Friday, July 25, 2014

42,014 Years of Moviemaking




When we’re not in the Moviehouse, we like to occupy a corner at the end of the bar in our favorite tavern, observing the tableau of human diversity. One group – congregating in stools at the polar opposite of our vantage point – has been dubbed the Q-tips, four or five white-haired gents who sit side-by-side with crossed arms and stare transfixed, as expressionless and silent as carved totems, at the TV suspended above the beer taps. It doesn’t matter that the volume on all the lofty televisions is muted in favor of piped-in satellite radio music, it doesn’t even matter that the Q-tips don’t bother with closed-captioning…Why be concerned with words when the flickering images are so fascinating?

Jean-Pierre Leaud, Jacqueline Bisset, Francois Truffaut in "Day for Night"
In the Moviehouse, this got us to thinking – What if this was rooted in a primeval visual instinct? Did our prehistoric ancestors once gaze into a fire with the same rapt attention we now give television and movie screens? In the Academy Award-winning 1973 film “Day for Night,” deemed by Roger Ebert “a poem in praise of making movies,” the film-within-the-film’s director (played, not coincidentally by “Day for Night” director and co-screenwriter Francois Truffaut) remarks, “I think people once stared at fires the way they do at television sets now. What’s more, I’ve a feeling that men and women have always needed, especially in the evening after a meal, to look at flickering images.”


Which brings us to the subject of prehistoric cave paintings. Marc Azéma (above), a French archaeologist and filmmaker, has spent more than two decades researching his theory of Stone Age “animation,” arguing that humankind’s cave artwork – starting in the Upper Paleolithic period (50,000 to 10,000 years ago) - was intended to depict movement in a kind of prehistoric cinema. Several cave panels include figures of animals with legs superimposed in three or more layers to suggest the fluidity of motion. Azéma, who affirmed that prehistoric humans designed their paintings to work together with the play of light and shadows provided by torches and create the impression of movement, produced a video that presented cave images in animated sequences. “Prehistoric man,” Azéma said, “foreshadowed one of the fundamental characteristics of visual perception, retinal persistence.”


Found in every continent except Antarctica, the earliest cave paintings, dating back approximately 40,000 years ago, were discovered in El Castillo Cave in Cantabria, Spain (above). The most consistent elements throughout rock art, besides tracings of human hands and abstract designs known as finger flutings, are paintings of large wild animals, among them bison, horses, deer, and aurochs (ancestors of domestic cattle). Depictions of human beings were rare and not as naturalistic as images of animals, almost as if representations of the human body were forbidden by religious taboos.


Evidence suggests that prehistoric paintings weren’t mere decorations of living rooms, if you will, since they were often located in niches not easily accessible, without signs of ongoing habitation. Although the exact purpose of the paintings will never be known, some theories do attribute a ceremonial if not religious significance to them. South African scholar David Lewis-Williams speculated that they were created by shamans after entering a trance state. Henri Breuil (below), an archaeologist-anthropologist-geologist-Catholic priest interpreted the paintings as hunting magic, intended to increase the size of herds.


Caves with prehistoric paintings were known and had been visited repeatedly throughout the centuries. In 1458, Pope Calixtus III, who was from Valencia, Spain, condemned his countrymen living in the northern mountains for performing rituals in the “cave with the horse pictures.” For most, the paintings were bewildering, unintelligible, even frightening. Church teachings failed to account for the paintings, nor could they be explained by contemporary sciences. If mentioned at all, they were dismissed as fakes or as graffiti left by occupying Roman soldiers.
 
A bison on the wall of the Cave of Altamira in northern Spain
The Cave of Altamira, in northern Spain on the Bay of Biscay, is where ancient paintings were first officially discovered in 1879, by amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who was subsequently accused of hiring contemporary artists to execute the paintings. It wasn’t until 1902 when the scientific community acknowledged the paintings’ authenticity.

Archaeologists discovered 6000-year-old cave drawings, possibly the oldest in North America, in Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau (below), among the Appalachian Mountains. Using pointed tools, ancient Native Americans depicted themselves alongside wild dogs, serpents, and other animals, as well as apparent celestial designs representing a spiritual understanding of the universe.


In the 1983 novel On a Pale Horse, the first book in science fiction author Piers Anthony’s “Incarnations of Immortality” series, protagonist Zane is guided into one of the Paleolithic caves of Lascaux in southwestern France by the ghost of Molly Malone (a fictional fishmonger from an Irish folk song). “As she spoke,” Anthony wrote, “the cave illuminated, as if from a flickering torch, and the walls glowed with assorted wild animals that seemed almost alive despite being crudely drawn. ‘It’s the glimmering light,’ Molly explained. ‘It changes what we see, so it is as if the paintings live. That is the genius of these artists.’ Most of them were equine or bovine, some overlapping other figures. Yet in the flame of the sandstone lamp, whose candle wick sent out as much smoke as light, these figures seemed to be a three-dimensional herd, the overlapping sketches showing not carelessness but the dimension of time.”

In the 2010 documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a 3D exploration of 32,000-year-old paintings in Chauvet Cave in south-central France, director Werner Herzog claimed that for Paleolithic people “the animals perhaps appeared moving, living…almost a form of proto-cinema…like frames in an animated film.” New York magazine’s David Edelstein unabashedly appreciated Herzog’s “nutty, ingenious thesis” that “the stick-figure paintings are a magical precursor to cinema.”

A bison in Chauvet Cave "runs" with multiple, overlapping legs.
Equally acclaimed for his feature films – particularly those starring Klaus Kinski, including “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Nosferatu,” and “Fitzcarraldo” - as for such documentaries as “Lessons of Darkness” and “Grizzly Man,” Werner Herzog is an accolade-laden director who emerged from the New German Cinema of the late 1960s into the 1980s to have Francois Truffaut hail him as “the most important film director alive,” and Roger Ebert proclaim, “Even his failures are spectacular.”

Prior to “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Herzog doubted the value of 3D in filmmaking. He had only seen one 3D movie (director James Cameron’s “Avatar”) and regarded the technology as “a gimmick of the commercial cinema.” That was, until he actually saw the Chauvet Cave and became convinced that 3D was essential to “capture the intentions of the painters,” who manipulated the stone walls’ bulges and contours in their art. Afterward, he said he had no plans to use 3D again.


Discovered in December 1994 by a trio of archaeologists, the 1300-foot long Chauvet Cave, named for one of the scientists, had remained untouched since a prehistoric landslide buried the natural entrance. Herzog (above), who narrates the documentary in pleasantly accented, mesmerizingly dulcet tones, declares, “This cave was pristine…perfectly sealed for tens of thousands of years…The cave is like a frozen flash of a moment in time.”

