After sharing his condolences via Twitter Thursday (as did his wife, Jimmy Kimmel Live!'s co-head writer Molly McNearney), the 49-year-old host spent the first 12 minutes of his show honoring the late comedian. "This is not going to be our usual show tonight—and I'll tell you right up front that I'm going to cry, probably a lot, which is embarrassing," Kimmel said as he struggled to maintain his composure. "But, uh…Well, I'm not good with this sort of thing, and I'm sorry, especially to those of you who came here to see the show in person, because that's probably not what you came for—but we lost someone that we and I love very much today."
"Again, I'm sorry if you're just hearing this for the first time today, but Don Rickles passed away this morning. He was 90 years old," he told the studio audience. "I know it sounds crazy to say he was too young, but he was, because he was youthful and so funny and sharp and generous."
"I was fortunate enough to not only have Don on this show as my guest, but also to become close to him and his wife Barbara, which was a lot of fun for me," the comedian continued. "I grew up in Las Vegas, so Don Rickles—even when I was kid—was a very big deal. His name was on the marquee at the Sahara Hotel. You could see him with Johnny Carson, making fun of Johnny, making fun of Frank Sinatra. People always wanted to hear Don tell Sinatra stories, and he had great stories. And I think this might be what brought us together, because I told Don, 'The Sinatra stories are great, but if Sinatra were here, I'd be asking him for stories about you.'"
"Don's good friend Bob Newhart, another national treasure, told me a great story about having dinner with Don and Sinatra that sums Don up pretty well, I think. Sinatra would sometimes get angry, for whatever reason, and flip out. One night they were all at a big table in a very fancy restaurant, and the restaurant was all white. Everything was white: the walls, the tablecloths, everything," he said. "Don and Barbara, and Bob and his wife, Ginny, were at the table. Frank was drinking and he wasn't in a good mood. He was getting surly, which put everyone on edge."
"When Frank wasn't happy, you had to watch it. So, they're drinking and the food comes and the waiter brings a bottle of ketchup and puts it on the table in front of Frank. And for whatever reason, this sends Frank into a rage. He doesn't want ketchup on the table, so he takes the bottle—in a very crowded, elegant restaurant—and he throws it at the wall. The bottle smashes and there's ketchup everywhere, and everyone in the restaurant stops. There's like a gasp. And Don, without missing a beat, turns and says, 'Frank, will you pass the ketchup?'" Kimmel told the audience. "Sinatra laughs and everyone laughs and nobody dies that night, thanks to Don."
When Kimmel mentioned Rickles' first Jimmy Kimmel Live! appearance in 2006, he once again lost control of his emotions and fought hard to suppress his tears. "We'd been trying to book him since the beginning. We asked him to do the show over and over again. He didn't know what this was. He knew The Tonight Show and Letterman and that's it," he said. "But finally, after we bothered him like 20 times, he gave up and he did the show for my birthday in 2006."
"It was exciting, like I was in some kind of talk show host fantasy camp, sitting behind a desk while Don Rickles made fun of me. It was like being a real talk show host for a minute," he said. "Don came to visit 17 more times after that. Whenever he was on, we would go out to dinner."
The only time they didn't have dinner was when Rickles was booked at the last minute; Kimmel had already made plans with comedian Jeff Ross, who was celebrating his 50th birthday and was in town for one night. "A few days before, I told Don, 'I can't go to dinner after the show because I already have plans; we'll go another night.' I couldn't tell him I was going to another dinner with someone else or he would bust my balls 'til I had none left. I was non-specific; I just said I couldn't make it. We made plans for another night," he said. "After the show I said goodbye to Don and went to dinner with Jeff. Jeff and I, and my cousin Sal, are sitting at the table, and who walks in? And not only walks in, but is seated at the table right next to us? Don."
As predicted, Rickles spent the rest of the night busting Kimmel's balls. "He says, 'I thought you couldn't go to dinner!' I'm like, 'It's his birthday! I didn't know!'" Kimmel said. "He hammered me and heckled me through the whole meal, until finally I got up and moved over to his table."
"At those dinners, Don would drink vodka and tell stories. Bob Saget and John Stamos were like Don's—I don't want to say sons, because most sons once they pass the age of 10 don't want to hear anything their father says—but Bob and John loved him," Kimmel said. "They were more like his stepdaughters, I would say. Don would make fun of John Stamos for three hours straight without a breath, and John loved it."
