Don Rickles once called me a dummy.
One of the proudest moments of my life.
Being insulted by Don Rickles has been a badge of honor for presidents and pipefitters alike for over 60 years. No one within earshot with half a sense of humor was safe.
Long before celebrity roasts he was "Mr. Warmth," defining the art of the put-down, stretching propriety in more polite eras. Heating up the kitchen for abrasive comedians to come.
Mr. Rickles died Thursday at age 90 of kidney failure at his Los Angeles home.
He might joke that he'll be missed like a migraine headache. Like all of his prickly zingers, don't take it seriously.
Mr. Rickles kidded because he loved, making that plain at the end of each performance. In his 1960s heyday celebrities flocked to Mr. Rickles' act, jockeying for seats in his line of fire. He set up Frank Sinatra to look bad, for crying out loud. That's as bold as it got back then.
I grew up watching Mr. Rickles on television, usually jousting with talk show hosts like Johnny Carson and later on Dean Martin's seminal celebrity roasts. Parents then frowned on kids repeating insults like "dummy" and "you hockey puck" but didn't change the channel.
As I was growing up at the movies, Mr. Rickles was also a presence, a huckster in Beach Party movies and tormenting Ray Milland in X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes. Later, it was Kelly's Heroes and his memorable gaze at stolen gold bullion.
Later all of this came in handy.
"Gee, Steve, you really do know my career," Mr. Rickles said circa 1990, during our first telephone interview over the years. This was before he reclaimed his fame voicing Toy Story's Mr. Potato Head. He sounded surprised and a bit appreciative during a slow period.
The last time we spoke — when Mr. Rickles graced me with the "dummy" remark — was just over a year ago, advancing his 90th birthday tour with Regis Philbin at Ruth Eckerd Hall. That's where our paths crossed a few years after that first conversation, after the Toy Story comeback.
Backstage at Ruth Eckerd, I spotted a friend sitting in a dressing room. Popped my head inside to say hello and there's Mr. Rickles sitting in a tuxedo and bathrobe.
"What is this? Who is this guy? People just walk in my dressing room?" he roared, not as peeved as he sounded.
"Just saying hello to my friend Bobby," I said, introducing myself, holding out a hand to shake. "And you are....?"
"I'm Bobby's father!" Mr. Rickles shot back, grinning at a fellow joker, offering a seat.
For 15 minutes we talked about showbiz and comedy, my wife, Dianne, being a former standup. I'd seen some new animated feature that day and Toy Story 2 was coming soon, so Mr. Rickles grilled me about the competition. Legends never come any more genuine than Don Rickles.
After a while, Mr. Rickles excused himself to listen to his opening act singer. I asked if he'd step outside to meet Dianne, waiting in the hallway. "Of course," he said.
Before I could finish the introduction, Mr. Rickles' machine gun instincts kicked in:
"Dianne, I hear you're a standup comedian. Say something funny."
My wife was stunned to stammering.
"Oh, I'm laughing already!" Mr. Rickles snapped while turning away, leaving everyone in stitches again.
Rest in peace, hockey puck. And we mean that in the nicest way possible.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.