The "insult comic" is synonymous with Don Rickles, who raised the mean-spirited stand-up approach to an art form. He's like a political-correctness-seeking missile. But as fellow comics explain in John Landis' documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, the surface level of Rickles' act is only half the story. First, the equal-opportunity racial epithets and sexual digs don't cut deep for most, and for a couple of reasons: one, they're invariably well-honed and funny, and two, they come from a psychologically knowing desire not to hurt but to entertain. After all, who doesn't want to be insulted by Don Rickles?
Dig a bit deeper with Landis, and the worst-kept secret about Rickles also gets play: the show-biz legend known for his cutting wit is as sweet as they come. A family man who doted on his mother, loves his wife of forty years Barbara, and enjoys nothing more than traveling with his best friends the Newharts, the sarcastically self-dubbed "Mr. Warmth" demonstrates, well, warmth. It extends to his mutually loyal support staff: music director Joe Mele, road manager Tony "O" Oppedisano, and manager Eliot Weisman.
Rickles, 80 at the time of filming, hasn't lost his sharpness or drawing power. Landis gets full access, including generous excerpts from Rickles' never-before-filmed Vegas nightclub act—filmed at the Golden Nugget and Caesar's Palace—which is appealing largely because of its old fashion (Rickles even does a paradoxically misguided and endearing musical salute to Jimmy Cagney—even Newhart concedes no one wants to see it). Extensive sit-down interviews yield plenty of funny stories. In the film's midsection, Landis intercuts sincere, semi-confessional passages from Rickles' act with talking-head personal narrative and family photos. Rickles' career on stage and in film is well represented with clips, including vintage Tonight Show footage.
The legend that is Rickles was largely started when he got away with making fun of Frank Sinatra. Sinatra loved Rickles, bringing him into a showbiz inner circle of which he's pretty much the last man standing. We also see Rickles heckling Ronald Reagan during his Inaugural Gala, buddy Clint Eastwood at his AFI Tribute, Billy Graham, Martin Scorsese, and so on. Landis, who worked as a PA on Kelly's Heroes and later directed Rickles in Innocent Blood, rather geekily relishes his insider status, and isn't concerned with documentary scrupulousness (he's not above faking a shot for a laugh). But if you can ignore the smugness, the likeable Landis gets the goods (for a more deep-cutting Landis doc, check out the exceptional, underlooked Slasher).
Landis gets most of the comedy world on record to praise Rickles: Bob Newhart, Joan Rivers, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, and Chris Rock, as well as some old-timers who remember when the mob ruled Vegas: Jack Carter, Steve Lawrence, and Martin Scorsese, among many others (Robert De Niro shows up, and Harry Dean Stanton plays along with a silly Landis bit, including a harmonica version of "Old Blue"). Though it certainly wouldn't serve any showbiz dissenters to participate in a lovefest like this, one can't help but think a few must be out there (frankly, I find on-camera particpant George Lopez at least as offensive, not least because he's a fraction as funny). Anyway, the dichotomy of Rickles' customary matador-theme entrance and tongue-in-cheek but true theme song "I'm a Nice Guy" captures Rickles' secret of success: you gotta love him.
Salient Media's welcome home-video special edition of Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project presents the film in a crisp, clean anamorphic widescreen transfer and stereo soundtrack. Disc Two comprises a priceless trove of outtakes and deleted scenes. Trust me, they're like crack: once you start, you won't be able to stop until you've exhausted the supply. Unfortunately, they're not encoded with a "Play All" feature. The clips are "US Comedy Arts Festival" (4:06), "Joan Rivers 'You're Right and They're Wrong'" (1:15), "Robin Williams Wishes Don a Happy Brithday" [sic] (:52), "Landis Directes De Niro" (1:04), "James Caan: Sonny Corleone Finds His Inner Rickles" (3:15), "Don Rickles: High Holy Days" (1:11), "Don Rickles: Anthony Quinn Story" (5:36), "Innocent Blood" (2:37), "Caesar's Palace Walk of Fame 2006" (2:05), "The Secret Life of Bobby Slayton" (:23), "Bob Newhart: Johnny Carson's Beach House" (:53), "Eliot Weisman at Sinatra's Funeral" (:44), "Joan Rivers 'Can't Talk That'" (:29), "Penn Jilette 'One Show Business'" (1:35), "Travels With the Newharts Part 2" (1:59), "Bob Newhart on Acting" (:55), "Don's Dressing Room at the Stardust" (:47), "The Copacabana" (11:01), "Don Rickles: Walter Winchell" (1:08), "Jack Carter 'Sophie Tucker, She Hated Everybody'" (:46), "Joan Rivers: Honest Don" (:46), "Whoopi Knows Hockey Puck" (1:27), "Don Rickles: Liberace Etta's Friend" (1:12), "Jeffrey Ross Gets It Quiet" (:14), "Chuck Williams" (:47), "James Caan" (5:04), "Don Rickles: Harrah's Lake Tahoe Cards" (:53). Any self-respecting comedy fan should order up this set, pronto.
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