Friday, May 1, 2015

“I’m gonna keep an eye on you!”

Actor-comedian Don Rickles—who celebrates his eighty-ninth birthday next Friday (May 8)—didn’t become a stand-up comic because of an overwhelming urge to be funny in front of large audiences…Rickles decided on his career path after becoming frustrated by his inability to find work as an actor.  Unfortunately for Don, his prepared material laid goose eggs in the various New York nightclubs where he chose to perfect his mirthmaking craft.  In response to the ribbing and heckling he received from the crowd, he decided to lob insults at his detractors…and found his gift for invective got more appreciative laughs and applause than the jokes he brought with him.  His comedy career got a further boost when he spotted The Chairman of the Board—Francis Albert Sinatra—in a Miami dive at which he was headlining, and jokingly told Sinatra: “Make yourself at home, Frank.  Hit somebody.”  Surprisingly, the singer did not have one of his hangers-on take Rickles out behind the club to be dealt with in an appropriate manner; instead, Sinatra encouraged his friends to catch the act of the man soon to be known as “Mr. Warmth” (though Frankie’s pet name for his nemesis was “Bullethead”), which paved the way for Don’s bookings into more lucrative Las Vegas venues.

Don made an auspicious film debut in 1958’s Run Silent, Run Deep (with Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable), which—though he had appeared occasionally on the small screen in various anthology programs—paved the way for his subsequent television career as a much-in-demand guest star on such classic shows as Wagon Train, The Addams Family, Burke’s Law, The Wild Wild West and many others.  Rickles played “Lyle Delp” in two classic installments of The Dick Van Dyke Show (“4 ½” and “The Alan Brady Show Goes to Jail”) and the story goes that his appearance on his pal Don Adams’ Get Smart sitcom—a two-parter entitled “The Little Black Book”—became a two-parter because he and Adams ad-libbed so much material they were able to make two episodes out of the finished product.  Rickles was a frequent guest on variety programs and talk shows (Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, etc.), and in addition to his television antics was a fixture in several of American International Pictures’ “Beach Party” films released in the 1960s.  (He’s also turned in some memorable performances in films like X—the Man with X-Ray Eyes [1963] and Casino [1995].)

A popular personality like Don Rickles would seem a natural for a television series of his own.  He hosted a self-titled variety series in 1968, and a sitcom with that same title ran for an eye-blink in 1972.  The problem with the sitcom version of The Don Rickles Show is that “The Merchant of Venom” had to have a vehicle suitable for his talents; he played an ad exec in the 1972 series, and it was obviously Don was a fish out of water in that set-up.  With the help of TV veteran Aaron Ruben, however, Rickles would find his biggest TV success beginning in December of 1976.  Ruben’s main claim to boob tube fame was taking grease monkey Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) out of Mayberry and into the United States Marine Corps with Gomer Pyle, USMC.  Utilizing Rickles’ former Navy background (Don was a Seaman First Class on the USS Cyrene during World War II), Aaron created for Don a similar service comedy in CPO Sharkey.  (Rickles actually guested on a Gomer episode in 1965, “My Buddy the War Hero.”)

The inaugural episode of Sharkey, “Oh Captain! My Captain,” introduces us to Chief Petty Officer Otto Sharkey (Don), a twenty-four year Navy veteran who reigns supreme at a San Diego training base and who feels out of step in what is now a “modern” Navy; his company of recruits is a rainbow of various ethnic stereotypes, and he complains to his best friend and fellow CPO Dave Robinson (Harrison Page) that the introduction of a female commander, Captain Quinlan (Elizabeth Allen), to the naval base is the straw that’s broken the camel’s back—he’s turning in his papers and retiring.  But the abrasive Sharkey also possesses a tenderness in his inner core: he convinces one of the recruits (Dennis Kort) who’s homesick to stick it out in the Navy (Sharkey lies to the young man, telling him he was just as scared when he joined), and word of this gets back to Captain Quinlan, who awards him with a commendation.  Sharkey changes his mind about retirement at episode’s end.

CPO Sharkey copied the Gomer Pyle formula to a T—the only difference is that the Sergeant Carter character, represented by Rickles’ Sharkey, had now taken center stage.  The role of Sharkey’s Gomer-like foil was played by 6’7” Peter Isacksen, who as country boy (Seaman) Lester Pruitt towered over his commanding officer, often prompting Sharkey to needle him with lines like “Why don’t you milk a giraffe?”  (In several episodes of Sharkey, Pruitt’s equally lanky girlfriend Evelyn would appear, played by 6’2” Rhonda Bates.  Bates had been a cast member on Blansky’s Beauties, which I watched back then because I did not know any better.)  The chemistry between Rickles and Isacksen was one of the highlights of Sharkey, and the pair were memorably featured together on a TV Guide cover (with Don having to stand on a footlocker, of course).

One of my Facebook friends is a great guy I know from my halcyon college days at Marshall University, and the guy could be Peter Isacksen's twin, he looks that much like him,  I waited until he brought up the resemblance because I didn't want to hurt his feelings.  (He commented: "Of all the people. Could not look like George Clooney. Noooo...")

The abbreviated first season (fifteen episodes) of CPO Sharkey is scheduled to be released in a three-disc collection from Time-Life on May 19th, and I was fortunate enough to get a gander at the set courtesy of the generosity from Michael Krause at Foundry Communications.  I was a big fan of the sitcom when it originally aired; I know Rickles’ brand of ethnic insult humor is off-putting to a lot of people but I think that was the genius of the Sharkey series—it allowed Rickles to be Rickles, insomuch as you’d expect his character to be undecidedly non-P.C. due to the nature of his profession.  (Think of a watered-down version of R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket [1987].)  Still, I did kind of chuckle at the disclaimer that’s printed on the back of the DVD: “Warning: Some of the jokes and ethnic references heard in these episodes would most likely not be allowed on network TV today and reflect the tenor of the times.”