In fact, some of the overlapping cave paintings may be separated by thousands of years, prompting Herzog to remark, “We are locked in history and they are not.” He later observes, “It is as if the modern human soul had awakened here.”



To protect the cave’s almost sacred purity, Herzog and his small filming crew (above) had to observe several constrictions. (The famed Paleolithic caves of aforementioned Lascaux in southwestern France had to be closed to the public because the breath of scores of tourists caused mold to grow on the walls and endanger the paintings.) The filmmakers had to wear sterile boots, were confined to a two-foot wide steel walkway, and were forbidden to touch any part of the cave walls or floor. Herzog was permitted only six shooting days of four hours each.

One point made clear throughout the documentary is that humans never lived in the cave as an abode, using it solely for painting and for ceremonies. Onscreen, Jean-Michel Geneste, Director of the Chauvet Cave Research Project, mused about the use of torches: “The fire was necessary to look at the paintings and maybe towards staging people around. When you look with the flame, with moving light, you can imagine people dancing with the shadows…I think that this image of people dancing with this shadow is a very strong and old image of human representation…the white wall and the black shadow.”

Posing in front of the natural wonder of Pont d'Arc near Chauvet Cave,
Jean-Michel Geneste remarked, "With the invention of the figuration...of
animals, of men...it's a way of communication between humans and with the
future to evocate the past, to transmit information...better than language."
The filmmakers and accompanying scientists shared a feeling of spirituality. Herzog intoned, “Sometimes we were overcome by a strange, irrational sensation, as if we were disturbing the Paleolithic people in their work. It felt like eyes upon us.” In one of the movie’s most unforgettable moments, the crew is suddenly asked to stand still and say nothing. “We’re going to listen to the silence in the cave and perhaps we can even hear our own heartbeats.” For the viewer, the result is deeply solemn and humbling.

A large part of the spirituality of "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is provided by
the haunting music score, composed by Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger (
above), 
an undeniably eccrentic but extraordinarily talented musician who collaborated
on the soundtrack with avant-garde jazz flutist Sean Bergin, keyboardist Harmen
Fraanje, and the four-women, four-men Netherlands Chamber Choir.
One of the more charismatic scientists who worked with Werner Herzog on “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” was Julien Monney, a young, ponytailed French circus unicyclist-turned-archaeologist. In the documentary, Monney mentioned his admiration of the continuing tradition of Aboriginal cave paintings in Australia. Indigenous Australian art remains the oldest, unbroken tradition in the world, from representations of extinct megafauna such as Genyornis (six-foot tall, flightless, scavenging birds) and Thylacoleo (lion-sized, carnivorous marsupials) to depictions of recent historical events like the first arrival of European ships.


The image of a tribal elder painting the underside of an overhanging rock in the Australian bush opens the 1977 film “The Last Wave,” directed by Peter Weir and starring Richard Chamberlain as a corporate tax attorney whose orderly life unravels when he is assigned to defend five urban Aboriginals accused of murdering another Aboriginal, prompting foreboding premonitions. Director Peter Weir established an impressive presence in the Australian New Wave of cinema in the mid-1970s with “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” “Gallipoli” (featuring a relatively unknown 25-year-old Mel Gibson), and this film, before achieving American and international success with such films as “Witness,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Green Card,” “The Truman Show,” and “Master and Commander.”

David Gulpilil instructs Richard Chamberlain, "The law is more important
than the man," in "The Last Wave" (1977). Director Peter Wier said that the
movie poses the question, "What if someone with a very pragmatic approach
to life experienced a premonition?"
In the pivotal role of the most verbal of the accused, David Gulpilil serves as Chamberlain’s alter ego, helping him understand the difference between daily waking activity and “Dreamtime,” a spiritual cycle more real to Aboriginals than reality itself. Gulpilil explains dreams as “the way of knowing things…a shadow of something real.” An indigenous Australian actor and traditional dancer, Gulpilil enjoyed a breakout role at age 16 in 1971’s “Walkabout,” directed by Nicolas Roeg, and went on to appear in several Australian-based movies, including “Crocodile Dundee.” “The Proposition,” and “Mad Dog Morgan,” with Dennis Hopper as a real-life 19th-century bushranger whose trigger-happy infamy was ended by a bullet in the back in 1865.

A thunderstorm erupts and hail descends from a cloudless sky, deluges bring downpours of frogs and black tar, and unseasonable cyclones in the South Pacific are reported, while Chamberlain suffers from insomnia and has visions of downtown Sidney submerged like Atlantis. Brian Trenchard-Smith, an Australian director (“Dead End Drive-In,” “Leprechaun 4: In Space”) who worked on “The Last Wave” as a promotional consultant, called this “a separate world, Peter Weir’s world, the theater of unease, where the normal is revealed to be slightly askew.”


“The Last Wave” is the only screen appearance by Northern Australian tribal magistrate Nandjiwarra Amagula, as Charlie (above), a mystical shaman who’s convinced that Chamberlain is from a race of otherworldly spirits called Mulkurul, a tribe with incredible premonitory powers who appear when nature has to renew itself in a cataclysmic rebirth.


Richard Chamberlain discovers talismanic paintings and carvings, including
a primitive death mask with an unmistakable resemblance to Chamberlain.
Chamberlain ultimately finds his answers beneath the city in an antediluvian cavern adorned with ancient paintings and a prophetic calendar. Occasionally frustratingly enigmatic but always fascinating, the film, in the words of Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat on the multi-faith website Spirituality & Practice, “is indirectly a very religious statement that is both a mind breaker and a soul shaker.”

Storm-beset hikers in the prologue of "One Million B.C." include Carole Landis
and Victor Mature, who also play Stone Age lovers Loana and Tumac.
Prehistoric cave paintings set the stage for 1940’s  “One Million B.C.,” produced by Hal Roach, who also co-directed this charming chestnut with his son, Hal Roach Jr.  The senior Roach was best known for producing numerous comedy shorts in the 1920s and ‘30s featuring Laurel and Hardy, and Our Gang (later The Little Rascals). Somewhere in some European mountains, a thunderstorm forces a group of hikers – costumed in quaint lederhosen and feather-crested Alpine hats – to seek refuge in a handy cave, where they discover a quirky anthropologist who interprets the (as colloquially dubbed by The New York Times reviewer at the time) “caveman hieroglyphics” in a tale of Tumac (played by 27-year-old Victor Mature, the future star of the biblical spectacles “Samson and Delilah” and “The Robe”), the loutish, but incredibly clean-shaven youth abandoned by the brutish, meat-eating Rock People. Tumac subsequently encounters the fish-eating Shell People, a gentle commune that teaches the perplexed, slack-jawed castaway sharing, singing, and laughter.

