Mr. Potato Head is a toy that is known and loved by children around the world. What’s more, the character has become even more famous thanks to his part in the Toy Story movies. The man who voiced the CGI character was Don Rickles – but he sadly passed away in 2017, without having recorded a line of dialogue for the fourth instalment of the animated franchise.
Given this, it hence seemed that the part of Mr. Potato Head would either have to be cut or passed on to a new voice actor. However, the film’s producers were able to find an alternative solution that would please both Rickles’ family and Mr. Potato Head’s fans, while paying tribute to the entertainer.
And this move will surely represent a final bow for Rickles’ lifetime in show business. Indeed, the comedian passed away in 2017 at the age of 90, after a long and distinguished career as a stand-up and as an actor. Yet to a younger generation of fans, Rickles will be best remembered as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films.
In fact it was Rickles’ most prominent role in recent years by some way. And that’s despite the fact that he had performed at the inauguration of two U.S. presidents and racked up over a hundred appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He even won a Primetime Emmy Award in 2007 for a documentary about his work, titled Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project. While speaking to Maxim, however, Rickles himself joked, “I busted my bird for 60 years in the business, but my grandkids only know me as Mr. Potato Head.”
Nevertheless, the role was widely loved, and when news of the star’s death broke in April 2017 many fans took to social media to lament his loss. And their tributes were joined by messages from a host of celebrities, including Tom Hanks, who co-starred with Rickles in the Toy Story movies.
Hanks, a two-time winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor, tweeted, “A god died today. Don Rickles, we did not want to lose you. Never. Hanx.” Another admirer, Jimmy Kimmel, said on his show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, “I know it sounds crazy to say he was too young, but he was, because he was youthful and funny and sharp and generous.”
And Rickles had had celebrity pals throughout his life. He named the comedian Bob Newhart as his closest friend, while Frank Sinatra was another one of his acquaintances. In fact, Rickles was even a pallbearer at Sinatra’s funeral in 1998. Meanwhile, Barbara Streisand, Whoopi Goldberg and Ron Howard were just some of the notable individuals who paid tributes on Twitter following Rickles’ passing.
The outpouring of grief, from both celebrities and the general public, underlined the high esteem in which Rickles was held. And he had had a long career. In his earlier years, he had appeared in movies such as Run Silent, Run Deep and Kelly’s Heroes, with Clint Eastwood, as well as the Beach Party series. Decades later, though, he would reach a new generation of fans with the part of Mr. Potato Head in the first Toy Story, released in 1995.
The role was not the only time that Rickles worked in productions aimed primarily at younger audiences, however. In fact, in 1998 he starred as the perennially frustrated Mr. Wilson in the live-action movie, Dennis the Menace Strikes Again. The direct-to-video release actually saw him appearing opposite Betty White, who played Mrs. Wilson.
Another one of Rickles’ most memorable roles came in a far more adult movie – playing Billy Sherbert in Martin Scorsese’s Casino. His portrayal of the casino manager was a far cry from the Mr. Potato Head character. By a strange coincidence, though, Toy Story and Casino were released within four days of each other in November 1995.
It was a fact that wasn’t to escape Don Rickles, either. In a 1996 appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, the host introduced Rickles by saying, “Our first guest is calling himself the biggest box office star in Hollywood.” Rickles was forever the joker after all, and he had seen the numbers.
Letterman continued, “His two films Casino and Toy Story, listen to this, made a record $53 million [in] their opening weekend. He’s taking all the credit.” And with notable supporting roles in two major releases, why not? This was quite a turn for Rickles, after all, given that he had been enjoying only modest success in the years before.
However, Rickles considered the true highlight of his career to have been something else entirely. That fondly recalled moment was in fact when Rickles performed at President Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural ball. The comedian was to later perform for Reagan’s successor, President George H. W. Bush, as well.
And over the course of his life, Rickles received a range of awards, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2000 and the Johnny Carson Award for a lifetime of comedic excellence in 2012 – as well as the previously mentioned Primetime Emmy. What’s more, Rickles earned himself a legion of fans, friends and followers – and the nickname “Mr. Warmth.” However, he was also called “The Merchant of Venom.”
Rickles explained to TV host Larry King, “I make fun of the world. You know that. And if you know how to handle that and you treat people, and you make fun of yourself, hey, it’s not offensive.” And his sometimes cutting remarks didn’t seem to detract from the love that was clearly felt for Rickles.
After Rickles’ death, Bob Newhart wrote in a statement, “He was called ‘The Merchant of Venom,’ but in truth, he was one of the kindest, caring and most sensitive human beings we have ever known.” Indeed, it would seem that the act seen on stage was in fact a performance that had been finely honed by the real man.
The origin of the “Merchant of Venom” nickname was not hard to place, though. Rickles was famous for the put-downs in his stand-up routines, and nobody was off limits. According to legend, this was how Rickles and Sinatra had actually become friends. The two reportedly met for the first time when Rickles was on stage in Miami in 1957.
Sinatra was famously temperamental, so taking on the crooner was a dangerous tactic. However, Rickles decided to make light of that very fact. “Hey, Frank, make yourself at home: hit somebody!” he apparently quipped. And the audience waited with bated breath to see what Sinatra’s reaction would be.
Director John Landis described the scene to The Washington Post in 2017. “Everyone looked to see what Frank would do, because there were those 12 guys over there with guns,” he noted. Indeed, Sinatra was widely known to have connections with the Mafia. And fortunately for Rickles, “Ol’ Blue Eyes” saw the funny side of the joke – and the two would apparently form a lifelong friendship.
Rickles, meanwhile, got married in 1965 to Barbara Sklar and had two children: Larry and Mindy. Larry was a screenwriter and producer, and he won an Emmy for co-producing Mr. Warmth. Sadly, Larry passed away in 2011, six years before his father.
