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Don Rickles and I met kind of randomly, sitting next to each other at a Greek restaurant about 20 years ago. It was interesting to be around him during that time. No one was really knocking at his door that much back then. Then the documentary Mr. Warmth came out, and people said, “Oh, he’s still alive? He’s the funniest man ever!” It was nice to be by his side and see all the accolades roll in from the young comics and actors. He’d call me and say, “Johnny Depp called me today!”
It was a very odd friendship. People were like, “Huh?” But we didn’t talk showbiz. It was more like family stuff. “Are you finding a good woman like my wife?” That kind of thing. I was always careful with slinging words like “second dad” around out of respect for his kids and family. And I had a dad, big fan of Rickles by the way, who passed away when I was around 40. Since my dad’s passing I’ve always gravitated to these type of father figures. It started with Jack Klugman, who was a mentor and second father to me.
Jimmy [Kimmel] broke down on the air the other day. I guess Howard Stern talked about it today, too. I knew Howard loved Don, but I couldn’t get him to go on Howard’s show. “I don’t want to go on there and talk about popping my wife!” Such a Don thing to say. I finally talked him into it. I set it up ahead of time: “Let me go in cold and say I’m dating a new girl and want to introduce her to everybody.” So I did that and Don came in. It was pretty magical interview. Howard stood up and took his glasses off and called him “Mr. Rickles.” They connected immediately on being dorky in school and having to win people over with their humor.
He was big on dinners. I would go to Vegas and watch the shows and hang out. We had an odd relationship, but we spent a good amount of time together. The first 10 years of our friendship we talked on the phone a lot, like two schoolgirls. He never got the concept of me not being there to answer the phone. If I didn’t call him back in 30 seconds, he’d call again. When people were around he’d rib me a lot. But when it was just the two of us, no not really. He loved going out to dinner and the dinners kept him alive in the last 10 or 15 years. His wife, Barbara, was great. She’d say, “Why are you bringing so-and-so?” Meaning some old showbiz crony. She’d say, “Yeah … let’s look toward the future. Who are your younger friends?” She liked that energy around Don, which I thought was pretty cool.
He’d razz me about girls, dating, about being Greek, but there was always that moment or two in the middle — he always wanted to sit next to me — and he’d whisper, “I love ya. I love ya, kid.”
Up until six months ago he was as sharp as he was when he was 50. I studied the guy. I used to talk to him about the mechanics of what he did. He didn’t want to talk about it or understand it. He was like an athlete. You just do it. For every insult that he slung over his 60 years in the business he said and did just as many nice things, too.
The thing that I love most about him is his love story with Barbara. You’d ask him, “How you doing?” He says, “Oh, we’re good.” You ask her, she says, “Oh, we’re good.” It was never “me” or “I.” It was always about the two of them.
He’d always get pissed at me because for his birthday I’d send him one rose for every year. Last year I sent him 90 roses. You’d think that he’d think that’s pretty special, but he got pretty pissed off at me. “What am I going to do with all these flowers? I have to call a gardener?!” Maybe he wanted to save me from sending him 91 roses.
There was a mischievous 7-year-old about him. He was getting away with stuff. Barbara didn’t want him to eat cookies. “John give me a cookie.” “John, don’t give him the cookie — he has diabetes.” And I’d sneak him a cookie under the table and he’d get so excited. Like a little kid. It was so wonderful to see that. Then Barbara would yell at me and I’d give him the check and we’d go home.
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