Don Rickles died Thursday at the age of 90, having worked in showbiz for many decades. Many celebrities have taken to social media to pay tribute to Mr. Warmth, as the insult comic was known, but one actor who has remained conspicuously quiet so far has been Norm MacDonald, who worked with Rickles on the 1998 comedy Dirty Work and has repeatedly called him “the funniest man ever” over the years.
With his trademark dry wit, MacDonald recalled the somewhat humiliating experience of meeting one of his comedy idols in his recent memoir Norm MacDonald: Based on a True Story, which has been excerpted below.
“They say you should never meet your heroes, and I guess they’re right, okay. At least that was the experience I had with one of the actors on Dirty Work. He didn’t disappoint me as an actor. He was brilliant in the film. No, this man disappointed me in a deeper way. He disappointed me as a human being. I’m speaking about Don Rickles,” MacDonald writes with a hint of admiring sarcasm.
The former SNL star and Weekend Update anchor was a huge fan of the insult comic and professed to know “just about every word from Toy Story, where he played Mr. Potato Head.” He also knew Rickles from his frequent appearances as Johnny Carson’s guest on The Tonight Show.
“When he visited Johnny, I must say, in all candor, I never found him funny. Johnny, a true gentleman, always kindly introduced Don as Mr. Warmth, and then Don would come out and, let’s just say, not live up to this nickname. Don would immediately begin in on poor Johnny, being boorish and, yes, I’ll say it, in some cases downright insulting. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of phony-baloneys. I like a man who is direct; I like a man who is honest and plainspoken. But there is a big difference between frankness and insults designed to hurt people. And somewhere along the way, I think, Don lost sight of that difference,” wrote MacDonald, tongue planted firmly in cheek.
After Norm thanked Rickles for agreeing to appear in Dirty Work, Rickles made a joke about him that prompted everyone in the makeup trailer to erupt with laughter. MacDonald said he swallowed his anger and offered to take Rickles out to dinner that night.
“I have a better idea, Norm. Why don’t you go to a shed in the desert with a rake and go BRAAAAAAP!!!!!!”
MacDonald wrote that he could feel himself shaking with rage as everyone laughed at him, but he held it together and agreed to take a raincheck. Before he left the trailer, he asked Rickles if there was anything else he could do to make his stay more comfortable.
“Actually, Norm, there is one thing you could do for me, if it’s not too much trouble, and I’d be forever grateful… I’d like you to get a monkey and an organ grinder and run around the room going, ‘I lost my sock, I lost my sock.'” Then Rickles pranced around the makeup trailer, pretending to look for a missing sock.
The rather harmless bit prompted MacDonald to well up, saying he “felt burning tears run down my cheeks, and I fled the makeup trailer. I took a nice long walk, trying to compose myself.”
When MacDonald stormed back inside the trailer to give Rickles a piece of his mind, the comic had none of it. “That’s great, Norm. Now, why don’t you take a train to Wyoming and milk a Clydesdale,” barked Rickles.
After that, it was clear to MacDonald that he wasn’t going to be able to have a genuine conversation with Rickles, who stuck to his insult comic shtick even when there were no cameras around.
“I don’t regret telling Don Rickles what so many were afraid to. I guess, looking back, my only hope is that one day Don will remember my words, reflect on his life, and make some really meaningful changes in the way he chooses to treat people, especially strangers who pay good money to see him in nightclubs and theaters.”
Of course, teasing hecklers was Rickles’ thing, and he made millions of others laugh while doing it. MacDonald may have received a chilly first reception from Mr. Warmth, but they seemed to patch things up over the years, with MacDonald speaking of Rickles with great reverence. After all, every Canadian has to appreciate a good “hockey puck” joke.
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief