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Don Rickles has a doozy of a theme song. The trumpet fanfare, which would be at home accompanying a bullfighter as he enters the ring, is the perfect introduction for a comedian who has thrived in the dangerous arena of insult comedy while maintaining grace and elegance.
Many of the 81-year-old comic's secrets -- and sweetness -- are exposed in the critically acclaimed documentary, "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project," which debuts today on HBO. While the film provides unprecedented access to his act, there's nothing like seeing him in person, an opportunity Minnesotans will have when Rickles performs at Mystic Lake Casino on New Year's Eve. We talked with Rickles by phone recently and quickly learned that his quick jabs aren't reserved for the stage alone.
Q It's a pleasure to talk to you.
A It's exciting. I've got chills.
Q How was your Thanksgiving weekend? Is that a big holiday for the Rickles household?
A Yeah, we had some turkey. What, you think I live under a rock? Maybe if I was from Czechoslovakia, I'd be sitting at home, staring at the markets.
Q Well, I don't know that much about your childhood. I'm curious why you allowed a film crew so much access to your act in "Mr. Warmth."
A My son, Larry, has been after me for quite some time about it. I think it's a unique show and I wanted the act saved for posterity's sake. John Landis, the director, is an old friend back from the film "Kelly's Heroes." He was a young gofer then who used to bring me coffee and cake.
Q It's nice of you to give your son some work.
A Why would you hurt my family? Why have you turned on me? You've insulted me twice now.
Q I'm just trying to catch up. I think you've gotten off about seven zingers so far.
A Yeah, but I'm a big star. Who are you, some guy in St. Paul with a shovel?
Q You must have fans approach you all the time asking you to insult them.
A I'm used to it. People always ask me to call their mother an idiot. You just say, "Here's $5, go buy yourself a home." It's my image. When I go to a restaurant, my wife always says, "Are you going to talk to me or talk to the waiter all night?" I take pride in being a people person. If I'm walking down the street with Clint Eastwood, people are afraid of approaching him, but they've got no problem coming up to me and saying, "Hey, you hockey puck."
Q What's the deal with "hockey puck"?
A You got me, babe. I think years ago, I heard it from some hecklers and I liked it. It's weird. I've got hockey pucks all around the house, hockey sticks, jerseys from strangers. The game is fine, but it's not my whole life.
Q A few famous people have gotten in trouble over the past year for some politically incorrect humor and --
A I know what you're getting at. I think it's not their thing, it's something they plan and it doesn't work. It's always been a part of Don Rickles. I mean, I can't tell a joke to save my life. My act is all about the surroundings. I've got an inborn ability, a second trigger in my head, that lets me know who I can have fun with. Sometimes I can tell just by their expression. I'm making fun of the whole situation. It's never mean-spirited and it's always exaggerated. I never know what I'm going to say next. I might say, "I'm fed up with this conversation."
Q Are you fed up with this conversation?
A Not at all. It's just a little long and boring.
Q One of the surprises of the documentary is how sweet so much of your act is. I think you still do a tribute to James Cagney, which your buddy Bob Newhart ribs you for.
A He's got nothing else on his mind. He's from the Midwest. When I first met him, he was sitting on a curb, trying to figure out who he is.
Q You'll be here for New Year's Eve. Is that a big holiday for you?
A It was when I was your age. I'd be a dummy and put on a hat and blow my horn. I got rid of the hat and horn. But my wife and I aren't finished yet. She'll be with me. She wants to pick up the check. We'll have the TV on after the show, maybe have a cup of coffee. Sometimes we even have a drink.
Q Outside of the performances, is there anything you like to do in the Twin Cities?
A I don't ski anymore. I don't do ice-skating tricks, so I'll just sit in my room and throw a snowball against the wall.