Insult Master Don Rickles Isn't Warm, But He's Hot

Mr. Warmth appears to be a pretty cool guy.

He's better known as Don Rickles, one of the earliest politically incorrect comedy performers and subject of HBO documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, premiering Sunday (8 p.m. ET/PT).

Bookending the 90-minute film are bits from two 2006 Las Vegas performances, the first Rickles ever allowed to be filmed. Director John Landis captures a sharp-witted octogenarian who has been enthralling fans for six decades.

Rickles targets his audiences with staccato-paced zingers. No fan is immune; Rickles lobs good-natured jabs and mock disgust at ethnic and racial minorities, foreigners, even his orchestra. Most are in on the jokes.

Beyond Rickles' Vegas routine, Mr. Warmth is part biography and part celebrity roast, tracing his life from his upbringing in Queens, N.Y., to A-list performer while marking his ties to an eclectic batch of celebrities.

"They finally gave Rickles his due, which is kind of sweet and nice," Rickles says.

The comedian was reluctant to let Landis delve too far into his personal life or psyche. "I wanted to talk about the highlights of my career," he says. Rickles' publicity-shy wife, Barbara, had to be prodded to appear in the film, Landis says. There's little mention of Rickles' kids or grandchildren, although Rickles' son, Larry, collaborated on and co-produced Mr. Warmth.

"It's a really nice slice" of my life, Rickles says. "I'm proud of it. Landis and my son did a hell of a job."

The World War II Navy veteran mostly struggled as a serious actor and as a stand-up comic until he found his niche -- self-styled, largely unscripted theatrical performances that blend stories, sarcasm, faux disgust and spur-of-the-moment audience jabs.

"It's not really stand-up comedy. I don't tell jokes. It's a lot of emotion and attitude," Rickles says.

That's part of what Landis sought to capture. "What he does is unique," Landis says. "He's not just an insult guy. He's a performance artist. I've seen his act many times -- 30-40% is new every night."

Rickles' reputation grew in the 1950s after a move to Miami, where he insulted listeners of Larry King radio broadcasts and his club act drew interest from pre-Laugh-in comedy duo Rowan and Martin and showman Jackie Gleason.

Rickles credits his forceful mother, Etta, for igniting his career. After befriending Dolly Sinatra, Frank Sinatra's mother, she suggested that Frank see Don's nightclub act.

Sinatra soon showed. Rickles quickly targeted the mercurial crooner for some good-natured abuse. Sinatra got Rickles' brand of humor, and the two became fast friends, a match that provided Rickles notoriety and connections.

Like talk show host Johnny Carson -- who once introduced Rickles as "Mr. Warmth" for a memorable guest appearance -- Sinatra relished being the brunt of acerbic jokes. And Carson and Sinatra enjoyed turning the tables on Rickles with pranks.

Mr. Warmth has ample compliments and jibes from other famous fans and friends: Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier, James Caan, Debbie Reynolds and more. Best friend Bob Newhart weighs in with vacation and Vegas tales, and Martin Scorsese, who directed Rickles in the 1995 Mob drama Casino, cracks up recalling Rickles' shtick.

Virtually every popular contemporary comedian pays homage, including Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal and Roseanne Barr.

Still, Mr.Warmth got a cool reception when it came to financing. Landis, director of such hits as Animal House and The Blues Brothers, and Larry Rickles wanted to do a documentary. Potential investors and distributors were interested in a more marketable concert film, which Rickles rejected.

"Why should I give it away for free?" he says.

Landis, who met Rickles as an 18-year-old gofer on the set of 1970 comedy Kelly's Heroes, covered initial costs. More financing came from Dark Horse Comics' Mike Richardson, a co-producer and longtime fan. The project attracted HBO's interest after Landis showed some early footage at a 2006 comedy festival where Rickles was an honoree.

At 81, Rickles has more than two dozen venues booked through spring, and a small role in the 2008 film Mikey and Dolores. He has no plans to retire.

"I'm going to keep going as long as I have my health," he says. "Attitude and energy. That's the key."