Costars Carole Landis and Victor Mature clown around on the set of "One Million B.C."
The abovementioned New York Times critic, Benjamin Crisler, singled out Victor Mature as “a newcomer who is perhaps lucky that his first assignment is in a very immature picture.” Crisler gleefully extolled “One Million B.C.” as “such a happy confusion of geological epochs, such a delightfully irresponsible overlapping of Paleolithic...and Hollywood…the most delightfully amusing tableau from a museum of unnatural history in the history of the cinema.”

Sadly, Hal Roach Jr. died at age 53 in 1972, while his dad outlived him by two decades, dying two months before his 101st birthday in 1992. The elder Roach’s final contribution to cinema was as an associate producer for the 1966 remake of his 1940 curio, with the expanded title “One Million Years B.C.” Released four months after “Fantastic Voyage” featured Raquel Welch as a miniaturized surgeon’s assistant in a skintight wetsuit attacked by clinging antibodies, “One Million Years B.C.” established the voluptuous starlet as an international sex symbol, thanks to a random publicity snapshot of the actress in a scanty fur bikini as Loana, the Shell People’s “Fair One,” which became a bestselling poster.


That poster remains better known than the film itself (in 2011, Time magazine ranked Raquel’s provocative prehistoric apparel among the “Top Ten Bikinis in Pop Culture”), although mention should be made of British actor John Richardson’s surprisingly nuanced performance as the primitive Rock People exile, Tumac. Classically handsome with piercing blue eyes, Richardson had starred in director Mario Bava’s hallucinatory 1960 horror opus “Black Sunday” and portrayed a reincarnated high priest in the umpteenth screen adaptation of Sir H. Rider Haggard’s 19th-century fantasy adventure She, starring Ursula Andress, in 1965.  Once seriously considered as a successor to Sean Connery as James Bond, Richardson ultimately gave up acting to pursue his lifelong passion of photography.

Tumac (John Richardson) seems baffled by the Shell People's
artistic expressions in "One Million Years B.C."
In “One Million Years B.C.,” you can tell the Shell People are the more advanced tribe because their children have courses in cave painting, administered by the gentle tribe’s mellow elder in a prehistoric classroom.


Cave paintings provide a backdrop for the opening titles of “The Clan of the Cave Bear” but do not figure at all in the film, which may or may not be attributed to the historical assumption that Neanderthals did not express themselves artistically. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name – the first in author Jean M. Auel’s six-book “Earth Children” series – the story of an orphaned Cro-Magnon girl (improbably portrayed by “Baywatch” babe Nicole Eggert as an adolescent and by Disney’s topless “Splash” mermaid Daryl Hannah as an adult) and her trials and tribulations when she is taken in by a wandering clan of less-advanced Neanderthals is nothing more than a stacked-deck saga of female empowerment in a historically inaccurate depiction of a dominantly patriarchal society. The truth is that anthropological evidence suggests that most prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies were sexually egalitarian, and some scholars assert that it wasn’t until 4000 B.C. when the concept of patriarchy took hold and spread.


Leonard Maltin dismissed “The Clan of the Cave Bear” as the “world’s first feminist caveman movie,” and Janet Maslin of The New York Times dubbed Daryl Hannah “history’s first free-thinking woman warrior.” Roger Ebert, who observed that the film was set in “a distant past…hardly less idealistic than the Garden of Eden,” noted, “Instead of people who are scarred, wind-burned, thin and toothless, it gives us graduates of the Los Angeles health club scene and a heroine who looks as if she just walked over from makeup.” Utilizing “pseudo-anthropology crossed with Indian folklore and the Boy Scouts,” the picture, according to Ebert, “is about the first generation of designer cavemen.”

“The story (such as it is),” Leonard Maltin remarked, “is alternately boring and unintentionally funny,” while Janet Maslin wrote, “What it doesn’t have is much momentum or originality.” Because “The Clan of the Cave Bear” tanked in the box office, plans for an immediate sequel were abandoned.

Curtis Armstrong (best known as Booger in the "Revenge of the Nerd" films)
and James Remar as Neanderthals in "The Clan of the Cave Bear"
On the plus side, the picture was nominated for a Best Makeup Oscar, thanks to Neanderthal prosthetics co-created by Michael Westmore, a third-generation artist from a famed Hollywood dynasty. Grandfather George Westmore created the first studio makeup department, father Monte Westmore was the makeup artist for “Gone With the Wind,” and uncle Bud Westmore worked on “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

When it comes to authentic Stone Age makeup, apparently nobody gave a hoot in the 2008 production “10,000 BC,” a dizzying, idiotic jumble of prehistory, anthropology, archaeology, zoology, and geography: the no-brainchild of co-writer-co-producer-director Roland Emmerich, an addle-brained filmmaker who usually delights in cinematically decimating iconic American landmarks (see “Independence Day,” the God-awful “Godzilla” remake from 1988, “The Day After Tomorrow,” “White House Down”).

Preposterous prehistoric lovers D'Leh (played by former fashion model and
aspiring singer Steven Strait) and Evolet (Camilla Belle) in "10,000 BC"
Emmerich once mentioned books by Robert E. Howard (creator of the pulp sword-and-sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian) as a major influence for the setting of “10,000 BC,” as well as his appreciation of the 1981 film “Quest for Fire.” Besides borrowing from “Braveheart,” “Gladiator,” “Apocalypto,” and “Troy,” “10,000 BC” is, at its core, a retooling of John Ford’s classic western ‘The Searchers” in its depiction of a mammoth hunter’s relentless trek to rescue his blue-eyed beloved from the clutches of savage abductors – raiders on horseback called “Four Legged Demons” - who, not coincidentally, seem to be made up of unmistakably Iranian-Arabian types.

Despite random appearances by computer-animated megafauna – woolly mammoths, giant carnivorous ostriches, and an adorable sabertooth pussycat right out of Aesop’s “The Lion and the Mouse” fable – the film basically features, in the words of A.V. Club critic Keith Phipps, “a whole lot of walking around.” (“There are home movies of toddlers,” Phipps wrote, “that place less emphasis on walking.”) The “stupidly dull” journey takes our hero across snowy steppes, a tropical jungle, and desert sands, “environments that apparently exist within a few days’ march of each other,” according to Phipps. Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers, who called the picture a “gargantuan gasbag of an epic” and “prehistory for peabrains,” determined the “best acting comes from digital creatures.”

