Don Rickles, who comically insulted Las Vegas audiences for seven decades and had a prominent role in Casino, died Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 90.
Rickles played casino manager Billy Sherbert in Martin Scorsese’s classic 1995 film, which starred Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone. In notes about the movie posted on the American Movie Channel website, Rickles is quoted describing his character:
“Billy Sherbert is a combination of guys I’ve known. It didn’t take a great amount of concentration on my part because I grew up in this town.”
Rickles first played Las Vegas in 1959. As Mike Weatherford explains in Cult Vegas: The Weirdest! The Wildest! The Swingin’est Town on Earth, Rickles made his Las Vegas debut in May 1959 in the Sahara Hotel’s Casbar Lounge, performing between sets by jazz master Louis Prima.
“‘The Merchant of Venom’ worked the Casbar through 1967,” Weatherford writes. “His Las Vegas exposure opened the door to larger nightclub settings.”
Rickles had a close relationship with Frank Sinatra, exemplified by his ability to insult the hot-headed crooner without penalty. Rickles often palled around with members of the Rat Pack.
But he was playing a role on stage. As he told Weatherford, “I’m just a guy, a normal guy. I’m a very basic guy. It’s two different lives. When I get out there onstage, or when I’m at a big party with celebrities, I become that character that I do onstage.”
Although he acted in several movies and television shows, Rickles is arguably best remembered for his role in Casino and for voicing Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movie series.
During a Spike TV comedy roast of Rickles in 2014, De Niro recalled a scene from Casino: “The scene where Pesci beats the crap out of you turned out to be one of the most popular scenes in the movie. Who hasn’t wanted to do that?”
In more recent years, Rickles performed at the Orleans Hotel, just off the Las Vegas Strip. He recently was booked to appear at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, but the show was rescheduled.