I was raised on ’70s television, the era of the guest star: The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, game shows, Love American Style, the Dean Martin celebrity roasts, Battle of the Network Stars, talk shows. There was no limit to the number of times per week a power television viewer could see Bert Convy.
Okay, maybe Bert Convy wasn’t must see television, but Don Rickles was. What was great about Rickles was that no matter the show he was going to be Rickles: brash, rude, loud-mouthed, and funny — very funny. Rickles was like a force of nature, a hurricane of insults blowing across the Tonight Show set and leaving Johnny a crying, laughing wreck. When it was all over and Rickles was the last man standing in the middle of the twisted wreckage, he’d pop off with something like, “The Mexican guy is saying ‘I clean this up now?'” Even in the less politically correct ’70s I was surprised by the things Rickles got away with.
Tales From the Crypt was a guest star vehicle, too. The show’s executive producers were some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters: Richard Donner, Walter Hill, Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, and David Giler. Talent lined up to work on Tales, some for a chance to show their skills to the big boys, others as a favor. Demi Moore did an episode. Arnold directed one. Sam Kinison, Iggy Pop, Jeffrey Tambor, Teri Hatcher — even Brad Pitt, sort of, but these are stories for another day. The point is that Tales was a guest star kind of show, and the greatest guest star of them all did an episode: Rickles.
He was co-starring in an episode directed by Richard Donner and co-starring Bobcat Goldthwaite, whose Donner connection was Scrooged. Bobcat was still sort of alternative cool at the time, so most of my flunky buddies on the set were excited about meeting him. For me, though, it was all about Rickles. We couldn’t have been any different. I was a long-haired 22-year-old kid with big round glasses and a motorcycle. Rickles was a short little bald man approaching 150 years old. My buddies couldn’t understand why I was jazzed about the old timer rather than the young, hip, Bobcat.
Speaking of motorcycles, I rode my bike whenever I could because I could get around LA faster. When every delivery is a rush, splitting lanes is a crucial time saver, and everything on Tales was a rush.
I once puttered past a Lamborghini stuck in the long row of cars trying to get up Santa Monica Boulevard. I puttered past the dozen cars in front of him, too, right up to the stop light and waited. When it turned green off I went, and a few seconds later I heard the whine of fine Italian craftsmanship closing quickly. The Lambo shot past me and slammed on its brakes at the back of the next line of cars waiting for the light to change. I puttered past him and and the 20 cars in front of him. We did this little dance all the way up Santa Monica, he growing more frustrated while I grew more amused.
Moral: A half million dollar supercar can’t outrun an $800 motorcycle on a crowded surface street.
So yeah, riding a bike saved a lot of time, and not wearing a helmet saved even more. I could get to the negative cutter’s or wherever, jump off my bike and make my drop, then be back on the road in a flash. With as many miles as I drove every day, I’m a little surprised I didn’t end up with my brains scrambled like Gary Busey’s, although my long hair always looked just about as insane.
One afternoon I crested the big ramp leading to the Tales set, and a black Lincoln Town Car was just pulling out. My buddy Scooter was driving and Rickles rode shotgun. When he saw me, he leaned in front of Scooter and waved at me furiously. I waved back, parked my motorcycle and went inside.
“Why do you look so amused?” the receptionist, asked me.
“The weirdest thing just happened. Rickles was leaving right as I was pulling up, and he waved at me.”
“That’s not weird,” Ana said. “He’s really nice.”
Later that day I was loitering near the craft service table and Rickles shuffled past. looking a bit confused. “Hey, do you need something?”
“Can you find me a cup of hot tea, please?” he asked. I did, he thanked me, and he shuffled off. He really was a sweet man.
That’s when I realized how Don Rickles got away with all of those insults that we found funny rather than offensive: We could see through the act. We knew Rickles the Man was a nice guy performing the character of Rickles the Insult Comic, and that’s what made it okay. Just a couple of small gestures that day changed the nickname Mr. Warmth from ironic to sincere in my estimation.
When I saw Scooter the next day, he pointed at me and laughed. “What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Rickles thought you were Bobcat Goldthwaite,” he said. I felt like a hockey puck.