D'Leh (rhymes with "delay") speaks to the Spear Tooth.
By the way, in keeping with our theme, “10,000 BC” features stone paintings, as a crucial plot point when an African tribal elder (don’t ask) explains how the Four Legged Demons take their captives “to the nest of the great birds and fly away over the sand to the mountain of the gods.” The centerpiece of the “prehistoric” art is described thus: “We have a telling that one day the one will come who will free our people – the one who speaks to the Spear Tooth.”


A series of cute cave paintings (above) introduces 2013’s “The Croods,” a charming and touching computer-animated comedy from DreamWorks Studios, featuring the voices of Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, and Cloris Leachman. While their Stone Age neighbors came to unfortunate ends, so the opening narration tells us, “The Croods made it, because of my dad. He was strong, and he followed the rules. The ones painted on the cave walls. Anything new is bad, curiosity is bad. Going out at night is bad. Basically, anything fun is bad.”


Originally titled “Crood Awakenings” and loosely based on a story idea by John Cleese and co-director Kirk DeMicco, the film centers on a prehistoric family with a free-spirited daughter whose infatuation with an inventive stranger leads them all on a surprising adventure in a bizarre new world filled with fantastical flora and fauna, including piranha birds and a colorful saber-toothed creature the filmmakers dubbed Macawnivore and Gran (Leachman) calls “Chunky the Death Cat.”


Beneath the laughs and wonder, “The Croods” has a big heart, probably no more effectively on display than in a poignant scene that finds the family patriarch, Grug (Nicolas Cage), separated from his family and trapped in a cave, where, in the lonely light of a flickering torch, he creates a family portrait on the stone wall (above). In its own modest fashion, this fleeting moment of inspired animation brings us back, full circle, to the remarkable documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and the words of The Washington Post reviewer Ann Hornaday: “Transcendent, provocative and deeply humbling, ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ is a wonderful film, in the most literal sense of that word. It inspires not just delight and awe, but profound gratitude.”


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Standup or Sitcom



"I'm so thrilled as I look around the room that I'm the biggest name here."
- Don Rickles
Did you catch the broadcast of “One Night Only: An All-Star Comedy Tribute to Don Rickles” on Spike TV? Taped a couple of nights before Rickles’ May 8 birthday, the extravaganza paraded a host of luminaries across the stage of New York City’s famed Apollo Theater to honor the 88-year-old comedian: Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Regis Philbin, Brian Williams, Tracy Morgan, Johnny Depp (who aptly admitted, “I don’t know why I’m here”), Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (whose awkward attempt at comic repartee elicited as many uncomfortable squirms as his performance in “The King of Comedy”), and surefire showstoppers Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Funny taped segments were sent in by Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Jimmy Kimmel, Ray Romano with Brad Garrett, and Bob Newhart, Rickles’ best friend of several years.

The fact that the event was airing on the Spike television network was the source of several droll barbs by the guests, including Tina Fey, who told Rickles, “What an honor this must be for you to have your birthday celebrated on Spike TV, just knowing that this will air between ‘Tattoo Nightmares’ and ‘The Hunt for Bigfoot.’ It’s what your mother dreamed of in the shtetl.”


The genuine highlights of the evening were hilarious clips of Don Rickles at his unleashed best, including appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” (he appeared on “The Tonight Show,” either as Carson’s guest or as a guest-host, more than 100 times), on “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast” specials, and at President Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural ball in 1985, which he considers the highlight of his career.
 
Don Rickles shares a laugh with "The Tonight Show" guest host Frank Sinatra.
Don Rickles was fittingly described as a “national treasure” and a “living legend,” in truth, an extant link to the cuckoo ring-a-ding heyday of the Rat Pack vis-à-vis his friendship with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Jerry Seinfeld loftily included Rickles on his “Mount Rushmore of standup comedy,” alongside Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Bill Cosby, while David Letterman offered a more down-to-earth perspective: “Don Rickles makes life more fun!”
 
U.S. Navy Seaman First Class Donald Rickles
poses beside his hero, proud pop Joseph Rickles.
In the Moviehouse, however, what this is not about is Don Rickles’ infamy as “Mr. Warmth” and “The Merchant of Venom.” Truth be told, Don Rickles originally wanted to be an actor. In 1948, two years after being honorably discharged from the Navy, he enrolled at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.


He made his big screen debut as Navy Quartermaster First Class Ruby in the World War II drama “Run Silent, Run Deep” (1958) starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster as contentious submarine commanders. Frank Gorshin (best known for his manic portrayal of Gotham City menace The Riddler in the campy ‘60s TV series “Batman”) was originally slated for the role of Ruby but refused to fly to the screen test, opting to drive instead, only to end up in a traffic accident. Four days later, the hospitalized Gorshin discovered his role went to Don Rickles.
 
Don Rickles (right) tries not to upstage costars Burt Lancaster
and Clark Gable in "Run Silent, Run Deep" (1958).
“My nervous-seaman portrayal turned out to be realistic,” Rickles recalled in his 2007 memoir, Rickles’ Book. “I was afraid I’d forget my lines, so I hid them under my pillow in the submarine bunk so I could keep stealing peeks.” He remembered that his character was scared of getting blown up, “I was scared of drawing a blank. It amounted to the same thing.” The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther singled out Jack Warden, Don Rickles, and Joe Maross as “shipshape members of the crew.” The movie “proved to be a hit,” Rickles recalled. “I thought Hollywood was mine. That’s the kind of dummy I was.”

(It was frustration over the lack of acting gigs that led to Rickles touring the Borscht Belt of hotels and resorts in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York as a comedian. His reputation as an insult comic was built on a knee-jerk reaction to hecklers in the audience.)
 
Don Rickles and Ray Milland in "X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes" (1963)
In 1963, Rickles delivered an effectively nuanced performance as an avaricious carnival barker in the low-budget drive-in classic “X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes,” starring former Hollywood A-lister Ray Milland. “Some see it as an early masterpiece from director Roger Corman,” Rickles wrote in his memoir. “I saw it as a way to get to know Milland, an icon from the classic films of the forties and fifties. Milland was a classy guy.”
 
From 1964's "Muscle Beach Party," Don Rickles poses beside actor Rock Stevens
(better known as Peter Lupus, who costarred as Willy in the popular 1960s series
"Mission: Impossible" but is more beloved in the Moviehouse for his recurring role
in the cult 1982 comedy series "Police Squad!" as dimwitted Detective Norberg)
During the mid-1960s, Don Rickles, whose agent at the time was Jack Gilardi, Annette Funicello’s husband, found himself cast in a string of Annette-Frankie Avalon beach comedies: “Muscle Beach Party” (as bodybuilding trainer Jack Fanny), “Bikini Beach” (as Big Drag), “Pajama Party” (as Big Bang) and “Beach Blanket Bingo” (as Big Drop). “Back in the sixties,” Rickles observed in his autobiography, “beach flicks were America’s last gasp at innocence – before the protesters, the hippies and the whole counterculture thing. Besides, they’d shoot the entire picture in a couple of weeks…Not bad for great art.”  Rickles summed it up, “I played the schlub who didn’t understand the kids. I was the grumpy heavy. I got the laughs.”

