NEW YORK (AP) — Barbara Rickles, the widow of Don Rickles and a fictionalized target of his comic insults during what was otherwise one of Hollywood’s most enduring marriages, died on the 56th anniversary of their wedding.
Her death was confirmed to The Associated Press by spokesman Paul Shefrin, who said she died Sunday at 84 at her home in Los Angeles. The cause was non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
“They were incredibly devoted to each other. She was the perfect woman for Don and vice-versa,” Shefrin wrote on his Facebook page. A close friend, Bob Saget, tweeted: “So sad to lose the beautiful, funny, wonderful Barbara Rickles.”
Barbara Sklar was a native of Philadelphia who in her early 20s moved to Los Angeles, according to daughter Mindy Rickles, in search of “more excitement” and as a respite from the eczema that she endured during childhood. She found work as an assistant to Don Rickles’ agent Jack Gilardi and soon met her future husband, whom she impressed because she didn’t initially laugh at his jokes. The Rickles married on March 14, 1965, and had two children — Mindy, an actor and comedian; and screenwriter-producer Larry Rickles, who died in 2011.
By many accounts, the Rickles were happily married right up to his death in 2017. Mindy Rickles told the AP that the family stayed together, even when her father was on the road, and that her mother was usually on hand to greet visitors at his dressing room and to dine with the comedian after his show. The Rickles socialized and traveled with another long-term Hollywood couple, Bob and Ginny Newhart, but Mindy Rickles says that her mother preferred a quiet, self-contained life.
“She was very much not one of those ladies who lunch,” Mindy Rickles said. “She could have had a million friends but kept just a couple of very close friends — and that included, of course, Ginny Newhart.”
Barbara Rickles did closely follow her husband’s career — even running his Twitter account after he died — and would help produce the Emmy-winning documentary “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” which came out in 2007 and included a rare interview with her, and the 2020 release “Don Rickles Live In Concert.” Don Rickles, in serious moments, would note that he was nearly 40 on his wedding day and had struggled for years to find someone.
“I advise any young person that gets married, really, work at it. If you work at it, it’s delightful,” he said in 1986, during one of his many appearances on the “Tonight” show with Johnny Carson, whom he would tease endlessly about his multiple marriages.
In his better known “Mr. Warmth” persona, Rickles told a different story. For decades, he cracked “take my wife” jokes about Barbara’s looks, about their sex life, about her love of jewelry, about her voice. When he appeared with Frank Sinatra on the “Tonight” show in 1976, he begged the singer to set him up with someone.
“I need a girl so bad,” Rickles said in mock despair. “I love my wife, but she’s ill.”
Near the end of his life, he was filmed reminiscing with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, with whom he worked in the 1995 film “Casino.” The conversation turned to marriage.
“You’re married again, right? You’re happy?” Rickles said to Scorsese.
“I’m married to Barbara — which is a mistake,” Rickles responded. “Nah, that’s a joke. She’ll hear it and say, ‘That’s not funny.’”
Mindy Rickles said one reason her parents got along so well was because her mother came to appreciate her fathers’ humor, and just “let it wash over her. The special quality of my mother was she loved to laugh at herself.” At times, Barbara Rickles could even laugh when her husband didn’t. Mindy Rickles remembered a time when the three of them flew to New York and, because of various ailments, her parents both requested wheelchairs.
“And by mistake they had a third wheelchair, so I just got into it as a joke. But before I knew it the three of us were being pushed in wheelchairs,” she said. “My dad was annoyed, but the two of us were laughing. We could not stop laughing. That was a thing I loved about my mother — she loved absurdity. ”