Don Rickles has died at the age of 90. In the immediate aftermath of this sad news, Rickles fans are reliving some of his greatest hits, and it’s impossible to have a conversation about the best of Don Rickles without discussing his famous cigarette box incident with Johnny Carson.
In December 1976, Don Rickles was the guest host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and at one point during the show, he slammed down on Johnny Carson’s cigarette box, which was always positioned on Carson’s desk. On the next night’s show, when Johnny Carson returns to his seat, he realizes live on air that the cigarette box is broken, and he’s told that Don Rickles is the one who broke it.
Carson is also told that Rickles is in the building taping his own show, C.P.O. Sharkey, and so Carson brings a camera man with him to go confront Rickles on the set of that show.
Rickles is in the middle of a scene when Carson barges in, and Carson jokingly asks if he was busy with anything. Carson proceeds to grill Rickles about what happened to the cigarette box and asking him what he plans to do about this, although he’s clearly just having a good time and is not legitimately upset.
“Next Christmas I’m going to make sure a tree drops on your head,” Rickles tells Carson.
The studio audience both of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and of C.P.O Sharkey found this all hilarious, and they were in hysterics during the entire segment. This was not a planned sketch; Rickles later said that he was genuinely surprised by Carson walking into the studio.
“Look at the film, you’ll see,” he told The New York Times in 2015. “I was really taken. In those days, those were bigger cameras than they are today. To schlep all that stuff into the other studio was quite an event.”
Rickles did say, though, that the two of them definitely played up the importance of that cigarette box for comedy purposes.
“That happened to be a genuine accident. But we made it dramatic,” Rickles told The New York Times. “It wasn’t the jewel case of the queen. It was just a box that he had on his desk. Of course, knowing Johnny, he milked it a little bit. And I added to it.”