Years later, at a state dinner in the White House, First Lady Barbara Bush complimented Rickles for his performance in “Run Silent, Run Deep,” adding, “But there’s one question I’ve always wanted to ask you, Don…Were things so bad that you had to do ‘Bikini Beach’ and ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’?”

Besides appearing in a number of dramatic series – including “The Twilight Zone,” “Wagon Train,” “The Wild Wild West,” “I Spy,” and “Run for Your Life” (which featured Rickles as a washed-up comedian who strangles a heckler) – there “was hardly a sixties sitcom I didn’t do,” he admitted in Rickles’ Book.
 
Frank Sutton (as Sgt. Carter) and Don Rickles compare
war stories on a 1965 episode of "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C."
Recalling his appearance in 1965 on "The Andy Griffith Show," Don Rickles
wrote, "Don (Knotts') famous shakes cracked me up...
I couldn't do my lines, I was laughing too hard."
Probably not his proudest moment as an actor...Don Rickles portrays renegade
Indian Bald Eagle in a 1965 episode of "F Troop," a corny, slapstick sitcom
that could never be accused of political correctness in its depiction of
Native Americans. The show's writers orginally intended the Hekawi tribe
to be called the Fugawi (until network censors recalled the old "Where the
Fugawi?" joke). Playing on the myth that American Indians are actually
the 13th tribe of Israel, several members of the Hekawi were portrayed by
veteran Borscht Belt comedians utilizing classic Yiddish shtick.
Don Rickles poses with Don Adams in a publicity photo for a 1968 episode
of "Get Smart." In Rickles' Book, Rickles observed, "Certain guys I loved.
Certain guys I'll always love. Don Adams was one of those guys."  
The American sitcom was born on radio in the late 1920s and 1930s. Early favorites included “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” a continuation of stage vaudeville traditions, as well as “The Jack Benny Show” and “Blondie,” based on the newspaper comic strip. The earliest television situation comedies in the late 1940s were extensions of popular radio programs, like the aforementioned “The Jack Benny Show” and “The Burns and Allen Show.”

(Left) Jack Benny and guest Marilyn Monroe on "The Jack Benny Show";
(
right) Gracie Allen and George Burns in "The Burns and Allen Show"
From the 1970s and beyond, the convention of throwing a standup comic into a situation comedy worked for a number of performers, among them Bob Newhart, Gabe Kaplan, Robin Williams, Bill Cosby, Roseanne Barr, Garry Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Ray Romano, Kevin James, and Sarah Silverman. “However,” according to comedian and internet freelance writer Ramsey Ess, “this doesn’t work for everybody. For every massive hit starring a standup there are dozens that are canceled halfway through their first season.”

Although"Welcome Back, Kotter" (above) was a popular series for four seasons
(from 1975 to 1979) and made John Travolta a breakout star, Gabe Kaplan never
really looked comfortable as an actor. Years later, Kaplan seemed more at home
as a professional poker player and cohost of televised poker tournaments.
When it came to molding a sitcom to fit Don Rickles’ singular persona, the comedian once told a television producer, “My kind of humor is hard to put in a script. My voice isn’t easy to write for. I make it up as I go along. I never know what I’m going to say next. I’m best when I go out there cold. You can’t do that in a sitcom.”

Don Rickles cracks up guest Lorne Greene on the first "The Don Rickles Show."
Nevertheless, in 1972, four years after “The Don Rickles Show” - a variety program pairing Rickles’ putdown patter with the skewed comedy of six-foot seven-inch sidekick Pat McCormick – lasted all of one season, he was cast in a situation comedy coincidentally called “The Don Rickles Show,” starring as an acerbic advertising executive. According to Ramsey Ess, “Sitcom wife Louise Sorel continutes the tradition of the young, attractive female…married to the older, not classically good-looking male…” Erin Moran, best known as Joanie Cunningham on “Happy Days,” portrayed the couple’s daughter.

Network TV tries to domesticate Don Rickles in the second
"The Don Rickles Show," costarring Louise Sorel.
Each episode began with the star warming up the studio audience, seated in bleachers. “They’re calling it ‘The Don Rickles Show,’” he would say. “Know why? If anything goes wrong, I get the blame.” In Rickles’ Book, he wrote, “Long story short: In 1972, ‘The Don Rickles Show’ hits the airwaves. Long story even shorter: In 1972, ‘The Don Rickles Show’ is canceled. Two years later, a certified public accountant starts up his own sitcom. Ever hear of ‘The Bob Newhart Show’?”

Don Rickles was certainly not alone among standup comics who marched to the rimshot of a different drummer and found themselves courted by network suits for an ill-fitting sitcom. Phyllis Diller was a housewife with five children who started her comedy career in the mid-1950s as the host of a 15-minute program on local Oakland, California, television, appropriately titled “The Homely Friendmaker,” leading to her enduring persona of a cynical, tousle-haired hausfrau in a frumpy housedress, a characterization that predated Roseanne Barr’s depiction of a working-class “domestic goddess” by three decades.


“The Pruitts of Southampton” (aka “The Phyllis Diller Show”) was an attempt in 1966 to transform the star into a TV comedienne like Lucille Ball. The weak premise flip-flopped the setup behind “The Beverly Hillbillies,” depicting an incredibly wealthy family suddenly cleaned out by the IRS who vainly struggle to maintain their grandiose lifestyle in a posh Long Island neighborhood. The series lasted one season.

"Saving Grace" star Brett Butler poses with costar Dave Thomas.
Brett Butler, a Montgomery, Alabama-born standup comic who started out on television as a performer and writer on Dolly Parton’s shortlived 1987 variety series “Dolly,” was cast in 1993 as a redneck version of Roseanne’s blue-collar “domestic goddess” in the ABC series “Grace Under Fire,” playing a recovering alcoholic and single mother raising three children in a small Missouri town.  Although the sitcom was initially highly rated, productions eventually suffered from Butler’s contentious and erratic behavior, stemming from substance abuse and sojourns in and out of rehab, until ultimately, she was dismissed from the show in the fifth season.


