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Don Rickles, who died Thursday, was still ‘Mr. Warmth’ well into his 80s

Legendary insult comic Don Rickles, who died Thursday at age 90.
Legendary insult comic Don Rickles, who died Thursday at age 90. Miami Herald File

Legendary insult comic Don Rickles died of kidney failure Thursday at age 90. Five years ago, he spoke with the Miami Herald before an appearance at Hard Rock Live near Hollywood:

Don Rickles says only a dummy would have been insulted by a wisecrack he made two weeks ago about Barack Obama.

“President Obama is a personal friend of mine. He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke,” Rickles said during a June 9 American Film Institute reception for Shirley MacLaine.

“Some jerk-offs got offended,” Rickles tells The Miami Herald. TV Land plans to cut the remark from its TV broadcast on Sunday night.

“I’m certainly not a bigoted man. My whole career has been about ethnic backgrounds,” says Rickles, 86, who performs Thursday at Hard Rock Live near Hollywood. “It was a flippant little remark. It was all my friends [at the dinner] and they were laughing their asses off.”

No different, Rickles says, than when he performed for 73-year-old President Ronald Reagan at his 1985 second inaugural. “I said, ‘Ronnie, snap out of it! I’m talking to you!’ Who does that kind of thing?”

Rickles began making a name for himself more than a half-century ago in Miami Beach. “I started in Florida. Murray Franklin’s [nightclub] opposite the Roney Plaza.” He also played the Deauville and Eden Roc hotels. “At the beginning, in the days of the wiseguys, I’d say, ‘Good evening.’ They’d say, ‘I’ll give you a good evening.’”

He’d travel with mom Etta, a typical stage mother. “She’d say, ‘Isn’t he wonderful?’ You know what her famous line was? ‘Why can’t you be like Alan King? Why do you have to pick on everyone?’”

Rickles also made movies (his first was “Run Silent, Run Deep,’ a 1958 film starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster) and appeared frequently on TV. “Over 100 appearances with Johnny Carson on ‘The Tonight Show.’ He’s the one who gave me the title, ‘Mr. Warmth.’ I’ve been using it ever since.”

Another well-known Rickles endearment: “You’re a hockey puck.”

“I said that in joints, instead of saying ‘You’re a jerk,’ ” Rickles says. “Now, I have hockey pucks in the house, in every room, in the toilet.”

Rickles is the king of insult humor, but he doesn’t like the word.

“An insult is something offensive,” he says. “I exaggerate. It’s attitude. I’m never mean-spirited. When you walk away, you never say, ‘That son of a bitch.’ A lot of people say, ‘I don’t think that’s funny.’ The big thing is to have the audience understand you and have you on their side.”

Married 47 years to wife Barbara, Rickles still works two to three weeks a month. “Mostly casinos. I still come from the Vegas world. Young people are starting to follow me,” he says. “I’m doing a lot of talk shows. David Letterman is a big booster of mine.”

These days, Rickles also performs virtually. He recently launched an iPhone app, Don Rickles’ Mr. Warmth. Tap on his animated head, and he says something funny. Or not: “Gay marriage is OK. Two guys love each other. Fine. As long as they don’t bother me.” Canned laughter follows.

Rickles is also on Twitter, posting two or three jokes a week. From June 15: “Hi Tweeters — I’ll be at the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Fla. June 21st providing they remove the boulder from the entrance.”

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