Before guests appear on late-night talk shows, talent coordinators pre-interview them. Out of that comes several pages of notes on whatever they’re promoting. Host asks question. Guest responds with funny story. Host understands that guest brought a clip of latest film. There are no surprises in late-night.
On the rare occasion when a star does an unannounced walk-on, it’s always choreographed in advance. The reason they aren’t billboarded at the top is because they hadn’t been pre-interviewed, so there are no notes. A brief sit-down with plug is followed by “Hey, I know you gotta run”, and guest gets kissed off.
In October ‘75, Don Rickles was guest-hosting for Johnny Carson. Across the hall, Bob Hope was taping a special with Bing Crosby and John Wayne. At the last minute, they negotiated a walk-on. Backstage, a concerned Duke Wayne asked if I had a line for him. “Rickles is gonna kill me out there.”
Prophetic, but too late. Seconds later they were cued for their entrances. As Don schmoozed at home base with Ed, the curtains opened and Bing, Bob, and the Duke took bows center stage to a standing ovation. Don feigned surprise, then did a shooting gallery takedown of all three, one by one.
After the show, Don crossed over to Studio 4, where they were rehearsing, to thank the trio. Don was a genuinely sweet guy, but hadn’t yet come down from his killer persona and Bing was in his crosshairs. Long before oldest son Gary’s tell-all, it was known in the business that Crosby would never be named father of the year.
“Bing, do yourself a favor. Phone the kids.”
Rickles attributed his 100 appearances on Carson for making him a star. When Don guest-hosted, he never asked us writers for help with material. He’d just wing it. One night he wandered into the audience, lobbing killer barbs. He asked a young man to stand up.
“Are you Mexican?”
“Just a bad looking kid. Sit down.”
It was a treat to watch him hilariously ply his trade without having to grease a maître d’ for a front-row seat. When Don worked the big rooms in Vegas, standard procedure was having the maître d’ seat certain customers in the front row. These represented every available ethnic group as well as fat slobs with unattractive wives. Unbeknownst to them, they were his destined targets. Part of Don’s wizardry was making the objects of his venom exit the venue thrilled to have been the centerpiece of the act.
One night in his dressing room, I asked how he knew to take his material to the cliff’s edge and not plunge into the abyss. He introduced me to his man Friday, personal assistant Harry Goins, and said he runs lines by him. Goins was his one-man standards and practices department, at least for the black insults.
It’s been said that the Rickles personality was different offstage, where he was warm and gentle. Not always. In ’91, I attended a dinner at Jerry Weintraub’s Malibu home honoring President George H. W Bush. It was akin to being in a rush hour subway car packed with A-listers. Weintraub had it catered by Chasen’s and hired a band to play. President Bush danced with Goldie Hawn while First Lady Barbara tripped the light fantastic with John Travolta. At the end of the evening, while we awaited our cars to be pulled up in the driveway, Don effortlessly savaged Sidney Poitier, Sly Stallone, Angie Dickinson, Norman Lear, Tom Hanks, Sally Field, and Tony Danza. For them to be mocked by the master was akin to winning a lifetime achievement award. For me, it was the perfect nightcap.
One night, Bob Newhart was guest-hosting for Carson. During his segment, Don, his guest and best friend, accidentally broke Carson’s wooden cigarette box. It had been a staple on the desk from the 30 Rock days in New York. When Johnny returned from vacation the next day, he was told Don had broken it. Johnny decided to capitalize on this.
He was informed that later that night Rickles would be taping his sitcom, CPO Sharkey, across the hall. During his own taping, Doc Severinsen, sitting in for Ed McMahon, “informed” Johnny that Don had broken his box. Carson pretended to be crushed, and announced he would do something about it. He had earlier choreographed the crossover from his set to Don’s, but Rickles had no idea this was in the works. So when Johnny confronted Don, it may have been the one time he rendered him speechless. If you don’t believe me, check it out on YouTube.
He’s been honored by his peers, won an Emmy, performed in England before royalty. But though Don was a lifetime Democrat, he considered the career highlight his appearance at President Reagan’s 1984 Inaugural Gala, where he gently skewered Reagan and Vice President Bush.
Now he’s gone, and there’s nobody around quite like him, no fearless antidote to the p.c. bores who inhabit the universities, politics, and media with their tedious talking points.
Somewhere, and I mean way up there, St. Peter is at this very moment scratching his halo, wondering why for heaven’s sake the new arrival, this bald gnome, is sweating profusely, pacing like a panther and calling him a hockey puck.
“Pearly gates? Couldn’t pop for gold? My wife has bigger pearls hanging from her neck.”
And why is Sinatra over on the next cloud laughing his ass off and shouting “See? Told ya so.”
Raymond Siller was the longtime head writer on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”