And not long before his death, the older Rickles was to reveal the continuing love that he had for his family. “We are celebrating our 52nd Wedding Anniversary, March 14th,” he wrote in his last ever social media post. “Happy Anniversary my dear wife, Barbara. You are my life.” The comic was survived by his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons.
Rickles had lived a full and successful life, and it’s perhaps hard to believe that he was already nearly 70 years old when the original Toy Story movie was released back in 1995. When the comedian agreed to voice the cranky Mr. Potato Head, he was in fact to take on one of his career-defining parts – and at an age at which most people would be enjoying their retirement.
It was a widely praised piece of casting, and Rickles would reprise the role in the film’s two sequels. Who else could so confidently portray the sarcastic spud? In his 1996 Late Show appearance, Letterman suggested that a physical resemblance might also have played a part in his casting. “Why do you suppose they thought of you, Don?” he asks.
But Rickles took the jest in good humor. “Well, to be very honest, it’s about a doll that goes to pieces,” he wryly responded. “And a highly sarcastic guy, which I am in life, but only in fun, and it did so well that Walt [Disney] got out of the box and wanted to see the receipts.” While Disney would eventually buy out Pixar in 2007, the film’s makers were a competitor to the “House of Mouse” at the time.
And Toy Story would be a runaway success, making an estimated $373 million globally. What’s more, those figures would actually be bettered by its sequels. Toy Story 2, released in 1999, made $485 million worldwide, while Toy Story 3 made a cool $1 billion in 2010. Indeed, at the time, that haul made it the third best performing animated film ever made; and it remains the 28th highest-grossing movie of all time.
There are hence naturally high expectations for Toy Story 4. And that’s not to mention the fact that the release date has been significantly delayed. Indeed, with an original planned opening for June 2017, there’s been an additional two years for fans to wait. And that anticipation has only been added to by the casting of established stars such as Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks.
The story, meanwhile, is a continuation of scenes featured at the end of Toy Story 3, with the beloved group of playthings now bequeathed to a little girl named Bonnie. New characters include Forky, a spork that has been made into a DIY toy; Gabby Gabby, a doll voiced by Hendricks; and Duke Caboom, a daredevil toy voiced by Reeves.
The film promises the same mix of comedy, adventure and sentimentality that has made the franchise such a success with children and adults alike. What’s more, fans will be thrilled to see the return of old favorites including Woody and Buzz Lightyear. And, to add to that, there’s Mr. Potato Head.
Yet, by rights, Mr. Potato Head shouldn’t even be in the film. Or, more accurately, it shouldn’t be the same Mr. Potato Head that fans have grown to know and love, as voiced by Don Rickles. After all, Rickles passed away back in April 2017, two years before the movie’s release.
Toy Story 4 was announced to the public all the way back in November 2014. Rickles and the franchise’s other star names, such as Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Joan Cusack were all on board. Creating a blockbuster CGI animated movie is a complicated process, however, and the production dragged on.
Indeed, the movie’s release would ultimately be knocked back twice – pushing it from 2017 to 2019. In the meantime, Rickles succumbed to kidney failure on April 6, 2017. And despite having signed a contract to appear in the movie, Rickles hadn’t actually recorded any of his dialogue by the time of his death.
It hence seemed that Rickles’ performance as Mr. Potato Head had reached a permanent end. This presented the film’s makers with the dilemma of exactly how they would fill the part. One can only imagine that the film would have required some significant rewrites to work around the issue.
But this wasn’t the first time that the producers had had to deal with the death of a cast member. Slinky Dog has appeared in all three movies to date. However, the voice of the character in Toy Story 3 was not that of Jim Varney, who filled the part in the first two instalments. Varney sadly passed away in 2000, in fact, and was replaced by Blake Clark in the third episode.
Rickles’ family would follow a different path, though. They apparently got in touch with Toy Story 4’s producers to see if there was a way that the stand-up could still play the part of Mr. Potato Head. And they had a solution that would allow Rickles to appear in the movie rather than simply being replaced.
Director Josh Cooley explained their suggestion to Entertainment Weekly in April 2019. “We loved Don, obviously, and after he passed, his family contacted us and asked if there was any way that we could create a performance using the recordings that we had,” Cooley said. And thanks to Rickles’ time on the franchise there was a great deal that was possible.
“[Rickles] signed to be in Toy Story 4,” Cooley explained. “Unfortunately we did not get a chance to record him for the film. But we went through 25 years of everything we didn’t use for Toy Story 1, 2, 3, the theme parks, the ice capades, the video games – everything that he’s recorded for Mr. Potato Head. And we were able to do that.”
“I’m very honored that they asked us to do that, and I’m very honored that he’s in the film,” Cooley said. “Nobody can replace him.” And so the Toy Story 4 team got to work – and it’s a fitting tribute to a man who meant so much to so many people.
“All of his pieces may be replaceable but his voice is not,” said Cooley, referring to Mr. Potato Head’s interchangeable facial features. The final word on Rickles – and his relationship with the character – is perhaps best left to John Lasseter, the former Executive Vice President of Pixar and the director of Toy Story and Toy Story 2.
“Don Rickles was a comic genius, and here at Pixar we were honored to also call him a friend,” Lasseter said in a statement released by Pixar, following Rickles’ death. “The wit, personality and incredible timing he brought to Mr. Potato Head lit up the character and made him an essential part of the Toy Story ensemble.”
And Lasseter succinctly related Rickles’ impact to the characteristics of the toy that the comedian voiced. “Even though Mr. Potato Head’s facial features fell off in every Toy Story movie, his heart never left him,” he said. “That was because of Don. We will miss him tremendously.”