A Long Ride

Last week, Don Rickles and his wife, Barbara, celebrated their 43rd anniversary.

He’s been married to Vegas even longer.

In fact, if the comedian can perform here in May of 2009, it will mark 50 consecutive years (unless anyone can prove otherwise) as a marquee name on the Strip.

Rickles says he’ll be there “if I’m not spitting up on your pants.”

But seriously, folks, the uninterrupted record would be something his friend Frank Sinatra never claimed, thanks to a false-alarm retirement in the early ’70s. Likewise Wayne Newton, who spent some of the ’90s in Branson, Mo.

“I take pride in that,” the comedian said by telephone recently. “There’s a lot of funny men out there, but in my age group, at 81 (he turns 82 on May 8), I’m still holding the flag.”

He sounds tired on the phone, but says, “When you go onstage, you get that extra adrenaline going. The energy comes up. The tough part at this stage of my career is the traveling. … The stage part is always fun.”

Rickles’ insult humor already drew a Hollywood following when the Sahara tapped him, at age 32, to rotate sets with Louis Prima, the biggest lounge star on the Strip.

He never looked back, closing down both the Desert Inn and Stardust in recent years. His audiences include both old-timers and their children in search of a genuine link to Rat Pack authenticity.

“I don’t want to be egotistical, but I never fell on my face, so to speak,” Rickles says of his long ride in show business. “I always did good in business, especially in Vegas, because high rollers always enjoy what I did. Don’t ask my why.”

But then he volunteers an answer anyway. “I represented a lot of the mob days, so to speak. They all came to see me.”

Times have changed, even if Rickles’ barrage of ethnic insults hasn’t. The new twist this weekend is performing at The Orleans, which take him a few miles off the Strip and into local slot club terrain.

But that’s fitting, too, since the past year brought some wider appreciation for the comedian. “Mr. Warmth — The Don Rickles Project,” debuted on HBO in December and is now on DVD.

The documentary, by director John Landis (“Animal House,” “The Blues Brothers”), included scenes of Rickles performing at the Stardust in September 2006.

Rickles and Landis go way back to the six-month shoot of “Kelly’s Heroes” in Yugoslavia. The 1970 comedy is still one of the comedian’s favorites — another is his 1958 screen debut alongside Clark Gable in “Run Silent, Run Deep” — and Landis was a runner on the set.

“He used to bring me coffee and cake,” Rickles recalls. When the two were reunited for the vampire comedy “Innocent Blood,” Rickles arrived for his first day of shooting and said, “John, before we do anything, I’d like some coffee, hot, and bring me two buns.”

“He said, ‘Oh, you’re gonna start that again.’ “

Last year also brought the memoir “Rickles’ Book,” and the comedian says a deal is pending for a sequel, “Rickles’ Letters.”

Most important to the younger generation is Rickles’ role as “the barker” for the new Toy Story Mania attraction, slated to open at Disney theme parks on both coasts this summer. His Mr. Potato Head will heckle people waiting in line.

“When a guy comes close I say, ‘Get out of the way. Get rid of that shirt. You look ridiculous.’ The guy (operating the controls) hits a button that makes him say that. My grandchildren went to see that and their eyes came out.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0288.

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