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DeVito!

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

(continued from page 4)

DeVito teamed with Nicholson again in Goin' South and that same year—1978—he began his five-year run as Louie DePalma, the adorably tyrannical dispatcher in "Taxi" (a role that won him a best supporting actor Emmy in 1981). He originally got the role after flinging the script on a table during his audition and saying, "One thing I want to know before we start: Who wrote this shit?" That flip, smart-ass attitude became an integral part of Louie's character—and of many, if not most of the characters that DeVito has played since.

When ABC canceled "Taxi" after a four-year run, DeVito was devastated. He thought the show had the creative energy and audience popularity to last another five years. He later told Playboy, "I don't think that the people at ABC gave a good rat's ass about 'Taxi.' " NBC picked "Taxi" up for a year, which gave the cast and crew a brief, bittersweet reprieve, but by then, DeVito was A Star.

He teamed again with Jack Nicholson in Terms of Endearment and with Douglas in Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile, and he went on to perfect his demonically comic, funny-but-sinister persona in a series of high-visibility movies—Ruthless People, Wise Guys (DeVito's first top billing), Throw Momma From the Train (his directorial debut), Tin Men and The War of the Roses.

Douglas calls DeVito the "Prince of Darkness;" but perhaps because DeVito is so small, perhaps because his head is a bit large for his body, perhaps because there is almost always at least an undercurrent of humor in his behavior, DeVito seems vaguely cartoonish on the screen, even when he's being nasty and brutish. As a result, the audience never sees him as entirely villainous. He always arouses a certain empathy, if not sympathy, from audiences.

"I love slapstick," he says. "I'm a big fan of Jerry Lewis and the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. But my heart belongs to dark comedy. I feel a kindred spirit to that kind of humor. I like movies that point out the absurdities in life."

DeVito especially enjoys directing—"film is a collaborative effort, but the director has the final say"—and having acted in Twins and Junior with Schwarzenegger, he says he'd really like to direct him in a movie. "He's a very good actor, very spirited and dedicated to his work. I loved working with him. But he has to take the next step now. He keeps doing the same movies over and over again. He has to take some chances."

Has he told Schwarzenegger this?

"No." Big smile. "I'm telling you."

Danny DeVito portrait.

DeVito has taken some chances himself, most notably with Hoffa, the 1992 dramatized biography of the former Teamsters union boss that marked DeVito's first major producing credit. Hoffa was DeVito's most ambitious—and most controversial—project. He acted in it and directed it, and his work generally drew high praise. "DeVito emerges here as a director of impressive visual scope and flair," said Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times, called Hoffa "a remarkable movie, an original and vivid cinematic work...conceived with imagination and a consistent point of view."

But many critics objected to what they saw as DeVito's (and screenwriter David Mamet's) overly sanitized view of Hoffa, the labor leader turned convicted felon who disappeared and was presumed murdered in 1975. When Hoffa was released, DeVito was quoted as defending his version of Hoffa—portrayed brilliantly by Jack Nicholson—as a man with the "biggest balls in the world," someone who, "in my opinion, from what I've learned about him...would have made a great president...of the United States." Nevertheless many denounced the film's glossing over of Hoffa's ties to the Mafia, the plundering of the Teamsters Union treasury during his tenure and the pervasive efforts to corrupt public officials. They also questioned the one-sided portrayal of Attorney General Robert Kennedy as a power-hungry egomaniac versus Hoffa, the crusading, working man's hero. DeVito says, "Our research led us to believe we were right." But the controversy still makes him a little uncomfortable. "I am sorry about one thing with Hoffa," he says. "I understand the Kennedys were hurt by it and I regret that....Would I make Hoffa 2? Probably not."


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