After 50 years in the business, Don Rickles gets his due

Don Rickles

Don Rickles, meet the Quad-Cities.

“Have I been there?” the 82-year-old comedian asked in a telephone interview. “I’ve been all over the country, Chicago many times, but I don’t think I’ve been in that area.”

The Quad-City area will get a double-barreled introduction to the legendary comic when he performs two shows this weekend at the new Jumer’s Casino & Hotel in Rock Island.

The appearances come at a time when the 50-year comedy veteran is at his most lauded. Last year, he won his first Emmy Award for John Landis’ HBO documentary, “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.” The documentary itself, co-produced by Rickles’ son, also took home an award.

“Tremendously, tremendously surprised,” Rickles said. “The Emmy was the piece d’resistance. That was terrific at this stage of my life. To finally get an Emmy … was just great.”

Rickles presented an Emmy as well in September along with Kathy Griffin, one of several comedians who are following his insult-laden path.

“It’s a compliment when somebody imitates your style,” he said.

A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the Queens, N.Y., native says his performance is more of a show — complete with his own orchestra — than a mere comedy act.

“It’s not really a stand-up performance, it’s more of a theatrical performance,” added Rickles, who still averages about 70 shows a year. “I put all kinds of moods and what-have-you in the show.”

The insults began as ad-libs when his own material fell through or hecklers began to have their way.

“What it is is an exaggeration — it’s making fun of life all around us. And it’s never mean-spirited. I’ve never been mean-spirited. That’s the (secret) of my success in 45, 50 years of doing it,” he said. “It’s just an exaggeration of life and people.”

Rickles said he’s never felt there was a time when he stepped over any line.

“Every time I’ve said something, I’ve believed in it and I thought it was funny,” he continued. “I never said, ‘Oh God, why did I do that?’ because that would be the kiss of death.”

He said about 90 percent of his show is planned out — with a definite beginning, middle and end — and the rest is tailored for the city and the audience, although the crowds watching the show may think otherwise.

“Some people come see me three times in a row and think it’s a different show every time,” he said.

Over the years, Rickles has also been able to put his dramatic training to use in movies such as “Kelly’s Heroes” with Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese’s “Casino.”

But his voice is most recognizable as Mr. Potato Head in the two Disney/Pixar “Toy Story” movies, with a third due in the summer of 2010.

The talking toy role solidifies his reputation with his grandchildren, he said.

“They know Pop-Pop’s Mr. Potato Head,” he added.

Relatively subdued in a phone interview, Rickles said there is no way that he could keep his onstage persona alive in real life.

“If I get out there and kibbutz 24 hours a day the way I do when I’m on stage, they’d put me in a sanitarium,” he said.

IF YOU GO

Who: Don Rickles, with the Joe Mele orchestra and Jennifer Joseph

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7, and 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8

Where: Jumer’s Casino & Hotel, Interstate 280 and Illinois 92, Rock Island

How much: $60 and $50

Information: (309) 756-4600 or JumersCasinoHotel.com on the Web

Also on the Web: MrWarmthDonRickles.com

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