Don Rickles returns to the Borgata with a well-seasoned appeal to new audiences
It’s been a long, steady career for “Mr. Warmth” Don Rickles, filled with iconic performances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, in films such as Kelly’s Heroes and stand-up routines that made “Hello Dummy” and “You hockey puck” catch phrases.
But for audiences that catch Rickles Oct. 9 and 10 at the Borgata, one other iconic performance is bound to come to mind. After all, isn’t that Mr. Potato Head up there?
Even though Rickles has been a casino staple and an Atlantic City regular for decades his work on the Toy Story films has introduced him to a new generation. The films have just been re-released in 3-D and work on a third film has begun. Rickles has provided the voice of Mr. Potato Head since the first 1995 film. And it’s made the 83-year-old family friendly.
For a comedian that’s made a career of insults (though he calls it exaggeration), Rickles tells AC Weekly that a cartoon voice star was never part of the plan.
“John Lassiter [the director of the films] came down to see me a few years ago and said, ‘Don, we have this idea for a cartoon,’” Rickles says with a pause. “I don’t do cartoons, but hey, little did I know. And he said, ‘No, no, your voice is perfect for this. You gotta do this.’ And he tested my voice and he said, ‘Well, you’re the only guy who can do this potato head.’ So that’s how it came about and that’s how my grand kids know me.”
And many young parents as well, but for Rickles, who has been playing in front of live audiences since the 1950s, his long success took a little more than a few turns as a potential French Fry.
“The kids are too young to see me [as Mr. Potato Head] and the older people already know me,” he says. “But it makes it kind of fun for the families that see it and know its me.”
Still there’s no denying that Rickles, long past when many comics of his era have faded into obscurity, still packs a punch with young audiences. His return to the Borgata, which draws one of the youngest and hippest crowds in the resort, proves it. Rickles can still pack ‘em in whatever their age.
“I’m very thrilled about it; to bring in the younger people,” he says. “Through their parents over the years, they started to talk about me and more and more the young college kids come and see me, which is kind of great. Because what I do is not something done the regular way. In other words, it’s more of a theatrical performance and its about everything in life today. And it’s exaggerated.
“They say it’s insult comedy,” he says. “But it’s not really insults. It’s exaggeration about all of us. And about life and what surround us. So it’s worked very well for me and I’ve been successful.”
Rickles presents a show that, while structured and containing some staples such as song and dance (“I’m starting to think I’m a regular Fred Astaire,” he jokes), is based mostly on improvisation.
“I do improvise a lot and the show varies from night to night,” Rickles says. “I never know. But I am blessed with that. It just comes to me. My environment — what I see in the audience and what I see around me. So I create a lot of things each night and it makes the shows different. But you do have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. But in between there are spots and I pick out new stuff I do on my own.”
It’s a style that has worked for Rickles since his earliest days.
“When I worked joints, especially during the war when there were a lot of servicemen around and I did striptease joints — they don’t have them anymore — I used to get out on stage between four or five girls that were taking their clothes off — which was really nothing compared to today — but anyway I was the comic relief. And I would do impressions badly and I told jokes and I started to talk to the audience and they started talking to me. I wouldn’t call them hecklers because they were in my corner, but they would yell up to me and I’d come back with some fast stuff on my own.”
It was a style that led Rickles to a natural type of environment for his act — casinos.
“I’ve always had the reputation that the high rollers always enjoyed me,” he says. “In the old days when I first started out, you know the Frank Sinatra image of that kind of an audience. I’ve always maintained that kind of an audience. But as the years have gone buy, as we know, the casinos are filled up with families and the families have come to see me. Because I never do anything where they’d say, ‘Oh my God what did he say?’
“I mean they may say that out of seeing something different, which is the secret of success as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “But when I started out I had a lot of rejection. But I kept at it and believed in it and finally came through.”
Rickles has more venues then ever as casinos have spread across the country. But he says he always has a sweet spot for Las Vegas and Atlantic City, where he has played every casino in town.
“The joke is that if I play one more I’ll work the airport,” he says. “It’s great to be in Atlantic City because I was one of the guys who started there at Resorts when there were hardly any hotels. I think Steve and Edie were first, Bill Cosby and then me. The rest was a lot of sand.”
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