Chances are you, like me, were raised not to name-call. But if our moms knew we could make a brilliant career out of it, they might have been less inclined to break up our playground fights. Poison-larynxed comedian Don Rickles is the lucky bastard who made it, that toad-bulldog hybrid who could insult Italians in mob-run Vegas (he made them money, that’s why) and can probably reduce your own fat, homely, ethnic, disabled and/or stupid self to laughing tears before you’ve finished blinking. Leaving no trace of diversity unabused, he has 50 years’ worth of sold-out shows and stunned-silly audiences as proof that even if you trade in insults, democracy works.
Rickles is 81 now. He walks a little slower, the paunch is more considerable, and his head seems permanently tilted down. But it’s not the stoop of an old man; it’s surely the biological result of years of scanning the first few rows of the Stardust for ready-and-willing targets. Everything about the awesomely funny legend is still vigorous and laser-quick, as John Landis’ unshowy documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project makes quite clear, from snippets of recent Las Vegas performances — where hoary World War II–era stereotypes still elicit gales of laughter — to the sit-down interview segments in which he recounts how he got into comedy, the Vegas heyday years playing the infamous Sahara lounge, and how he wooed his wife, Barbara (“Quit yelling,” she’d say to him on their first date). It’s essential viewing not only for fans of Rickles, but for all aficionados of the history of standup.
Rickles’ forte is, ironically, bringing a room together, if only into a high alert of political incorrectness. He isn’t a perturbed foible-observer who gets us all to warmly chuckle at the crazy things we do. His insults are firmly in the irrational quick-label vein — Germans are Nazis, the Irish are drunks — but require his brand of rapid-fire drill-sergeant scorn to shock you into laughter. One only has to recall the strangeness of Michael Richards’ controversial racial explosion at the Laugh Factory to realize how deftly contained Rickles’ slur-o-rama persona is. He’s the heckler as headliner.
He’s also one of the last icons of a previous generation’s Vegas, when casino names reflected the exotic barrenness of the surrounding landscape and made the smoke-filled, martini-fueled suits-and-dresses revelry at the tables and showrooms a singular entertainment atmosphere. The clubbiness transferred to his TV appearances, from the Dean Martin roasts to his legendary Tonight Show gigs. Landis smartly includes many of these priceless clips — including the night Carson marches one sound stage over to the set of Rickles’ sitcom CPO Sharkey to confront him about a busted cigarette box.
For all the slicing and dicing its subject is known for, Mr. Warmth is hardly a dissection of the New York–born entertainer, but the celebrity testimonials are plentiful and entertaining, a mixture of genuine awe, giddy remembrance, surface analysis and the occasional bemused acknowledgment that Rickles can get away with a lot that others can’t. His Kelly’s Heroes co-star Clint Eastwood is a big fan, going so far as to have Dirty Harry use one of the comedian’s gag names — Larry Dickman — in the movie The Enforcer. Penn Jillette considers him as punk as the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop. But it seems as if gay comedian Mario Cantone is included in the movie just so he can assure us that Rickles’ fag jokes don’t offend him, and Chris Rock obviously treasures him but makes sure to point out that the comic’s “black” voices have a tenuous relationship to the real world. Still, it’s not hard to believe Carl Reiner when he says that at the height of Rickles’ popularity, celebrities felt they hadn’t truly made it until he’d flayed them open from the stage. In a way, Rickles pioneered a form of inside-Hollywood comic smearing that can be found throughout the standup world today, as evidenced by the film’s inclusion of bullshit-calling, taboo-dismantling barnburners Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman. Indeed, Silverman hews to her delusional-innocent shtick in praising Rickles, revealing that she would listen to his albums so that if she ever came across a black person, “I would know what to expect.” But Rickles, who everyone seems to agree is the sweetest friend, husband, father and grandfather around, knows the value of keeping up appearances too. “We’re very happy,” he says into the camera, before adding with expert timing, “it’s our kids that are dragging us down.”
Perversely, perhaps, I wanted to know what kind of chaser a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie would be after an hour and a half of Rickles, so I watched the card people’s season-opening production for CBS, an adaptation of Patricia Reilly Giff’s young-adult novel Pictures of Hollis Woods. It turned out to be a strangely appropriate choice. Where the Rickles film is an ode to insult humor leavened by rosy appreciation, Hallmark’s film is a family movie that offsets its expected sugariness with moodier tangs. Of course, it’s a heart-tugger, the tale of a 12-year-old foster child named Hollis Woods (Jodelle Ferland) whose constant upheaval has made her sullen and withdrawn about the possibility of ever feeling accepted by anyone. As the film opens, Hollis’ social worker (Alfre Woodard) places her with a friendly artist and retired teacher named Josie (Sissy Spacek), who encourages the young girl’s talent for drawing. The two hit it off. But Josie’s increasing memory loss signals to Hollis another dispiritingly temporary stay, unless she can protect this new, nurturing life from inevitable outside intervention.
The answer, Hollis believes, may lie in the idyllic summer cabin of the Regan family, whom she stayed with before Josie. Why Hollis isn’t with the Regans anymore amounts to the dramatic suspense of the story, but we can gather it has little to do with the Regans — who in the flashbacks seem like the most nurturing of parents; even their bratty son likes Hollis — and everything to do with Hollis’ damaged sense of her own self-worth. All in all, it’s a touching story of encouragement, emotional holes and the impulse to shield ourselves from pain, and director Tony Bill does a nice job avoiding overt sentimentality and letting fine performances and knowing details carry us along. After all, what does it mean to believe that you belong somewhere? Watch Ferland as Hollis after she brushes her teeth and considers whether to put her toothbrush in the holder with the Regans’ or return it to her bag, and then you’ll understand.
MR. WARMTH: THE DON RICKLES PROJECT | HBO | Sun., Dec. 2, 8 p.m.
PICTURES OF HOLLIS WOODS | CBS | Sun., ?Dec. 2, 9 p.m.