Although he has a penchant for dark comedies, actor-director Danny DeVito is serious about his craft, his family and his cigars.
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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?"
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.
Didn't he urge the studio to support it vigorously? Didn't he complain when it didn't?
"Sure. But if the studio is not behind your movie totally, you can call and fax and complain about ads and do anything else you want, and it's like pissing in the wind."
Complaining about "the studio"—in this case, Sony Pictures and its TriStar subsidiary—is as common in Hollywood as complaining about the White House in Washington, D.C., even for someone as successful, respected and well-liked as DeVito, who has acted in, directed and/or produced more than 50 films.
"Hollywood is a jungle," DeVito says. "It's full of quicksand, vermin and flesh-eating beasts. Making a movie is not a walk in the park. Every movie is like navigating treacherous terrain.... There are a lot of good people in Hollywood, but every once in a while, someone gets a top studio job who doesn't know anything about filmmaking...doesn't know what the fuck it is to make a movie."
DeVito is especially incensed, he says, that the studio leaked word to the media that Matilda cost almost $50 million to make, rather than the $35 million acknowledged by DeVito's production company, Jersey Films. DeVito insists the $35 million figure is correct, and he worries that given the box office returns so far, the $50 million figure "sends a message [to the investment community] that non-Disney kid movies don't make money.
"Why would a studio want to do that?" he asks. "Is that the way you want to go to sleep at night—thinking, 'Wow, I really fucked that movie up!'?"
This is not the first time that DeVito has clashed with Sony, which may account for the intensity of his anger today. But on Matilda, he had to suffer an added indignity: "The studio wouldn't let me smoke on the set." DeVito says he lit up a cigar once and was told it was against fire department regulations, so he promised not to do it again. "But they hired a full-time fireman to keep an eye on me anyway—and they made us pay for it."
Fortunately, DeVito has always been enormously popular with his crews, and the crew on Matilda quickly erected a special "smoking tent" for him outside the sound stage, outfitting it with chairs, a table, a telephone, plants and a large ashtray.
"I like to smoke when I'm working," DeVito says. "Usually, I smoke one cigar a day, after lunch, but when I'm working, I smoke more. It helps relax me."
DeVito says his father smoked DeNobilis, an inexpensive, Italian-style, machine-made cigar that young Danny found "a little rough" for his adolescent taste. In his early days as an Off-Off-Broadway actor in New York, he occasionally bought some DeNobilis himself, but he says cigars were "mostly on the back burner" for him for a long time, and he came to appreciate them only gradually.
In the late 1970s and early '80s, when he was starring in the hit television series "Taxi," in which he played the lovable louse Louie DePalma, he and the other key players in the show got into the habit of coming together for various special occasions—birthdays, weddings, the opening of a new season—to have a nice meal, open a box of Cuban cigars and join in a celebratory smoke.
It wasn't until meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger that DeVito began to smoke cigars regularly. While filming Twins in 1987, Schwarzenegger gave him a box of cigars. "I was on a major diet then," DeVito recalls, "so Arnold being Arnold, he also gave me a dozen pastries."
DeVito didn't eat all the pastries. But he did smoke all the cigars, and sometime after that, he began making them part of his routine—first just on weekends and now, every day. His favorites are all Cubans. He began with Cohibas, switched to Partagas Serie D No. 4 after a few years and recently switched again, to Diplomaticos. "Now I'm starting to have a big leaning toward Bolivars," DeVito says. "It depends on my mood and where I am and what I'm doing. When I'm not working on a movie, I like to get up in the morning and take the kids to school, come home and read and work out and have a good lunch and come outside and fire up. A Bolivar seems nice then."
As DeVito speaks, his two dogs—Ocean and Pepper—walk over, looking for a little attention. He pets them both and, in his sternest director's voice, tells them to go away. They ignore him and lie down. But all this cigar talk reminds him of his favorite cigar story:
"I was flying to Europe right after we finished The War of the Roses. It was an all-night flight. We had a great meal and they were going to pour some Port and I had a stogie with me and there were only a handful of people in first class. I had had a couple of drinks and I was with friends and I was feeling good. It was just the perfect time for a nice stogie. The flight attendants had been real friendly, so I said, 'Boy, I would really love to fire up now.' They said, 'You really can't.' I asked why not. They said the passengers would be really upset. I said, 'What if I asked every passenger on the plane—first class, coach, everyone—if they minded?' One of the flight attendants said, 'Well, OK, if you get everyone's permission.'
"I got up and walked the full length of the plane and said hello to everyone who was awake and asked if I could smoke. Everyone said OK. But there was one guy in the back of the first-class cabin who said, 'There is no way you are going to light up a cigar on this airplane' "—DeVito smiles his slyly malevolent movie smile—"'unless you give me one.'"
DeVito fairly cackles with joy at the recollection.
"It was the most enjoyable transatlantic flight I ever had."
Danny DeVito was born in 1944 in the shore town of Neptune, New Jersey—hence the name of his production company—and raised in neighboring Asbury Park, the youngest of five children (two of whom died before he was born). His father owned a pool hall, and Danny became adept with a cue at a young age; even now, he has a pool table in his home. He was a streetwise teenager whose love of movies and sense of the theatrical developed early. Once, while eating ice cream with some friends—one of whom happened to have a starter's pistol—he decided on a bit of impromptu street theater: he staged a fight that involved a phony shootout between two of his friends, after which he and his cohorts jumped into a car owned by the father of one of the friends and raced off into the dark night, while bystanders gaped in stunned silence. DeVito later restaged the event and filmed it as A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening.
But he didn't go straight from the streets of Jersey to the sound stages of Hollywood. There were several detours along the way.
"I wasn't sure what I wanted to do when I got out of high school," he says. College didn't seem a likely or desirable option, "and I didn't want to go too far away [from home]. I was sort of hanging out at the house, and one day, my sister Angela said, 'Why don't you become a hairdresser and work for me at my salon?' I figured, well, I'm not doing anything else, and I could meet a lot of girls there."
Girls had not played an especially large role in DeVito's adolescent life, in part because of his height. "When I was young, I always wished I were taller," he says. "I was plagued; I couldn't slow-dance with the girls I wanted to because my face would be in a spot where I might be thought of as"—shy grin—"moving too fast."
DeVito says his diminutive stature made him a bit bashful as a youngster. It also made him a target for neighborhood toughs. "I took a lot of lumps," he says, "but I had a lot of friends who helped me and looked out for me."
DeVito didn't have any major romances in his sister's beauty salon, and after 18 months, he realized he could probably make more money as a cosmetician than as a hairdresser. He saw an ad and tried to enroll in a makeup class at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. To get into the school, DeVito had to do a monologue. A longtime film buff— "ever since I saw Battle of Algiers" (the 1965 masterpiece by Gillo Pontecorvo)—he figured that he might as well take some acting classes, too.
It didn't take long for him to see that acting was his true calling. After two years at the American Academy, he got a job in summer theater and went to the Eugene O'Neill Foundation in Waterford, Connecticut, where he met Michael Douglas, later to become a major figure in his life, both personally and professionally. About that time, DeVito read the serialization of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood in The New Yorker, and when he heard that the book was being turned into a movie, he decided he just had to play one of the killers, Perry Smith. He headed for Hollywood. Robert Blake had already been cast for the part, but DeVito stuck around for a while anyway.
"I worked as a car parker and I hung around the Sunset Strip with all the flower children," he says. "I had long hair and I wore a raincoat and sneakers and I fit right in. But I wanted to act."