At the Los Angeles premiere of Netflix’s Sandy Wexler on Thursday, comedians Chris Tucker and Arsenio Hall took time from walking the red carpet at the ArcLight Cinema’s Cinema Dome to share memories of Rickles with PEOPLE.
For Tucker, he originally misunderstood Rickles’ brash comedy, before realizing that was just the star’s humor.
“I thought he was racist at first and then I was like, ‘Oh that’s Don Rickles — he ain’t racist, he’s just a legend,’ ” the Rush Hour actor, 45, said. “He’s an icon. There will never be another one. He’s just a jewel and I’m so shocked and a little bit upset that he’s not going to be with us anymore.”
Hall, 61, agreed — and praised Rickles for his risky jokes.
“Don Rickles was cool because Don Rickles had edge before I knew what it was,” he said. “Don Rickles was usually teasing the black trumpet player on The Tonight Show, but you could look through his eyes into his heart and know that he didn’t mean no harm.”
At the TMC Classic Film Festival’s 50th anniversary screening of In the Heat of the Night on Thursday, a handful of stars including Todd Fisher, Dick Cavett, Ilana Douglas and director John Landis also paid tribute to Rickles.
Landis, who knew Rickles for many decades since working behind the scenes on 1970’s Kelly’s Heroes and later directed Don to his Emmy-winning turn in the documentary Mr. Warmth, said that Rickles was more than just an insult comic.
“What he did was so unique,” Landis told PEOPLE. “He’s not an insult kind of a guy — I hate that people reduce it to that. But that film, if you’ve seen it, you see what he did in a club, or a cabaret, or a showroom. It really was special, and he was a dear man.”
“I loved him,” Landis continued. “I worked with him many times and known him my whole life. He was totally sweet. Don, in real life, was the sweetest, most generous, kindest guy. And that persona? It was fascinating. This is a sad day.”
Cavett had hosted Rickles many times on his ’70s talk show and remembered the late comedian’s quick wit.
“The amount and the unique kind of intelligence that it took for him to make those lightning decisions, and gauge what to say and whether he could get away with it? Rickles was a genius, a sort that is very rare and very wonderful.”
The 80-year-old television giant also said Rickles wasn’t as tough as he appeared. “He worried about hurting people’s feelings, which I thought he should not worry about,” Cavett explained. “Just keep us laughing.”
Fisher, who recently lost his sister Carrie and mother Debbie Reynolds, remembered his late mother’s friendship with Rickles.
“He was a good buddy of my mom’s,” Fisher, 59, said. “They played Vegas together a lot. It was great. Most people were scared of Don Rickles for good reason, but not her — when she felt he was fresh, she would smack him. He thought that was so funny and so cute. They were so cute together — they respected each other.”
“Underrated as an actor, he should go down in history as one of the all-time great comedians,” Fisher added of Rickles. “He is a giant in that field. I can think of nobody funnier, more clever, more original, more real than him. Everybody respected his humor — even if it blew somebody away, they didn’t care.”
Actress Illeana Douglas is responsible for one of Rickles’ best film roles, suggesting to then-boyfriend Martin Scorsese that he cast the comedian in the 1995 drama Casino. As a thank you, Douglas “got to have dinner with Don Rickles,” which she called “one of the highlights of my life.”
“Being on the set of Casino and watching him break up De Niro was priceless — just priceless,” Douglas recalled. “Everyone dreams of being insulted by Don Rickles. He’s the greatest. There’ll never be another performer like him.”
- With reporting by and REAGAN ALEXANDER and SCOTT HUVER