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Although he has a penchant for dark comedies, actor-director Danny DeVito is serious about his craft, his family and his cigars.
David Shaw
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

As Cigar Aficionado magazine approaches 20 years in print, we are taking a look back at some of the most memorable stories we have published over the years. In this step back into our vaults, we go to 1996 when we profiled the talented Danny DeVito.

Monday is gardener's day on Danny DeVito's narrow cul-de-sac high above Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills. On this particular Monday, the crowded street is, as usual, alive with the sounds of more power mowers, leaf blowers, pickup trucks and foreign accents than you can shake a rake at. Navigating the street to turn into DeVito's driveway is like trying to maneuver among the cheek-by-jowl stalls of some international open-air market.

But inside the DeVito compound—behind the large, electronically controlled gate and the security system—all is tranquil. The master of the house—52 years old, 5 feet tall, balding, a little overweight—is strolling about in a long-sleeve blue shirt, dark blue slacks and rubber shower sandals. His shirt is open at the collar. Both shirt cuffs are also unbuttoned (but not rolled up), and for some inexplicable reason, he's wearing the shower sandals over socks. As he shuffles down the driveway, greeting a visitor and various staff members with the same blend of warmth and wisecracks for which his on-screen persona is best known, he seems like the world's shortest—and most relaxed—pasha.

"Park here and give your car key to Penny," he says, pointing to one of his assistants. Then, grinning, sotto voce to Penny: "See how much you can get for the car." Penny laughs. We walk inside.

"How about some coffee," he says, then—sotto voce to Pam, another aide—"Try using the good stuff for a change, OK?"

Danny DeVito portrait.

Everyone laughs. Obviously and justifiably pleased with himself, DeVito escorts his guest to the patio—one of two at the house—and almost immediately, tranquility yields to what appears to be pent-up frustration and anger. Unprompted, DeVito begins complaining about studio and media treatment of his most recent movie, Matilda, which he directed and starred in and which he has a special feeling about because it was based on a Roald Dahl book that was first brought to his attention by his then-10-year-old daughter, Lucy.

Matilda, like many DeVito movies (and several Dahl books), is a dark comedy, the story of a little girl who is a budding genius but whose vulgar, dim-witted parents (played by DeVito and his real-life wife, Rhea Perlman) are too self-absorbed to notice or care. Matilda is sent to a school run by a principal whom one critic called "the most disgusting, sadistic, terrifying principal I've ever seen." But with the help of a sympathetic teacher and her own telekinetic powers, Matilda ultimately prevails on both the domestic and scholastic fronts.

Many critics praised DeVito's direction ("bravely subversive dramatization"—The Washington Post) and his acting ("DeVito can certainly be forgiven for stealing his own movie, since he does it in such jaunty high style"—The New York Times), and the trade paper Variety predicted upon its release that Matilda had "definite sleeper potential and could very well outgross many more highly publicized and star-studded summer releases." But other critics found the movie too harsh, cruel and scary for young children, and it wound up something of a domestic box office disappointment in certain quarters, given what it cost to make.

The film took in more than $8 million in gross receipts the weekend it opened, but audiences shriveled fairly quickly thereafter, and in the eighth week of its release, it took in only $108,000. Still, it grossed more than $30 million by summer's end, and as DeVito points out, it wound up "the number one non-Disney family film of the summer."

"With the foreign box office receipts and video, it'll go through the roof," DeVito says. "It's not Independence Day, but is that what the studios and the media are telling us—'You either do ID4 numbers or you're a flop'? That's sick." He pauses. "Besides, if the studio had really gotten behind Matilda...." His voice trails off.

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