Devilish Danny
Photos/Peter Yang
Acerbic, devious and sometimes insane on-screen, Danny DeVito is compassionate and relaxed when the cameras aren’t rolling

Danny DeVito can visualize it perfectly, as though through a director’s viewfinder: A large tobacco field in Cuba. A carpet of green fills the frame, as viewed from overhead by that latest tool in the cinematographer’s bag of tricks, a drone camera. And in the middle of this emerald vision stands…Danny DeVito, a triumphant smile on his face, enjoying his favorite cigar, a Partagás Serie D No. 4.

“Imagine that cover,” DeVito says of his imaginary shoot for this story. He adds with a conspiratorial smile, “We should have gone to Cuba for this interview.”

It’s probably redundant to call DeVito’s smile conspiratorial. Subversive and devious have been his default comic modes from the time he claimed his place in American popular culture playing acerbic dispatcher Louie De Palma in the classic sitcom “Taxi,” which originally aired in 1978. They’ve remained his stock-in-trade for decades, right up through today, portraying the impossibly venal (and possibly deranged) Frank Reynolds on the wild FX comedy “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” which kicked off its 13th unruly season in September, and will return for season 14 next year.

On film or TV, DeVito’s rubbery, uninhibited mug and firecracker physicality create a cartoonish energy that recalls characters from the golden age of Looney Tunes. Comparisons to Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil regularly dot the reviews of his performances in films like Ruthless PeopleTwins and Romancing the Stone. In person, however, DeVito is happier, warmer and a lot more chilled-out than the average character he plays—not that he can’t put on gruff comic bluster at a moment’s notice.

He may not be in Cuba, but he seems pretty content, enjoying lunch in an expansive private room at the Century City, California, branch of Craft, part of the growing restaurant group owned by chef Tom Colicchio. DeVito looks amused when he enters to find a dining table set for two, the only furnishings in a space the size of a corporate boardroom. He is working his way through lunch—a plate of wild arugula with parmesan and pine nuts and another with baby beets, Point Reyes Bay Blue cheese and tarragon—when the server, whose name is Cassandra, enters to ask, “How are you doing?”

Danny DeVito

“Why do you care?” DeVito snaps, then laughs along with Cassandra, who is giggling with surprise.

He solicits her opinion of his choice of greens. “There’s something about arugula,” he says. “I put it on everything. I like anchovies on a margherita pizza, well-done. Then I throw arugula on top and fold it up. It’s like heaven.” His smile disappears when Cassandra inquires whether he’ll be following his vegetarian choices with something sweeter. “You know I can’t eat dessert,” he says, his voice a mixture of shame and accusation. Then the malice quickly dissolves into another hearty DeVito chuckle.

It has been 22 years since Danny DeVito graced the cover of Cigar Aficionado. At that point in 1996, he was an Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning actor on a roll. He’d made the transition from TV acclaim to big-screen stardom, then trumped that by moving behind the camera, both as a producer and as a director.

Today, the man is an institution: a respected filmmaker and beloved comedy actor with strong dramatic chops and a career as prolific as a contract player under the old studio system. DeVito is still guaranteed to give a canny, balls-out comic performance in anything he takes on, even as he happily explores the numerous opportunities that come his way.

DeVito, who turned 74 in November, is ready for whatever comes next. As “It’s Always Sunny” has proved, there’s almost nothing he won’t do for the sake of a bit, even if that means emerging naked and sweaty from inside a couch in the middle of an office Christmas party. (Google “Frank in the Couch” and feast your eyes on a side of DeVito that almost 90,000 YouTube viewers—not to mention the million or so who watch the show in real time or rerun—can’t erase from their memories.)

Longtime pal Michael Douglas, who has collaborated with DeVito several times, recently teamed up with him again when DeVito filmed a guest spot on “The Kominsky Method,” a series Douglas is doing for Netflix. “He loves taking chances,” Douglas says. “He’s got a great energy level and imagination. He really has the ability to fly without a net.”

“I’ve told the writers nothing is off-limits for me,” DeVito says of “Sunny.” “That show is a lot of fun. The season we just finished was a whirlwind time, a three-month shoot. I’ve been with those guys for, like 15 years. [He joined the show for its second season, which aired in 2006.] Working at FX has been easy as pie. They leave the creators alone.”

Talking over a two-plus-hour lunch at Craft, DeVito is refreshed after taking some time off after the show wrapped:
“I got to go to Sicily,” he says. “I went two-and-a-half hours up into the mountains, to a town called Polizzi Generosa. It’s a little mountain town. And my good friend, Vincent Schiavelli, an actor, it’s his grandpop’s town. Vinnie died in 2005 and he’s buried there. So I went up to see him.”

Which is where being Danny DeVito comes in handy.

“By the time we got up there, though, the cemetery was closed. I thought, OK, that’s that and was going to have a sandwich in town with the guy who was driving me. As we’re walking in the street, a car stopped—and the people recognized me and stopped me. They didn’t speak much English, but we took a picture and, with my meager Italian, they asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ And I told them I was there to visit my friend Vincent—and they lit up. They called the mayor, who sent someone to open the cemetery for us. So, yeah, sometimes it’s good to be recognized.”

Dressed in a gray long-sleeve shirt and black cotton drawstring pants, his white hair still darkened by remnants of the coloring he uses to play Frank Reynolds, DeVito remains one of the most distinctive physical presences in film. That singular talent is packed into a fireplug frame whose height Wikipedia and IMDB both list as 4-foot-10, but which at least a handful of online sources claim as 5 feet.

“Five feet?” hoots actress Kathleen Turner, a long-time friend. “Who are they kidding?”