"He made fun of everybody. He would come here and he would make fun of me, Guillermo, the band, the audience, the guy who put the microphone on his lapel. He'd make fun of the vegetable platter in his dressing room. When he'd come to my house, he'd yell about the stairs, as if I put them specifically to inconvenience him. Every time I'd see him, he'd say, 'You still have those stairs?' 'No, we're pole-vaulting into the house now.'"
"I once took him to Mozza, which is Mario Batali's restaurant here; it's a very nice restaurant. We rent the private room in the back, we had food, and I invited his friends. It was beautiful. It was very expensive, OK?" Kimmel told viewers. "I paid for it, and at the end of this beautiful meal, he says to me—I'll never forget it—he says, 'I can't believe you took me to a pizza place.'"
Rickles "was very sweet," said Kimmel, who again burst into tears. "They called him Mr. Warmth as a joke, but that was what he was. He would always ask about my parents, my kids. When my Uncle Frank passed away, I called him and asked him to be the guest on that show, which was a tough show, and he helped all of us through it. He gave me advice—and good advice! Not the advice people give you just to hear themselves giving you advice. He would always say, 'Keep my name alive,' which I thought was funny because I was like, 'You're Don Rickles; you keep my name alive!' He was humble. He was thoughtful. I went through my hope chest today; I don't really have a hope chest. I have a box. I saved every note he ever sent me."
He added, ""There are like 27 note and letters from Don, and I want to read a couple of them:"
• "Dear Jimmy, thanks so much for inviting me into your home for dinner, but to be honest, we would have preferred a three-month trip to Venice, Italy. Love, Don."
• "Dear Jimmy, thanks so much for the beautiful frame of you and I. Who needs Sinatra? Your picture of us together is much more important. Please don't show this note to anyone 'cause it could cause harm to anyone in my family. Love, Don."
• "Jimmy, thank you so much for the bottles of wine. We've been so busy crushing grapes with our bare feet, hoping to have wine for the holidays, and you came to the rescue just in time."
• "Dear Jimmy, what a great, thoughtful gift for Christmas. Such a good Italian! Maybe you should open a deli and start selling salami."
• "Dear Jimmy, we watched your Academy Awards show. Barbara loved every bit of it, but here's what I thought: You were on camera too much. All in all it was OK. We love you, so don't worry."
"He was a funny guy; I know that's not a news flash. I was lucky to know him. My love and condolences to Don's wife, Barbara; his daughter; Mindy, his stepdaughters; Bob and John; his main man, Tony O; Paul Shefrin," the comedian said. "There will never be another Don Rickles."
Calling Rickles "the greatest talk show guest of all time," Kimmel "put together a video tribute" highlighting his past TV appearances. "Here he is, the one, the only Mr. Warmth: Don Rickles."
Elsewhere in late-night, The Late Show's Stephen Colbert opened his show by paying tribute to the legend. "While I didn't know Don Rickles, I did have the incredible honor to meet him once backstage at the Emmys. We were both up for Best Host of a Variety Show—and the better one of us one. I went over to congratulate him when he was doing his photos backstage of his Emmy, and our show, The Colbert Report, had just won for Writing. He hugged me and told me I was 'good.' And I felt like a made man, because we all should have his career and be who he was—married to his wife, I don't know, 120 years? God bless you, Don Rickles, and thank you."
The Tonight Show's Jimmy Fallon briefly paid tribute to the "comedy legend" as well. "He's been on The Tonight Show a countless number of times. I've personally been out to dinner with him a few times where he said some truly, truly mean things to me," he told fans in Orlando, where The Tonight Show is taping this week. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family."
Late Night's Seth Meyers called Rickles "one of the all-time greats" and shared one of his favorite memories of the comic. "I've told this story before, but it meant so much to me," he said. "A few years ago, I was at a party and Don Rickles was there. He was sitting at a table and he was alone. I said to myself, 'I will always regret it if I don't go over and say hello to Don Rickles.' I went over and I said, 'Mr. Rickles, I just wanted to say hello. My name is Seth Meyers. I'm on Saturday Night Live.' He just looked at me and said, 'Oh, I'm so sorry to hear Saturday Night Live was canceled.' I was like, 'Oh, it wasn't canceled.' He just went, 'A guy can dream!'"
"There's nothing better than getting burned by Don Rickles. I was always very thankful for that," he added, "and I was always grateful that we got to enjoy his comedy for all these many years."
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