In what’s become the ultimate Las Vegas tribute, lights dimmed on the Strip on Friday and the face of comedy great Don Rickles flashed on scores of digital marquees.
Inside the Tropicana, one of Rickles’ many stops on the Strip, Rich Little was finishing his show as the tribute began.
The rare honor would have warmed the heart of the man Johnny Carson facetiously dubbed “Mr. Warmth.”
Little would have loved seeing it, but you don’t walk away from fans and friends who were waiting to say hello. That’s show business 101. After the meet and greet, Little joined his crew at a table at the Beach Café for a post-show snack of fish tacos and a fruit cup.
Now a week after the death of Rickles, 90, Little is mystified by the sudden loss.
“Nobody knows what the hell happened to him,” he said. “It happened so fast.
Someone mentioned the cause of death of kidney failure.
“But, he had bookings for the rest of the year. He had a show booked at the Smith Center for this month,” said Little, shaking his head.
“Bob Newhart would know. They were best of friends,” said Little, who last saw Rickles two months ago at Piero’s Italian Cuisine, a longtime Las Vegas celebrity hangout.
Rickles and Little will forever be connected by their lengthy runs as roastmasters of Dean Martin’s comedy roast TV series, which was held for nearly a decade at the original MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.
That was their main connection over the years. They were the dueling kingpins of zingers.
Little looked it up. He held the record for serving as roastmaster at 24 of them, he said.
“You know who did 23 of them?” he said.
“Nipsey Russell,” he noted, adding, “Don did 19.”
Rickles and Little met many years earlier, when he lived next door to Rickles’ mother, Etta. Rickles would show up on Sundays at his mother’s home in Hollywood for a chicken soup dinner.
One day Little got his introduction to Rickles’ twisted humor. Rickles showed up at the door and barked, “Hey, are you shtupping my mother? Keep away from her.”
When it came to rapid-fire wit, Little marveled at Rickles’ ability. “When he said something funny, he was already thinking of the next line and the line after that.”
Little added, “There are only two other people I can think of who were that quick: Robin Williams and Jonathan Winter.”
Comedy legend Jackie Leonard accused Rickles of “stealing his act,” said Little. “Jackie was a putdown comedian.”
For those who never saw Rickles in action, Little has a recommendation.
Go to Youtube.com and type in the keywords “Don RIckles” and “outtakes” from his short-lived TV series “Daddy Dearest” with Richard Lewis.
“They’re hysterical,” said Little. “He could never be serious. Check it out, you’ll see.”
Last November, Rickles was completely serious when he lost a gold engraved watch at either the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills or Dan Tana’s restaurant.
He ended his tweet: “Very sentimental – had 50 yrs. Promise reward and smart remarks if returned. Thank you.”
On this day…
April 14, 1989: Robbie Knievel succeeds where his dad Evel failed 22 years ago, safely soaring 150 feet over a fountain in the Caesars Palace parking lot before cable TV viewers who paid $14.95 for the four-second spectacle. The same jump had landed Evel in a 29-day coma.
April 15, 2011: The U.S. Postal Service admits that its new Lady Liberty stamp is based on the Statue of Liberty replica at Las Vegas’ New York-New York hotel/casino, not the real thing.
Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Samantha Hoopes, spotted at TAO Nightclub (Venetian) on Thursday.
The punch line
“This week, Jewish people all over the world are celebrating Passover. Or as I call it, the Festival of Missing Writers.” – Conan O’Brien.