasting is still around today, but it’s developed into something crass where profanity is preferred to wit. Don wasn’t a fan of the new style of roasting and these days, the events don’t have quite the same glamour as when Don was in his pomp.
By leaving no one unscathed, he made everyone equal, and that was his power. Over the years, he developed the nicknames the Merchant of Venom and, most famously, Mr Warmth. But the irony was simple to see for anyone who knew him because in reality he was one of the most loving, caring, and generous figures you could know. He was a lover of the world and everyone he shared it with.
My own personal experience with Don started in February 2015. I’d been on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and used up about four minutes of my seven minutes of allotted time talking about Don Rickles and how I kept a signed picture of him (the only person I’ve ever asked for one) above my bath.
The following day at JFK airport, my publicist called me to say that Don’s publicist had been in touch and that Don would love to talk to me on the phone. I nearly exploded with excitement. The next day, I spoke on the phone for half an hour with Don and Barbara. He delivered on every level. It was a few weeks shy of their 50th wedding anniversary. I asked Don: “What are you doing to mark the occasion?” He replied like a bullet “I’m leaving her.” I actually laughed so hard that I hurt my throat.
We became email buddies, with the wonderful Barbara facilitating most of the correspondence. We made it on to their Christmas card list. We were constantly trying to arrange to meet in person; schedules never allowed it. Don still toured prolifically, up until his last days.
Finally, on 8 November 2016, we made it happen. Craig’s restaurant in Beverley Hills, Don and Barbara’s usual table in the corner (I know – how cool?). We got drunk and talked about everything, from love and loss to Sinatra, Elvis, comedy and politics. Notable Hollywood figures kept coming to the table to say hello, desperately hoping to be put down by the great man, to be “Rickled”. It was such a night.
It was followed by going to see him do a show with Regis Philbin a few nights later. I brought my friend Emma, and we laughed constantly. I went back to say hello after the show, along with Don’s best friend – the legendary Bob Newhart.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen him. My wife had bought me tickets to see him do a show in Atlantic City in 2013 and we flew out and had a ball. Little did I know that a few years later I’d be calling that man my friend. What an honour. He was developing a new series that I was going to be a part of called Dinner with Don. When our first scheduled recording got postponed due to his ill health, I feared the worst. Sadly, I was right.
Don Rickles will live on long in our home as the voice of Mr Potato Head in the Toy Story franchise. It’s great that our kids love him like we do. Our girls will be so impressed to know that daddy and the potato were pals. I simply feel so lucky to have known him, if only for a tiny fraction of his almost 91 years – his birthday would have been in May. The world just lost a lot of laughter.