The year 1994 saw the premiere of “All-American Girl,” a sitcom inspired by the standup routines of Margaret Cho (above), who co-created the series and starred as an American woman at odds with her traditional Korean parents. Cho, an outspoken supporter of women’s rights and LGBT rights who was born into a Korean family in San Francisco, bases much of her comedy material on hot-button topics concerning racism and sexuality.

Criticized by a network executive for her round face, Cho shed weight so rapidly that her kidneys failed. While the American-Asian community protested the series’ racial stereotyping, Cho was variously told by producers that she was “too Asian” and “not Asian enough.” Despite the presence of A-list guest stars Oprah Winfrey, Quentin Tarantino (whom Cho briefly dated), and, among others, Jack Black, “All-American Girl” was canceled after 19 episodes. Cho subsequently became addicted to drugs and alcohol, culminating in a drunken performance at a Louisiana college where she was booed off the stage. In 2008, she starred in the shortlived reality show-sitcom hybrid “The Cho Show” on VH1, featuring her real-life, scene-stealing parents.

Undoubtedly one of the most controversial female insult comics, Lisa Lampanelli once worked as a journalist for Hit Parader, as a copy editor at Popular Mechanics magazine, and as an assistant editor at Rolling Stone magazine. She was a fact checker and chief of research at Spy magazine before starting her career as a standup. She would explain she abandoned journalism for comedy for the pay raise and because “I get to say the n-word on stage.” Her profanity-riddled material, slurring minorities, celebrities, and homosexuals (although she, like Margaret Cho, avidly supports the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community), earned her the nickname “Queen of Mean.”


A boisterous, foul-mouthed fixture on Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts, Lisa Lampanelli, along with Blue Collar Comedy Tour buddies Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, and Larry the Cable Guy, as well as Dave Thomas (who costarred with Brett Butler on “Grace Under Fire”) and Samantha Bee (best known as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”), provided her voice for the 2013 not-for-kids animated series “Bounty Hunters” on the CMT (Country Music Television) network.

The cast of the second "The Jeff Foxworthy Show": G.W. Bailey, Foxworthy,
Jonathan Lipnicki (best known as the annoyingly precocious son of Renee
Zellweger in "Jerry Maguire"), Ann Cusack, older sister of actors Joan
and John Cusack, and (in the tire swing) Haley Joel Osment
Speaking of Jeff Foxworthy, two different networks tried to adapt his standup persona to consecutive sitcoms, both called “The Jeff Foxworthy Show.” The first “Jeff Foxworthy Show,” which tried to de-redneck-tify the comedian by setting the show in Bloomington, Indiana, premiered on ABC in 1995 and was promptly canceled after one season. In 1996, NBC picked up “The Jeff Foxworthy Show” and relocated the setting to a fictional town in Georgia, jettisoning all the original costars except for Haley Joel Osment (“The Sixth Sense”), who continued his role as Foxworthy’s son, and adding Bill Engvall. The revamped series was canceled after a single season. Foxworthy had better luck on TV hosting the game shows “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”, “The American Bible Challenge,” and “The American Baking Competition.”

Probably one of the unlikeliest of subjects for a sitcom, Andy Kaufman disliked being labeled a comedian, preferring instead “song-and-dance man,” although he could have been best described as a performance artist – eschewing the jokes and anecdotes of traditional comedy in favor of ruses, pranks, and deadpan routines that twisted definitions of humor and tested audience acceptance.


The producers of the hit TV sitcom “Taxi” (1978-1982) must have noticed something special in Kaufman when he was cast as the garage mechanic, Latka Gavras (above), a gentle, lovable, but odd immigrant from an undefined Eastern European country (inspired by Kaufman’s stage character “Foreign Man”). Kaufman grew weary of the wide-eyed, babe-in-the-woods gag, and, feeling he had lost creative control of the character, pressed the show’s writers to give Latka a multiple personality disorder, leading to his persona as the smooth-talking, chauvinistic lounge lizard called Vic Ferrari.

Another comedian who challenged audiences and perplexed network suits, Chris Elliott, the son of Bob Elliott (from the famous radio-television comedy team Bob and Ray), first came to light in the mid-1980s as a writer on NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman.” He frequently appeared on-camera in various quirky cameos: “The Guy Under the Seats,” “The Fugitive Guy,” “The Conspiracy Guy,” “The Panicky Guy,” and, among others, “Marlon Brando.”

Real-life father and son Bob Elliott and Chris Elliott costar in "Get a Life."
For two seasons, from 1990 to 1992, Elliott starred in the Fox sitcom “Get a Life,” playing a 30-year-old paperboy who lives in an apartment above his parents’ garage. Dad and mom were portrayed by real-life pop Bob Elliott and Elinor Donahue (a sitcom veteran of “Father Knows Best,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” and “The Odd Couple”). A number of Fox muckety-mucks regarded Chris’ character as insane and disdained the series as too disturbing (Elliott would be repeatedly killed during the series) but allowed the show to continue.


Even more off-the-wall was Chris Elliott’s starring role as U.S. Marshal Monsanto in “Eagleheart” (above), which aired in 15-minute episodes on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim from 2011 to 2014. Produced by Conan O’Brien’s production company, Conaco, the outrageous parody of prime-time fodder like “Walker, Texas Ranger” became a cult favorite for its surrealistic non sequiturs, blood-spattered action and gruesome deaths played for slapstick laughs.

Comedian Andy Dick (like Lisa Lampanelli, a familiar face on Comedy Central roasts) started his comedy career in 1992 on the Fox network’s “The Ben Stiller Show,” alongside Janeane Garofalo and Bob Odenkirk. He subsequently became as well known for his controversial behavior as for his eccentric performances, amassing a prodigious rap sheet including arrests for drug possession, substance abuse, indecent exposure, public urination, and sexual battery, to name but a handful.

The cast of "Get Smart" 1995: Andy Dick, Elaine Hendrix, Don Adams, Barbara Feldon
In the who-the-hell-asked-for-it 1995 reboot of the classic ‘60s spy spoof “Get Smart” (originally created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry), Andy Dick was cast as Zach Smart, the bumbling son of Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), now the Chief of the counterintelligence agency CONTROL, and his congresswoman-wife, the former Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon). After seven miserable episodes, Dick ducked out to avoid the series’ inevitable cancellation and took up the more satisfying role of the awkward, pratfall-prone reporter Matthew Brock on the NBC sitcom “NewsRadio,” from 1995 to 1999.


