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Don Rickles dies: Why he didn’t want to be Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story

Editor’s Note: Don Rickles is dead, something that never happened to the last of the old guard of stand-up comics when he was on stage. There, he killed, as they say in show biz. He was performing right up to age 90. Several years ago, I saw him at the Kravis Center in a classic double bill with his old pal Regis Philbin. Rickles was still in fine form, cracking insults at everybody in the audience and doing ribald jokes that not only had whiskers on them, but a five-day growth. And, yet, with his delivery, we all howled in appreciation and, better yet, laughed at ourselves. There will never be another like Mr. Warmth. So for all you hockey pucks out there, here is Post theater critic Hap Erstein’s fabulous interview with Rickles from February, 1996, when Rickles was appearing at the Jupiter Theatre. RIP to The Don. — Larry Aydlette

You may find this hard to believe, but Don Rickles doesn’t think of himself as an insult comic. Anyone who thinks differently is just a hockey puck.

RELATED: This woman got insulted by Don Rickles. And loved it.

“I don’t like to use the word `insult,’ ” says the man once dubbed the Merchant of Venom, speaking by phone from his Los Angeles home. “I’d rather call it putting them on. What I do actually, the best way to describe me, is that I’m the guy who goes to the office Christmas party on Friday, mouths off and comes back Monday morning and still has his job.”

So you’re actually careful about what you say on stage?

“Well, it means I have good taste, in my opinion,” he says. “And I think when it comes to Rickles, they know it’s a joke. You say insult, but what I actually do is, I just take things and I exaggerate them.”

But beware of sitting too close to the stage. Chances are you could be called a hockey puck, too.

Rickles is in a good mood these days. He’s been featured in a couple of major movie releases. A decidedly odd couple of movies. He plays gaming pit boss Billy Sherbert in “Casino,” Martin Scorsese’s violent look at Las Vegas. He also appears, in voice-over, as Mr. Potato Head, the sarcastic curmudgeon of Disney Studios’ computer graphics hit, “Toy Story.”

His initial reactions to making these movies were as different as the films themselves. “Of course I was delighted to be in “Casino,” because that’s a Cadillac to me, because of Marty Scorsese,” Rickles notes. “There was no way of saying no.”

“No” was exactly his response to director John Lasseter, who courted him to lend his voice and snide persona to a movie about a toy chest tug-of-war. “When the guy came down to see me about ‘Toy Story,’ I had to say, which I say to a lot of people, “Oh, c’mon. I don’t do Popeye and Olive Oyl and all that stuff. Voice-overs? I don’t do that.”

Now, as “Toy Story” has grossed more than $180 million and is slated to be given a special Oscar next month, Rickles is delighted he changed his mind. `”I thought it was going to be strictly for young children,” he says. “I was pleasantly surprised.”

He is also pleasantly surprised that the movie has generated new interest in him from the age group of his grandchildren. “A lot of college kids come to see me now - the 19-year-olds and so forth - and a lot of grown people come up to me at the airport, 23-25 year-olds, with a picture of Potato Head for me to sign.”

Still, the experience of sitting alone in a recording studio and taping the tuber’s dialogue pales in comparison to working with Scorsese. “Well, that’s kind of magic,” Rickles says. “He’s so on the nose of everything you do - to your clothing, to your cuff links, to your acting. The details.

“And he’s very easy. You don’t even realize you’re performing on camera when you do something. He makes it almost look like a casual evening at home with your friends.”

Before these two releases, Rickles’ movie career had been marginal, to put it kindly. Perhaps his most significant cinematic appearances were 30 years ago in a trio of Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello sun-and-sand epics - “Bikini Beach,” “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “Muscle Beach Party.”

Recalling those low-budget flicks, Rickles says, “Well, we did those in 15 days at that time. In those days, you didn’t mind, you were full of vinegar. You were ready to go all the time, and so you did it one-two-three, bam-bam-bang. And I wasn’t exactly being asked to be in every movie in the world. So I fit it in and it was fun to do.”

It is amusing to think that Scorsese might have screened “Muscle Beach Party” to decide whether to cast Rickles in “Casino.” Somehow, the bald-pated comedian doubts it. “No,” he says, “if he did that, I think Marty would be in a rest home.”

Somewhat less impressive than his movie resume is Rickles’ track record on television. His first sitcom, “Kibbe Hates Finch,” never got beyond the pilot stage in 1965. “The Don Rickles Show” was short-lived seven years later, and “CPO Sharkey,” his most successful series, lasted only two seasons in the late ’70s. Rickles’ latest attempt at the TV brass ring was 1993’s “Daddy Dearest,” co-starring Richard Lewis. It also came and went quickly.

For Rickles to make fun of his audience in a theater is one thing, but to be invited into America’s living rooms week after week, you apparently have to be more lovable than The Ambassador of Bile.

With “Daddy Dearest” though, Rickles claims that the show was exactly what the Fox network executives had asked for. “Fox wanted an outrageous show,” says Rickles. But when they saw what they had ordered, “it was so outrageous that Fox got nervous and decided not to stay with it. I think they pulled the switch a little too fast. But that was their wish.”

Like his movie and TV careers, Rickles’ nightclub and concert appearances are well into their fourth decade. For an act based on caustic put-ons, this is a longevity record that even surprises Rickles. “I always thought that being different would get me either great recognition and I would last, or I’d be done real fast,” he says.

Somehow, audiences have come to accept Rickles’ abrasiveness with great affection.

Well, not everyone. There was the woman who tried to sue him because he called her hat “suitable for a Halloween dance.” The suit was thrown out of court. Presidents from Ford to Bush have relished Rickles’ ribbing, and he hopes it is just a matter of time before he gets to kid Bill Clinton.

On the subject of celebrities who really didn’t like being the target of his barbs, Rickles says, “I’m sure there’s somebody out there, but I didn’t inquire about it. Anybody that I thought was not crazy about me, I would never mention them because, hey, they’re entitled to laugh or they’re entitled to say, `I don’t enjoy that.’ ”

For years, Rickles has been picking mercilessly on Frank Sinatra, as he did again recently at Ol’ Blue Eyes’ 80th birthday party. The fact that the comedian is still alive is the best evidence that Sinatra is not connected to the mob.

Rickles laughs at the thought and says, “I don’t even know that Frank Sinatra is connected to the mob, because he and I are dear friends and only once did he pull a gun on me.” He pauses and then feels compelled to add, “That’s a joke, by the way.”

This year, Rickles turns 70, a milestone he dismisses. “It doesn’t mean much, in the sense that I don’t even think about it, because thank goodness I have my health, and I’m just as active on the stage and active in life with my wife and family as I ever was.”

Although it doesn’t help his image, the truth is that Rickles is a happily married, nonviolent, soft-spoken man, something of a homebody when he is not on the road performing. “The overall picture is that I sit home and watch Dodger baseball games, play golf badly and go on trips with the (Bob) Newharts. My wife and I celebrated our 30th anniversary on a worldwide trip. So I do everything that everybody else would like to do or does.”

That guy onstage, the Insultan, that is simply a character he came up with and turned into a lucrative career. “The onstage image is just a job to be able to get a check and to have a nice home and to see that my kids live nice and that we’re enjoying the good things in life,” he says. “But I’m not that person really in life to my intimate friends, they know that.”

That public Mighty Mouth can be obnoxious at times, Rickles concedes, but on the whole he enjoys the character. “Oh, sure, he’s a lot of fun,” Rickles insists. “I’ve got to like him, otherwise I couldn’t be doing him.”

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