When Don Rickles heard that NBC had picked up its option on "CPO Sharkey" for its new fall schedule, he wanted to take out an ad in the Hollywood trade papers that would read: "I would like to thank NBC for a pickup for the sencond year, but unfortunately I have to refuse the pickup because I don't know how to handle a second year."
Rickles' lack of success in situation comedies - first at ABC, later at CBS - is always good for a laugh when he and other comedians gather.Johnny Carson usually saves mention of it for the moment when Rickles, appearing as a guest on the "Tonight" show, is in the process of setting a new record for zingers at Carson's expense.
But now Rickles is pleased with the way "CPO Sharkey" seems to be catching on. He finds people no longer come up to him on the street in Los Angeles or in Las Vegas and say, "Hi, you dummy," or "You hockey puck." Now it is usually, "Hi, chief," or "Hi, Shark."
Sitting in his Beverly Hills home on a recent afternoon amid the barking of two French poodles and gazing at a soda fountain installed by former owners Leo Durocher and his then-wife, actress Laraine Day, Rickles revealed a side of himself that few have imagined in a man who achieved fame as a nightclub and television comedian.
He started his career as an aspiring actor and was once enrolled in the National Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York with Jason Robards, Anne Bancroft and Grace Kelly. Kelly, he remembers, wore white gloves and was delivered and picked up each day by limousine.
Rickles had troubles with the teaching methods at the academy. "I was amazed that I was kept in the academy," he said. "Most of these people were dedicated actors. We had to act out the roles of butterflies or reindeer. One day we were gypsies on a hill. I used to sit there and think, 'Are they crazy? A gypsy on a hill?"
"Then you had to do all these improvisations. The teacher would say, 'We are two moths on a curtain.' I was always in trouble because I was always doing the jokes. I said, 'What do I have to do, eat the drapes? I don't eat drapes.' So I was always doing the flip things and all the other people were working."
Then came unsuccessful efforts to audition for roles in the Broadway plays "Stalag 17" and "Mr. Roberts." "I got a cold from taking my shirt off so many times in an effort to get the part of a sailor," quips Rickles. He finally decided he wasn't destined to be an actor. Helping him in reaching that decision was the attitude of his family.
"My family had to pay for the training. Coming from a Jewish family, everyone was saying, 'Is he a queer?' All the uncles from the garment district said, 'He 's a queer, huh? Who figured, who figured, Max, that your kid would be a queer?'"
Rickles found out during spell in a nightclub on 14th Street in Washington in the early '50s that he could not tell a funny story: So he began to develop a comedic routine that depended on insulting the audience.
But it took a long time to develop the technique for which he is now famous. It included serving time in the middle '50s playing the lounge at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas.
"Louis Prima and Keely Smith were in the main room and I played the lounge at 5 in the morning. I did a show for three hookers, a dead monkey and a wino with his fly open. On top of that, they served breakfast during my act. 'Pass the eggs, Charlie.' 'C'mon in, Charlie.' It was the worst."
Rickles credits Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle, who had seen him perform in Miami Beach as well as Las Vegas and Hollywood, with being the biggest influences on his career. After that, he credits Dean Martin and his executive producer, Greg Garrison, for giving him the chance to perform on Martin's television variety show.
His greatest fame, at least until now, has come from his appearances as a guest on other performers' shows. But now producer Aaron Ruben has developed in "CPO Sharkey" a role in which Rickles displays many of the characteristics that we have come to expect from his guest appearances on television and his performances in Las Vegas. He finally has achieved the goal that has long eluded him: having his option picked up on his own series. That provides a great deal of satisfaction to a hockey-puck from Queens who somehow could never double for a moth on a pair of drapes.