As a standup comedian, Andrew Dice Clay (born Andrew Clay Silverstein) started out doing impressions of John Travolta and Jerry Lewis as “The Nutty Professor.” His stint as a regular at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles led to a number of acting jobs on TV (“M*A*S*H,” “Diff’rent Strokes”) and in movies (“Pretty in Pink,” “Casual Sex?”). He had a recurring role as mobster Max Goldman on the serialized television drama “Crime Story,” starring Dennis Farina. Before his starring role in the 1990 “rock ‘n’ roll detective” action flick “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane,” Clay had turned his focus back to standup, creating the “Dice” character, a foul-mouthed, misogynistic, racist insult-comic in a designer leather jacket.

Andrew Clay and Cathy Moriarty pose with
their "Bless This House" sitcom family.
In 1995, Andrew Clay, minus the “Dice,” tried to clean up his image – to a degree – as a lazy, sarcastic father and husband in the CBS sitcom “Bless This House,” costarring Cathy Moriarty (best known for her breakthrough role as Vickie LaMotta in “Raging Bull”). The show, which was canceled mid-season after 16 episodes, would be ranked by TV Guide in 2002 as #48 on a list of the 50 Worst Shows of All Time. In the shortlived 1997 sitcom “Hitz” on the now-defunct UPN. Clay (with “Dice” back in place) starred as a sleazy record industry executive, not unlike his former standup persona. The New York Times’ Caryn James called it “relentlessly unfunny,” while Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker rated it as one of the worst series of the year, writing, “Unable to read a line so that the words will cohere as a sentence, (Clay) still gets work as a professional misogynist.” “Hitz” was canceled after ten episodes.

The two sides of Andrew Dice Clay: (left) the misogynistic poster child as
the "Dice Man," (
right) the voice of the cute patriarch in ads for Sprint.
Clay appeared as himself in the eighth and final season of the HBO series “Entourage,” and in 2013, he delivered an understated, critically acclaimed performance as Cate Blanchett’s blue-collar brother-in-law Augie in writer-director Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” Recently, Andrew Dice Clay has never been so adorable as the ethnic voice of a hamster, the patriarch of an odd clan in a series of unfathomable commercials for Sprint’s “framily” packages.

Longtime standup pals Norm Macdonald and Artie Lange share
the big screen with Don Rickles in the 1998 comedy"Dirty Work,"
co-written by Macdonald and directed by Bob Saget.
Norm Macdonald, a comic with an ever-present, all-knowing smirk, was writing for the sitcom “Roseanne” when producer Lorne Michaels hired him to anchor Weekend Update on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” from 1995 to 1998. Typical of Macdonald’s deadpan news reportage came in the wake of the announcement of Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley’s divorce: “She’s more of a stay-at-home type, and he’s more of a homosexual pedophile.” Macdonald’s repeated on-air references to O.J. Simpson as a wife-murderer eventually irked Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC’s west coast division and a personal friend of Simpson’s, to the degree that he demanded Macdonald be fired. Publicly, the reason for the dismissal was that Macdonald was simply “not funny.”


For three seasons, from 1999 to 2001, Macdonald starred in the ABC sitcom “The Norm Show” (above), as a former NHL hockey player banned from the sport for life because of gambling and tax evasion and sentenced to community service as a social worker. The series featured Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne’s kid sister on “Roseanne”), Nikki Cox (“Unhappily Ever After”), Max Wright (the flustered dad on “ALF”), Faith Ford (a five-time Emmy Award nominee for “Murphy Brown”), and fellow standup comic Artie Lange. A 2003 sitcom on Fox, “A Minute with Stan Hooper,” which found a watered-down Macdonald as a New York City newspaper columnist who relocates his family to Wisconsin for a job as a television commentator (think of a small-town version of “60 Minutes’” Andy Rooney), was canceled after a mere six episodes.


Louis C.K., an often caustic, always fiercely independent comic, was initially discouraged by a less than spectacular impact on the emerging standup scene in Boston in the mid-1980s, but, in his own words, “Failure is the road to becoming a great comedian.” In 2006, Louis created “Lucky Louie” (above), a situation comedy that aired on HBO for one season. He portrayed a husband and a father of a four-year-old daughter, an unsophisticated working-class family with more than a passing resemblance to the families in Norman Lear’s classic sitcoms, starting with “All in the Family.”

Twenty-five years after struggling behind the mike in Boston comedy clubs, Louis C.K. achieved greatness in 2010 as the creator, star, writer, director, and sometimes editor of the critically lauded FX network series “Louie,” a fictionalized take on his real life as a comedian and divorced father of two daughters.


Sam Kinison (above), one of the most politically incorrect, misogynistic geniuses who ever screamed and stomped across the standup stage, was the son of a Pentecostal preacher. As a youth, Sam followed in his father’s footsteps as a fervid tent-show evangelist, whose impassioned sermons carried over to his rabid fire-and-brimstone rants as a comedian. (Kinison’s car license plate read “EX REV.”) His breakthrough as a standup came in a 1984 HBO special hosted by Rodney Dangerfield.

In 1985, Kinison made his acting debut in a lurid, post-apocalyptic biker flick titled “Savage Dawn,” starring Lance Henriksen, George Kennedy, William Forsythe, Richard Lynch, and Karen Black (“I could suck-start a Harley!”). Sam played a small-town barber and born-again Christian who gets his throat slit when he serenades a biker named Zero with “Amazing Grace.” Years later, Henriksen (best known for his role as Bishop the android in “Aliens”) remarked, “That was one of those f***ing movies, man…I mean, anything with the word ‘savage’ in the title…it’s got problems.”

The following year, Sam Kinison had a brief but unforgettable cameo in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy “Back to School” (below) as an intense college professor and Vietnam War veteran: “Well, thank you, Mr. Helper…I was up to my knees in rice paddies with guns that didn’t work!”

Rodney Dangerfield, whose acting career didn't take off until he was 59 with
a scene-stealing role in 1980's "Caddyshack," was never bitten by the sitcom bug,
although he guest-starred on a number of sitcoms, including "Suddenly Susan,"
"The Simpsons," "Home Improvement," and "George Lopez."
After guest spots on the TV series “Married…with Children” and “Tales from the Crypt,” Kinison landed a costarring role in 1991 in the Fox sitcom “Charlie Hoover,” with Tim Matheson (“Animal House”) as a nerdish accountant and Sam as the 12-inch-tall figment of Matheson’s psyche, an inner voice screaming for justice. (The premise foreshadowed the 1995-1995 Fox sitcom “Unhappily Ever After,” which featured the voice of comedian Bobcat Goldthwait as a smoking, drinking plush toy rabbit that serves as the husband’s alter ego.) “Charlie Hoover” was canceled after seven episodes. A year later, on April 10, 1992, Sam Kinison died from injuries suffered in a head-on collision on a highway west of Needles, California.