The emphasis on ethnic humor is one of the show’s weaknesses, but this is because the individuals that make up Sharkey’s Company 144 aren’t flesh-and-blood human beings but caricatures: you have the jive-talking Daniels (Jeff Hollis), Jewish intellectual Skolnik (David Landsberg), Latino Rodriguez (Richard Beauchamp) (who wins the Most Embarrassing Award with his frequent outburst of “margaritas and mamacitas”), Italian Mignone (Barry Pearl) and Polish Kowalski (Tom Ruben).  It was a time in TV history when series like All in the Family, Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man relied on that sort of humor and were popular shows, and if you know anything about Rickles’ stand-up style he’s nothing if not an equal opportunity offender.  The exchanges between Sharkey and his pal Robinson work best, probably because they echo the Archie Bunker-Lionel Jefferson dynamic of Family, in which Lionel mocks his bigoted neighbor by turning his offensive remarks back at him.

SHARKEY: You people haven’t been at this very long…
ROBINSON: What’s that supposed to mean?
SHARKEY: Well, let’s face it—not too long ago all you people had to work with was a frying pan or a bugle!
ROBINSON (clasping his hands): Oh…thank you, Bwana…for leading Young Spearcarrier to Great White Settlement!

The one individual spared Sharkey’s barbs was Captain Quinlan, and I’m not sure if that was because she outranked him or because the people behind the show were leery about letting Rickles appear unlikable by bullying Allen with his trademark invective.  (There was once an unwritten rule in sitcoms that the main character had to be sympathetic.)  In the fourth episode, “Goodbye Dolly” (12/29/76), the character of Lt. Whipple (Jonathan Daly) was introduced to provide the show’s star with a suitable nemesis.  Whipple was an arrogant know-it-all and brown noser whose pronounced front teeth would often prompt Sharkey to mimic him in a “rabbit” fashion whenever Whipple’s back was turned (Sharkey also called him “Lieutenant Bugs Bunny” out of earshot).  Whipple stayed around for the show’s second and last season when the decision was made to replace Quinlan with a by-the-book commander in Captain Buckner (played by character great Richard X. Slattery).

With the exception of “The Dear John Letter” (12/22/76), which is offered in truncated syndication form only because the episode’s master has gone missing from the vaults, the remaining episodes of CPO Sharkey are presented in the best possible shape to be expected from a series that was videotaped, not filmed.  It was a nice little wallow in nostalgia to watch the sitcom again, and a couple of episodes were quite enjoyable.  I found “Sharkey Finds Peace and Quiet” to be the best of the bunch; a risible outing in which our hero rents an apartment off-base to escape the demands of his recruits and other pests (Whipple) due to his habit of working late.  (Sharkey also wants a little rendezvous with “Natalie,” his girlfriend who, to my knowledge, was only talked to by telephone.  This episode also introduces Philip Simms as Recruit Apodaca, who replaced Mignone in Sharkey’s company come Season 2.)  “The Pizza Party” (3/23/77) is also a hoot; a planned graduation shindig in the barracks has to be halted because Sharkey is all too aware of the penalty should the men get caught.  (TDOY fave Vito Scotti plays the pizza delivery guy in this, which is probably why I was entertained by it so.)  Of course, it’s hard to resist the charms of the first season closer, “A Wino is Loose” (3/30/77), with Hal Horn favorite Larry Storch as the titular inebriate who insists on overstaying his welcome.  (I’ve always been a fan of Rickles’ appearance on F Troop in “The Return of Bald Eagle,” so it was a treat watching these two old pros work together again.)

Included on the CPO Sharkey set is a classic Tonight Show with Johnny Carson sequence—one that I joked on Facebook may be remembered more than any episodes of the actual Sharkey series.  Don Rickles’ best friend Bob Newhart was guest-hosting for Carson one night, and when a joke of Don’s didn’t go over the way he hoped Rickles accidentally broke the cigarette box Johnny had been keeping on his desk since the show’s New York days.  The next night, Carson returns to find the damaged box and Doc Severinsen fills his boss in on how the mishap occurred; informed that Rickles is taping an episode of Sharkey across the way, Johnny bursts in the middle of taping and gives his frequent guest what for.

I don’t know where the Tonight Show clip of this encounter featured on the Sharkey collection originated, but I know it’s wildly different from the one you can watch on YouTube because the CPO Sharkey collection’s version eliminates a pair of Carson-emulating-Rickles jokes (he cracks to Don’s Sharkey co-star Page “I hope you kept the cotton mill down South—if this show goes like the others, you’ll be out of work come January!”) and the hilarious bit where Rickles begins to grovel in Johnny’s presence (“Keep me on your show…you mean so much to me” ) is shot from a different angle (my guess is that it was one of the Sharkey cameras).  (The bit where Don introduces Carson to his audience, and Johnny replies in a petulant Jack Benny manner “They know who I am!” is falling-down hysterical.)

No self-respecting Don Rickles fan will want to be without CPO Sharkey: The Complete Season One; it was the perfect vehicle for the comic’s caustic style of humor (though the Sharkey character is really just a big pussycat), and even when an episode isn’t exactly teeming with giggles Rickles is capable of carrying the load with attitude to spare (in one episode, he even self-references his famous nickname by referring to himself as “Mr. Warmth”).  I’m looking forward to catching Season Two if Time-Life gets that far, and in case it slips my mind next Friday—happy birthday to you, Mr. Rickles.

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