Don Rickles’s knack for going “off script” made for some of the funniest moments on live TV. That’s what happened with Roy Rogers when the famous pair appeared on The Dean Martin Show, and Rogers didn’t know what to do.
Country-music cowboy Roy Rogers may have been fast on the draw, but he was no match for the quick wit of Don Rickles. In a 1969 episode of Dean Martin’s variety show, Rickles crossed paths with Rogers in a skit that’s become known as the “Western Sketch.”
The comic, a right-at-home regular on Martin’s raucous Celebrity Roasts, played a saloon bartender who tried to referee a shoot-out between Martin’s outlaw and Rogers’ sheriff. When Dean Martin, who was infamous for his love of alcoholic beverages, sauntered in and ordered milk, it prompted Rickles to quip, “He should get an Academy Award for reading that line.”
However, it was Rogers, a deer in the headlights in the sketch, who bore the brunt of Rickles’s comedic wrath. “Good reading, Roy. You’re going to get your water gun and your own pony,” Rickles fired off, adding, “Once in a while, Roy, read my lips so you know what’s happening.”
The studio audience erupted with laughter, reinforcing the live nature of Martin’s series and spurring Rickles to further improvise. “Isn’t this fun, Roy, you’re staying up with the grownups!” he jested, before baiting Rogers one more time. “You got a lot of good lines coming up, Roy. I’ll make you feel at home, ok?” Rickles continued, going on to impersonate a horse snort.
The whole bit ends with Rickles crawling atop the bar and a misfire of a duel between Martin and Rogers, who train their guns on the pesky barkeep. Naturally, Rickles let them know their aim isn’t true: “You’re shooting me in the leg, dummy!”
You will notice no foul language was used by the trio of stars. This brand of talent doesn’t need to be crass, and as Rickles said in 2009, his type of “insult” comedy comes from a place of love. “I’ve never been mean-spirited,” he said. “Everything I do, I do from my heart, and to prove it after 55 years I’m still headlining around the country, thank God….it proves if you do something and you do it with taste and in fun…people respond in kind.”
Don Rickles had a long friendship with Frank Sinatra. In fact, after Sinatra died, Rickles told Charlie Rose that the legendary crooner had orchestrated what amounted to the “highlight” of Rickles’s career. “The highlight, the highlight of my career, Charlie, is when you say backstage and show biz, believe it or not, is when Frank Sinatra had me at the Ronald Reagan second inaugural,” he recalled. “That was the biggest treat of my life.”
The funnyman went on to explain that Sinatra got some blowback from Reagan’s advisers, who weren’t on board with giving the comedian the headline job. According to Rickles, Sinatra told Reagan’s advisers, “You don’t have Rickles, you don’t have me.” When Rickles got to the dressing room at the Kennedy Center, the same advisers were nervous about the comic going off-script, asking Sinatra, “What is he going to say?”
“He’s going to say whatever he wants,” Sinatra informed Reagan’s advisers, Rickles claimed. “I was so proud of that moment,” Rickles added. The great friendship between Sinatra and Rickles began thanks to the comic’s mother who approached Frank’s mother, requesting her famous son’s attendance at Rickles’s show. At the time, Don Rickles was a struggling stand-up comedian at a small club in Florida.
“So, Frank walks in one night, unbeknownst to me,” Rickles said, adding that Sinatra was accompanied by his “mafioso-type” bodyguards. “So, I said, ‘Frank God bless you. Why don’t you stand up, be yourself, and hit someone?'” Rickles declared. “Well, he laughed his fanny off, and his guys were like, ‘Is that funny Frank?’ Had he not laughed, Billy Graham would be looking for me,” the funnyman added while gesturing that he would have taken a beating. Sinatra’s mafia connections were well known, and Rickles took a chance to poke fun at that reality. They were friends for over 50 years, and Rickles was eventually a pallbearer at Sinatra’s funeral in 1998.