Sam Kinison as Tim Matheson's Lilliputian conscience in "Charlie Hoover"
Before his untimely death, Sam Kinison was said to be interested in starring in a film called “Atuk,” a fish-out-of-water comedy about an Inuit hunter adapting to life in a modern city. Based on the 1963 novel The Incomparable Atuk by Mordecai Richler, author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and the Jacob Two-Two children’s books, the as yet unfilmed script, which satirizes racism, materialism, and popular culture, has become the stuff of urban legend in Hollywood, blamed for a paranormal curse which has killed all the actors who ever showed an interest in the lead role, including, besides Kinison, John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley.

Adam McKay (the writer-director of Will Faerrell comedies “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights,” “Step Brothers,” “The Other Guys,” and “Anchorman 2”) once pitched a screenplay titled “Eskimo in New York” to Ferrell, who has repeatedly maintained it would not be a good movie and refused to be a part of it.

As alluded to at the onset of this sinuous trek through the Moviehouse, Robin Williams – a onetime protégé of sorts of John Houseman in the Advanced Program at the Julliard School for performing arts -was one of the select comedians to successfully reinvent himself as a sitcom star, in the 1978 to 1982 series “Mork & Mindy.” Thirty years later, the Academy Award-winning actor returned to situation comedy, as a Chicago advertising executive, in “The Crazy Ones,” costarring Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Robin Williams in "Mork & Mindy" (left) and in "The Crazy Ones" (right)
“The Crazy Ones,” which received mixed to average reviews, was canceled in 2014 after one season. Morgan Jeffrey, writing for the British entertainment website Digital Spy, commented that Williams “can’t resist falling back on his old bag of tricks…cartoon voices, gurning, rambling wordplay.” Ross Bonaime of the digital magazine Paste noted, “I don’t know how it does it, but ‘The Crazy Ones’ continues to be one of the most boring comedies with one of the most amazing casts on the air today.”

A recurring theme here is the failure of network executives and television producers to successfully tailor a continuing situation comedy to fit a standup comic’s particular (if not peculiar) material, delivery, and personality. Which brings us all the way back to Don Rickles.

Don Rickles told his "Kelly's Heroes" costar Clint Eastwood, "You'd be
great, Clint, if you'd ever learn to talk normal and stop whispering."
On the big screen, one of Don Rickles’ most popular roles was as a scheming supply sergeant called “Crapgame” in the 1970 World War II comedy “Kelly’s Heroes,” starring Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, and Carroll O’Connor. “They told me the shoot would take three weeks,” Rickles reminisced in his autobiography. “It took six weeks.” Rickles thought, “Maybe this would do wonders for my acting career. Didn’t exactly happen that way. My next role was in a film called ‘The Love Machine.’”

In an attempt to find a TV sitcom “fit” for one of comedy’s “irregulars,” Don Rickles was cast in the lead role as a U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer in the service comedy “C.P.O. Sharkey,” which aired on NBC from 1976 to 1978. Rickles noted, “I still worried that it was hard – if not impossible – to write for me, but writers were eager to prove me wrong.” He ended up liking the character. “He was a crazy Navy chief tailored after my own craziness,” he wrote. “The audience liked him enough to keep him around for a couple of years.”

"C.P.O. Sharkey" star Don Rickles sizes up
6' 7" costar Peter Isacksen. 
Although he admitted, “I can hardly call it landmark television,” the sitcom’s greatest moment came when Rickles, who had accidentally broken Johnny Carson’s treasured cigarette box as a guest host on “The Tonight Show,” was confronted by Carson during a taping of “C.P.O. Sharkey” in front of a studio audience.

Don Rickles: "Ladies and gentlemen, Johnny Carson!"
Johnny Carson: "They know who I am!"
In the fall of 1993, the Fox network, home of television’s most dysfunctional sitcom families – from “Married…with Children” to ‘Unhappily Ever After” and “The Simpsons” to “Family Guy” – cast Don Rickles as an abrasive used car salesman and father of a Manhattan psychologist, played by angst-ridden comic Richard Lewis, in “Daddy Dearest.” The pilot episode was riddled with anti-gay, anti-Arab, anti-Japanese, and anti-everyone else gags, prompting one reviewer to observe that the program “plumbs new depths for crudeness, even by Fox standards, breathtaking as this is.” Rickles responded to the overwhelming criticism by explaining, “Hey, it’s only a joke. My whole act is making fun of people. It’s not just one group. It’s everybody.”


Don Rickles and Richard Lewis in "Daddy Dearest"...By this time,
standup comic Lewis was a veteran of three sitcoms: "Harry," starring
 Alan Arkin, "Anything But Love," costarring Jamie Lee Curtis, and
"Hiller and Diller," with Lewis and Kevin Nealon as comedy writers.
Richard Lewis said, “I’ve been a standup comedian for almost 25 years. I never would be part of a show unless it was, one, funny, and two, would serve a purpose. I’m a firm believer in freedom of speech…Don’s perspective is, ‘Hey, man, we are all the same. Can we just get along in the same boat?’ His humor is not mean-spirited…it’s not an attempt to separate people…His character is someone who’s old-fashioned…from another generation…not racist.” Rickles’ final word on the series, which lasted two months before cancellation, was, “I don’t get into that political correctness stuff. Funny is funny…You can’t please everybody.”

In Rickles' Book, Don Rickles wrote, " 'Could you ask Bob to speak more clearly?'
I said to Marty. I heard someone in the crew sarcastically whisper, 'Lots of luck.' "
“Daddy Dearest” closed the door on the television career of Don Rickles, who subsequently returned triumphantly, to a degree, to the silver screen. Cast as Robert De Niro’s stone-faced pit boss in 1995’s “Casino,” Rickles recalled the “gig” as “great.” He wrote, “Big deal for me: De Niro runs the casino and I’m his number-one man. I’m with him night and day.” Rickles remembered, “I was excited to be working with all these Academy Award winners…And because Vegas had been my territory for many decades, I felt comfortable on the set.” When director Martin Scorsese approached Rickles for the role, the filmmaker told him, “I see you more as a presence rather than a talker.” Rickles thought, “That’s a twist. A silent Rickles. But will the world buy it?”



Rickles was certainly not at a loss for words in the three “Toy Story” movies (not to mention a number of film shorts) as the sarcastic, kvetching Mr. Potato Head. “I became a hero to a whole generation of children,” he observed in Rickles’ Book. “My own grandchildren aren’t impressed that I’ve played Vegas for fifty years, but they are impressed that their Pop-Pop is Mr. Potato Head.”
For years, Don Rickles' traditional entrance theme has
been the Spanish bullfighter anthem "The Great Manolete
(La Virgen de la Macarena)." He said, "I always
pictured myself facing the audience as a matador."