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'Mr. Warmth' captures Rickles' genius

Jeff Simon

Don Rickles was at Melody Fair getting dressed to go on. I was on a couch in his trailer peppering him with bright-eyed, marginally relevant questions.

The only other man in the room was Rickles' man Harry Goins -- valet, personal assistant, keeper of the surprisingly delicate Rickles psyche -- who handed him a scotch as we talked.
Rickles turned to Harry and asked testily "Why scotch? Shouldn't this be a vodka night?"

I got the sense there was some deeply private communication going on. I could have pursued it with more bright-eyed questions of marginal relevance but I could see, already, that Rickles' sap was rising.

As he was getting closer to taking the stage, you could see him get progressively more keyed up. He was now at the stage where -- before a game -- football players just start smashing their shoulder pads against their lockers.

One of Goins' jobs was clearly to be Don Rickles' locker. It wasn't one of mine. The man who just 20 minutes ago was polite, articulate and generous as can be was getting into "character." In 20 more minutes, he'd be onstage at Melody Fair.


At that moment, Goins and I were the only ones in the room and the great raging bull of American club comedy was in the middle of full-blown metamorphosis. Soon, there would be that horrifying -- and shamefully funny -- moment where he'd pass by a woman in the front row, drop his microphone and yell "boy are you ugly." The terrible fact is that she was. The audience exploded. The woman felt ennobled.

She'd been, for just a second, part of Rickles' act.

I beat a tactical retreat from the trailer and watched his show with his then-manager Joe Scandore from the Melody Fair lighting booth.

Both Goins and Scandore are long dead.

But Rickles, at the age of 81, is not only still with us but still charging across the stage with the same sweat-spewing energy and bringing holy craziness and unholy truth to lives that are starved for both.

You can see him do it all through John Landis' documentary "Mr. Warmth -- The Don Rickles Project," the best thing I've seen on HBO since Tony Soprano took Meadow on a college trip to Maine.

You've got at least two more chances to watch or tape or DVR it (not to mention, of course, HBO on Demand) -- today at 4:30 p.m. and 10 a.m. on Thursday. I couldn't possibly urge you to do so more strongly.

You don't want to miss it. It is, at long last, a tribute to one of the greatest nightclub acts that ever was.

What you've seen of Rickles on Leno, Letterman or, especially, Carson, is a tiny fraction of what goes on when Rickles takes the stage. His act is hilarious -- and astonishing.

I saw Robin Williams at Los Angeles' Improvisation club when he was an act known only to other comics. His volcanic energy, insane explosions and onstage extremism, so help me, reminded me of no one as much as Rickles.

Rickles is the great uncle of comic extremists and boy do they ever all know it.

You'll see Williams paying tribute to Rickles in "Mr. Warmth." Richard Lewis puts Rickles, in his way, in the same category of extremist standup saints Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor because he's "fearlessly honest."

Harry Shearer talks about modern Vegas with its huge, effect-filled shows full of lighting effects and lions, tigers and Celines, oh my, and says, for sheer size, they're no match for the energy of one "driven, crazy" man named Don Rickles.

That's why as great and irreplaceable as "Mr. Warmth" is (where else will you see so much love for Rickles pour out of such people as Martin Scorsese and, yes, Sidney Poitier?) "Mr.
Warmth" itself can't replace what I hope to heaven exists in a vault somewhere -- a simple taped record of Rickles' act, from the opening bullfight trumpet call beckoning an audience full of toreros to Rickles' final musical protestation "I'm a nice guy," which, of course, everyone suspects or even knows or they'd never put up with his act for a second.

I hope someone accords Rickles the same treatment Pryor got in "Live on Sunset Strip" and "Richard Pryor Here and Now." He deserves it.

The "fearlessly honest" play off the audience and his own lines change from night to night, venue to venue, and that's where Rickles becomes the comic worshipped by comics half his age, who marvel at his freedom, verbal wildness and his uncompromised act.

It might be a scotch night. It might be a vodka night.

Only Harry Goins was ever sure which -- and he's watching Rickles now from the ultimate lighting booth. And waiting, up there, for the laughs to really begin.

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