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Hero December 16, 2007

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, 1970s, Movies, Television.

I watched John Landis’ new documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project today, and it comes out on DVD this Tuesday with all sorts of extra interview footage.

It’s not so much a true documentary as much as a salute to Rickles as a living comic legend, and I certainly have no problem with that. I’ve always found the guy hilarious, and it was must-see TV whenever he would turn up on any television show unscripted, most often on Johnny Carson. While Rickles has a bank of various go-to lines and ethnic insults, he doesn’t tell jokes so much as play off the front row of his Vegas audience or Carson or whatever celebrities are on hand (something that always made his unscripted detours during any Dean Martin roast truly memorable – “Hey, there’s Dean’s new wife! She’s the one in the back in the cheerleading outfit yelling ‘ IS HE DEAD YET???'” and so on.)

Landis’ film shows us some of his stage act so that we can get the feel of it – working the crowd, recounting his career, inviting people on stage for a skit, a song or two, etc, and also gives us voluminous talking-head interview snippets with assorted actors and comedians who sing Don’s praises. Some of them are very interesting, some of them remind me how Landis tends to go overboard with celebrity cameos for their own sake (as in Into The Night), since while a lot of the people might have nice things to say, I’d rather hear longtime friends like Bob Newhart or Debbie Reynolds tell stories about the guy and hear more about the glory days of Vegas than listen to what John Stamos has to offer or put up with Robin Williams doing seemingly endless schtick.

There are some good clips of Rickles’ earlier work and some TV appearances, including the bit where Carson barged into a CPO Sharkey taping to complain about a broken cigarette box (with some embarrassing-for-2007 racial material excised), but I would have preferred more – more of the Dean Martin roasts, more of the Carson appearances, perhaps some clips of the SNL episode he hosted in the Piscopo years where he constantly went off script and Piscopo seemed like the only one willing to play along. I have heard through what little channels I have that Landis had trouble getting clips without paying through the nose for them, usually after being promised them gratis by Rickles’ friends and then slamming into the brick wall of some pinhead studio lawyer.

So, thank God for Youtube! Among the assortment of Letterman and Carson appearances of Rickles uploaded there, I also found this clip of Rowan & Martin, two other guys who occupy many cherished childhood TV memories for me, doing Don’s act for him at a Dean Martin roast:

While Landis’ film has some documentary shortcomings, its subject matter is to be treasured. It also makes a nice companion piece to Rickles’ autobiography, Rickles Book, which came out last spring and is an entertaining read. Lots of interesting material on Rickles’ early career and his family, as well as numerous showbiz stories, many of which involve Frank Sinatra and his wacky volatile temper tantrums. Definitely worth your while!



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