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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"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."
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."
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."
But Hoffa did not sour DeVito on producing—far from it—and Jersey Films has since been responsible for a string of unusual and highly respected movies, among them Reality Bites, Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty and Matilda. Unhappy at Sony/TriStar, where for four years Jersey had what is known in Hollywood as "an overall deal" (in which the studio finances and distributes the movie), DeVito has recently moved his production company to Universal Studios. Sony "didn't want to make...our movies," he says. "What's the matter, man?" He feigns sniffing both his armpits. "I felt absolutely alone at Sony."
DeVito becomes very passionate about, and totally committed to, the movies he takes on. It's part of his charm, his success and his popularity with his collaborators. At one point in the negotiations with TriStar over Pulp Fiction, he stood on an executive's desk and insisted the executive not leave the room until a particular point of the deal was settled. The executive finally agreed to give DeVito what he wanted on that point, but TriStar wound up passing on Pulp Fiction, which was made for Miramax Films, much as Reality Bites was made for Universal and Get Shorty was made for MGM.
Several other prominent producers have also left Sony recently, so DeVito is hardly alone in his disenchantment with the company, which has been undergoing major upheavals for the past couple of years. Now happily ensconced at Universal, he and his Jersey colleagues Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher are looking forward to the release next spring of Gattaca, a futuristic movie about the dangers of genetic engineering. They are also awaiting a script on Out of Sight, based on the latest novel by Elmore Leonard, who also wrote Get Shorty.
In Get Shorty, a loan shark from Miami who wants to make movies says, "I don't think the producer has to do much, outside of maybe knowing a writer," and while DeVito got a big chuckle out of that line, he says today what everyone who actually does make movies knows: "Producing is hard work. You have to deal with accountants and lawyers who have no idea what really goes into making a movie. It's a constant fight. Like when I was growing up in Jersey, you have to keep running away from the bad guys." He shakes his head. "But fighting a battle and winning is fun. And this business is fun. I love it. It's the greatest business in the world."
Part of what makes the movies fun for DeVito is the variety—acting, directing, producing, promoting. Two days after our interview, he joined the cast of Michael Douglas' newest production, Rainmaker, to be directed by Francis Ford Coppola, based on John Grisham's best-selling novel. He's also constantly on the lookout for fresh directing and producing projects.
DeVito enjoys new challenges and—already a computer buff, with a special, newly installed line at his house for connecting at high speed to the World Wide Web—his newest interest is mastering the Internet, for which Jersey Films is now developing its own Web page.
"You can't beat it as a movie marketing tool, as an information tool," he says. "I'd love to be able to go on-line when we're making a movie and tell people what's going on behind the scenes. What a way to build an audience."
DeVito has six computers at home—three belong to his children, Lucy, now 13; Gracie, 11; and Jake, 9—and he says he spends about an hour a day "surfing the Net." A devoted father, he increasingly tries to avoid going out of town unless he can take the family with him; when he is on location, he takes his laptop and digital camera and sends photographs to his children by computer: "Here's me. Here's my hotel room in Australia. This is the view from my balcony at night."
He's very serious about, and very protective of, his children. Always has been. "My dad told me that my baby sister died at one month after she was exposed to someone who came to the house with whooping cough," he recalls. "When I had my first baby, I wouldn't let anyone but Rhea near her for two weeks. Our relatives were up in arms. But I stuck to it and Rhea backed me up."
Are his children equally protective of him? How do they feel about his cigars, for example? "They question me about them. It's a real tough subject to talk about with your kids. They don't want you to be hurt. They want to protect you. So I explain about how you don't inhale cigars." He also tells them that cigars aren't addictive and that he doesn't smoke that many of them.
At home, DeVito says, he avoids smoking in or near the children's bedrooms and tries to smoke only on the patios or his screening room or smoking room, "although I sometimes fire up at the dinner table after a dinner party when I just can't move."
He laughs and stands for only the second time in the two hours he's been talking. We walk across the patio, into his screening room and down a narrow, winding stairway to the smoking room. It's paneled with dark wood and filled with overstuffed furniture and more than a dozen ashtrays. He opens a medium-sized humidor—"I have three of them, plus a couple of traveling humidors"—and lights up an Hoyo de Monterrey robusto.
"What I really like," he says, "is to sit with a bunch of guys and have a nice meal and smoke a few cigars." But his rhapsodizing is interrupted by a phone call; it's his wife and occasional co-star. Perlman, who won four Emmys for her portrayal of Carla, the wisecracking waitress in "Cheers," is calling from the set of "Pearl," the new CBS sitcom that she co-produces and stars in as a middle-aged college student opposite Malcolm McDowell, who plays the snooty Professor Pynchon. (Educating Rita comes to prime time.) DeVito and Perlman swap reports on their day's activities—"I'm a man of leisure this week," DeVito says—and he laughs repeatedly at her account of life in episodic television. Then, a man of leisure indeed, he strolls back to the sofa, takes a deep drag on his cigar, smiles beatifically and says, "This is the life, huh?"
David Shaw, the Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of The Pleasure Police: How Bluenose Busybodies and Lily-Livered Alarmists Are Taking All the Fun Out of Life (Doubleday, 1996).