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Here’s the story of how we became friends. I was performing at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas — this was maybe 1967 — and Don was playing the lounge at the Sahara. So my wife, Ginny, who knew Don’s wife, Barbara, says we should have dinner with them. Don’s first show was at midnight, so we didn’t have dinner until one in the morning. Afterward, Ginny and I are walking to the lounge to watch Don’s 3 a.m. show, and Ginny says to me, “Oh, he is just the sweetest man. He’s this wonderful family man.” And I said to Ginny, “Honey, his act is a little different maybe than you surmised from dinner.” So we go in and we’re in the very first row. And Don comes out and the first thing he says is, “There’s a stammering idiot from Chicago in the audience with his hooker wife from New Jersey.” Ginny’s face dropped, and I turned around and said, “I tried to tell you.”
But we became friends. He made me laugh and I made him laugh. Our wives got together and we’d go on vacation together and just have a great time. We never explored too much why the friendship worked — it just did. We had a sort of Jack Benny-George Burns kind of relationship.
I remember we were in Venice together, one of our favorite vacation spots. Don and I are standing by one of the canals. I wanted to get a copy of The New York Times international edition, so I went down to a newsstand and some people came up to me who recognized me from my TV show. So I talked to these people for a little bit and then went back to look for Don. He was hiding behind a pillar. He said, “You’re going to ruin the vacation if you’re going to talk to people. You can’t talk to everybody.” So I said, “OK, I won’t talk to anyone if you’re that concerned about it.” So then we go to Harry’s Bar and we’re sitting in a booth and the people in the booth next to us are speaking English. So Don leans over the booth and says, “Hey, where are you people from?” I was like, “I thought you said we shouldn’t talk to anyone?” That’s the kind of relationship we had.
He was called The Merchant of Venom, but the truth was he was just the kindest man. Don didn’t have a mean bone in his body. I think maybe that’s why he was able to survive even in the political correct era, which is amazing if you think about it. People knew it was an act, that he didn’t mean any of it. In the end, it was an honor to be picked on by him.
This story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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