Although he has a penchant for dark comedies, actor-director Danny DeVito is serious about his craft, his family and his cigars.
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96
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"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."
People told DeVito, "Nobody wants a five-foot character actor," so he returned to New York, began making a few films with his own 8mm camera and worked in a few Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway productions. At a performance of one of them, The Shrinking Bride, an aspiring actress from Brooklyn named Rhea Perlman was in the audience to see a friend, who was also in the cast. The three of them went out afterward. Two weeks later, DeVito and Perlman were living together in a Manhattan apartment that they sublet from Douglas.
In 1970, DeVito landed a role in a stage revival of Ken Kesey's classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and soon thereafter, he was making frequent appearances in small films and producing his own even smaller films. Then, in 1975, came DeVito's first big break: Douglas produced the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and asked DeVito to reprise his Off-Broadway role. Cuckoo became the first movie in 40 years to sweep the top five Academy Awards—best picture, actor, actress, director and screenplay—and even though DeVito himself didn't win an Oscar, the movie gave him both the visibility he had previously lacked and yet another powerful friend: Cuckoo star Jack Nicholson.
Ironically, Nicholson had grown up just a few towns away from DeVito in New Jersey. (The two had never met, although DeVito says that when Nicholson first went to Hollywood, he heard quite a bit about the local boy who was trying to become a movie star.) After working together on Cuckoo, "Jack started telling every director he worked with that he should hire me," DeVito recalls, the gratitude still evident in his tone of voice. Not too many directors followed Nicholson's advice, but DeVito found enough roles on his own to shed whatever residual insecurities he had about his height.
"Once I started acting, I realized that my size made me unique," he says. "That opened me up, made me deal with it in a positive way and see the positive side of it. Hell, if I was one of six guys auditioning for a role, I knew I'd be the one who was most different from the others—and maybe that would be just what the director was looking for."
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