IFC News coverage of the 2007 New York Film Festival Press Conference for the documentary "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project." John Landis discusses Rickles and his reasons for making the film.
Don Rickles has been called irreverent, acerbic, caustic, biting, scathing, and often referred to as the "Merchant of Venom." Yet, for a man who's made his living hurling insults at people, it's virtually impossible to find anyone who could say a word against him. Veteran producer Peter Lassally of "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" calls Rickles "the gentlest, sweetest man, but people don't know that." This other Rickles will be revealed in a new feature-length documentary, "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project," directed by longtime friend and fan, John Landis, best known for "Animal House" and "Trading Places." The film premieres Dec. 2 on HBO and will later be released on DVD.
Landis gathered interviews with nearly 30 actors and comedians, including Clint Eastwood, Robin Williams, Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Jack Carter, Jay Leno and Bob Newhart, friends who appear to have waited for just this opportunity to pay Rickles back with their own humorous barbs. In an interview at the L.A. premiere of the film at the AFI film festival, Rickles gave away one secret to his comedy: "If I were to insult people and mean it, that wouldn't be funny." Landis calls Rickles "an equal opportunity offender. It's never the joke, it's the audience's perception of where the joke's coming from."
Said comedian-actor Jeff Garlin of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "The thing about Don Rickles is that he knows what makes him funny, and he trusts it. That's one of the keys."
Until now, Rickles has never allowed his act to be filmed.
When asked what changed his mind he replied, "My son, who I love dearly, and John Landis, who I believe in, said to me 'It's time,' and my wife said the same thing. This is the first time ever some of my performances will be shown on film."
Even more important to him than his career is his family, he said.
The film touches on his early days as a struggling actor, and he credits "courage" for getting him through the long years of rejection. He also credits his mother, Etta, as playing an important role in his life and career; by all accounts she was a strong woman who even had the chutzpah to ask Dolly Sinatra if her son Frank would go see her son's act. Mrs. Sinatra convinced her son to see the struggling comic, setting off Rickles' career.
Asked if he ever worried about any karma coming back to him, Rickles said, "No, after 55 years, if people are frightened of Don Rickles, they have a big problem. I'm the one that started all this, and everybody knows what I do, unless they live in a jungle someplace under a tree."
There's no doubt his audience knows what to expect from him at a live performance, and the faint of heart usually choose to sit in the back to avoid being "attacked."
Asked when he first realized that he was funny, Rickles replied without a beat, "When the rabbi hit me," quickly adding, "No, I don't know when I was funny. Maybe it was at synagogues and affairs and so forth, and I was always a wise-cracker when I was very young."
At 81 years young, he's still cranking out the wisecracks and packing the house with fans of all ages.