ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT > CURTAIN CALL

The Show Must Go On 
for Don Rickles

An interview with Mr. Warmth prior to his New Year's Eve gig at Harrah's Resort in Atlantic City.

By David J. Spatz

Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Dec. 28, 2011

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There was no mistaking the
familiar voice on the other end of the line.


But for the first time in the more than three decades that I’ve known Don Rickles, I heard something different. It was something I’d never heard before from the comedy legend known as Mr. Warmth, the guy who gets his jollies and a big pay check by teasing and poking fun at people.


I heard the heavy and heartbreaking sounds of sadness. On Dec. 3, just two weeks before the phone call, Rickles suffered the most unthinkable of family tragedies. 


His only son, Larry, 41, died of respiratory failure related to pneumonia. Larry Rickles was a writer who was once on the staff of the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown and who won a 2008 primetime Emmy Award as co-producer of an HBO documentary about his dad.


At 85, and having logged more than 50 years in show business, Rickles is as old-school as they come. So I never thought for a minute that he’d cancel his New Year’s Eve gig at Harrah’s Resort, because he’s cut from that show-must-go-on fabric.


What I did expect, though, was that he’d forego the usual media publicity tour he likes to do ahead of a show, hoping that the ink and airplay would ensure a capacity crowd for his last performance of 2011.


I immediately tried to withdraw my standing request to talk to Rickles before any of his gigs. But his publicist, Paul Shefrin, said Rickles insisted on doing just one phoner, and that it would be with me.


“He doesn’t know any of the other [reporters] who wanted to talk to him,” Shefrin explained. “He knows you and he said he’d only feel comfortable talking to you.”


The only ground rule for the call was that Rickles didn’t want to spend a long time talking about his son. “Just express your condolences and then see where [the conversation] goes,” Shefrin advised.


One week later, I was staring at the clock watching as the minute hand inched inexorably closer to my call to Rickles. For the first time in all the years I’ve known him and kibitzed with him backstage and gone drinking with him in a casino lounge after his show, I didn’t want to talk to Rickles. I was afraid it would be too awkward for both of us.


No matter how well I’d gotten to know Rickles over the years, I felt it would be very uncomfortable spending even a few minutes on the phone with a man who’d just lost his son. 


I placed the call, and Rickles picked up on the second ring. I told him how sorry I was to hear about Larry, and asked how he and his wife, Barbara, and Larry’s sister Mindy were doing.


“How can we be doing? We’re hanging in there. It’s just hard to believe when something like this happens to you, but …” he said, his voice trailing off.


Although he’d canceled a gig in Florida about a week before his son’s death, killing the Harrah’s date on New Year’s Eve was never a consideration, he said.


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1. linda kingston said... on Aug 21, 2013 at 03:04PM

“dear mr rickles lam very sorry fo hear about your son larry my prayers are with you and your family l lost my mother to canceri in October 6 2011 and god bless you always linda m Kingston Lancaster ca”

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