Sit down and shut up: Don Rickles is in the house

Nicole Brodeur
The Seattle Times (MCT)

You call him Mr. Rickles because he deserves it. He's a legend. Honorary member of the Rat Pack. The guy Johnny Carson tossed into a hot tub. And a performer who has as much respect for the term "politically correct" as a New Yorker does for a "Don't Walk" sign.

As for what he can call you? That depends on where you sit in the audience.

"That's an act," Rickles said of his signature schtick. "Half the battle is that people have to like you before you say one joke, one bit of humor."

He's not what you expected. He answers the phone like the grandfather he is. He sounds tired.

"I'm just relaxing," he said from his home in Los Angeles. "What, you want me to eat a pretzel?"

Remember that he has been doing this for 60 years — pacing back and forth across the stage, then entering the audience to order people around, pepper them with questions about their names, their nationalities, swoon over women and end the whole thing with a song about love.

"I do my thing," Rickles said. "It's really a form of exaggeration, and I did it long before anyone of the new generation. I don't get into politics, I'm never mean-spirited and there is some truth."

Rickles is the Last Man Standing since his longtime friends Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin passed on. He shares no secrets about Sinatra — their mothers were friends before they were.

"Frank was great to me," he said. "I pretty much said whatever I thought was fun, and he was great to me and my wife. He was a good friend and he treated me royally.

"As far as the Rat Pack and those guys, they asked me to keep going, and I'm doing it."

And he's doing it well.

Rickles won a 2008 Emmy award for his performance in "Mr. Warmth — The Don Rickles Project," a film about his life and career that was directed by John Landis.

He's reprising his role as the voice of Mr. Potato Head for the upcoming "Toy Story 3," and just finished recording a series of one-liners for a giant, robotic Mr. Potato Head that will be part of a new ride at Disneyland.

What kind of one-liners?

"Ah, give me a break, go to Disneyland and see," he said. "There's children involved. What do you think I say, 'Screw a duck?'"

Rickles is well aware of his "living legend" status, something you really can't get away from when you're 83 and still packing rooms.

"Some people call me a legend and the last of the greats, and I appreciate it," he said. "I don't think so much of my age, but of my health. I'll keep doing this as long as I can."

But where should we sit? Even his friends are afraid to be spotted at his shows.

Rickles' response: "Sit in the hall, I don't care."

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