Rickles' Beach Parties

The masterful comedian Don Rickles celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this week on May 8th.

Coincidentally, having written in previous posts of the "Beach Party" tales, it was in these very same pictures I first noticed Rickles.

Prior to 1964, as a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, he worked as a serious actor in major feature films, opposite Clark Gable in "Run Silent Run Deep" (1958) and Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis in "The Rat Race" (1960). He also appeared in episodic television, including "The Twilight Zone" and "Wagon Train," both in 1961.

It wasn't until Don Rickles hit the coast with Frankie and Annette that he enjoyed fully comic roles. His simultaneous cult status as an outrageous nightclub comedian was a bubbling-under secret to the public-at-large, including myself. Soon, that would all change with his stupendous success after the big break via "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."

Meanwhile, Rickles, who had appeared in American International's spooky "X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes" (1963) alongside Ray Milland, was cast in the studio's "Muscle Beach Party" (1964), the first sequel in the "Beach Party" series.

I recall my adolescence, sitting in a dark theatre gawking at the unusual guy in the sweatshirt and baseball cap who barked wisecracks at the shenanigans surrounding himself. He made a distinct impression, although with limited screen time in each of his three "Beach Party" vehicles, four if we include the very similar "Pajama Party" (1964).

Curiously, I was drawn to Mr. Rickles even then, but once I had witnessed his unbridled insults and quick-witted rampages on TV, I was mesmerized by his mind. Don Rickles was the first -- and only -- person to knock me off of a bed onto the floor by the sheer power of his words. He was so fresh, unexpected, and astoundingly funny. He became and remains my second comedy obsession, following Jerry Lewis, and preceding W.C. Fields, Steve Martin, and David Letterman.

For the record, Rickles is Jack Fanny (spoofing body builder Vic Tanny) in "Muscle Beach Party." He returned in the hat and other shirts with his name on them in "Bikini Beach" (1964) as Big Drag and in "Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965) as Big Drop. "Pajama Party" presents him as Big Bang the Martian.

I've had two close encounters with Mr. Warmth, so dubbed by Carson.

In 1984, in the stand-by line for a taping of "Late Night With David Letterman" at NBC Rockefeller Center, Rickles stood within four feet of me as he arrived for his guest spot. I was denied entry to the show, but I went away happy. He had raised those eyebrows in his patented "big deal" manner at Security.

Fifteen years later, I finally found myself in his concert audience in Las Vegas. At age 73, Don Rickles had the stamina and bite of a man half his age. That was a great night and a fine memory.

"It's better than laying in a dam watching a beaver eat your jacket or something."

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