With his almost-neckless, high-waisted physique, bald pate and large horned-rim glasses, DeVito could play a live-action Minion, one of the capsule-shaped yellow characters from the Despicable Me animated series. He’s already played the candy version: a talking M&M magically transformed into its human equivalent. “Yeah, my ‘Sunny’ fans dug that,” he says of the commercial, which debuted during Super Bowl LII.

“Working with him was so much fun. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t take life too seriously,” says Tony- and Emmy-award-winning actress Kristin Chenoweth, who played his wife in Deck the Halls and worked with both DeVito’s wife, actress Rhea Perlman of “Cheers” fame, and his daughter Lucy off-Broadway. “He doesn’t get too worked up about things. I can get my panties in a bunch so quickly, but not him. It was a good lesson to learn.”

Danny DeVito

If DeVito is able to follow his bliss in his 60s and 70s, it’s only after years of single-minded hard work. “He’s always been a restless cat,” Douglas says. “His head was always going. He was always pursuing, looking for more, never settling. He was always a very creative guy.”

DeVito’s first break came when he landed a role in an off-Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that led to his playing the same role, Mr. Martini, in the Oscar-winning 1975 film, produced by Douglas. That film’s star, Jack Nicholson, cast DeVito in his own film, Goin’ South, even as DeVito parlayed guest-starring stints on TV shows like “Police Woman” into his role on “Taxi,” which launched DeVito in 1978.

Besides making him a star, “Taxi” made a cigar lover out of DeVito. The mostly male cast “would celebrate every holiday with a box of Cubans—and don’t ask where we got them,” DeVito recalls. “Then it became holidays and birthdays.” Today, DeVito keeps humidors in New York and Los Angeles, reminiscing about one of his early ones: “My agent gave me a big beautiful one during ‘Taxi’—you needed someone to come in and service it, like a Rolls-Royce. The ones I have now I take care of myself.”

His favorite time to enjoy a cigar is after a really good dinner. In his 1996 Cigar Aficionado cover story, he told a story about a memorable meal in first class on a Lufthansa flight to Berlin in the late 1980s. When he asked if he could end the meal by lighting a stogie, DeVito was told by the flight attendant that, while it was against the rules, she would allow him to do so, under the condition that everyone else on the plane agreed. DeVito then asked every other passenger; on the verge of a unanimous verdict, he approached one final first-class resident, who told him, “Danny, I’m not going to let you smoke that cigar—unless you give me one, too.”

Luckily, says DeVito, chuckling as he recalls the incident, “I had another one with me.”

That was a social smoke, but today he typically smokes his cigars while solo. “Right now, I usually smoke alone, after dinner,” he says. “I find a nice spot and fire up. The other night at the beach, I sat out and looked at the crescent moon and had a nice smoke. There’s something very calming about that feeling. I’ve been through a lot of phases, but it’s always been Cubans for me. There’s just something about them. I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba and watch them make them.”

DeVito was mentored in his appreciation of fine tobacco by TV legend Ed. Weinberger, one of the creators of “Taxi,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and numerous others.

“Ed. Weinberger was pretty serious about the whole cigar-smoking thing. We had a lot of discussions about that. One of the things we used to discuss was: Do you take the band off or leave it on? Are you taking it off because you don’t want to seem to be showing off? Or because you don’t want people to know how much the cigar cost?” DeVito says. “It’s kind of easy for me to understand taking the band off so you’re not broadcasting what kind of cigar you’re smoking. Even when I used to go on the subway, reading a book, I always made a book cover out of a grocery bag. I didn’t want people to know what I was reading. That was nobody’s business. I have a very possessive thing about what I do.” He pauses and smiles at the irony: “Even though I’m an actor sitting here talking my ass off.”

With a professional career closing in on a half-century, DeVito is far more than a star—he is a comedy icon, whose very presence in a movie ensures at least a couple of sure-fire laughs. Credit 1984’s Romancing the Stone as the film that translated DeVito’s’s wolverine-like comic instincts to the big screen, with a role that showed just what DeVito could do when it came to finding the lighter side of darker impulses.

“When I started producing Romancing the Stone, it was a romantic adventure,” Douglas says. “Danny is fully responsible for making it a romantic-comedy-adventure—which made it a success. That character that he brought was all him—and I was so grateful at how much he added. Danny does nastiness like nobody else; he relishes his nastiness. He enjoys busting balls in character.”

Born November 17, 1944 in Neptune Township, New Jersey, DeVito’s early years were spent in nearby Asbury Park, where, as an adolescent, he saw friends succumbing to the heroin that was invading his neighborhood, and asked his parents to send him to private school to get away from bad influences. After high school, he enrolled in night classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts to learn makeup techniques to use working in his sister’s New Jersey beauty salon. Instead, he fell hard for acting and began taking classes, then started to earn credits on stage while rooming with Douglas.

The two met in the summer of 1967, when both were working at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in New London, Connecticut. “I was on the beach, looking out at the Long Island Sound and this guy walks up to me, with this long head of hair, if you can imagine,” Douglas recalls. “He says, ‘You get high?’ We were both 1967 potheads, so we smoked a joint and that was a beginning of a long, long friendship.”

After a lauded and varied career, DeVito is that rarity: a true cross-generational star. His earliest fans, the baby-boom audience that watched “Taxi” and his films of the 1980s and 1990s, still cheer him. Children giggle at him as a slapstick M&M; their parents chuckle at the meta humor of his playing the comic brute transformed by smoothie George Clooney in a recent commercial for  Nespresso. Meanwhile, a millennial audience discovers DeVito’s uninhibited, id-fueled wit anew on “Sunny,” their springboard to his voluminous filmography.

“I always loved his willingness to throw himself into things,” says Kathleen Turner, with whom DeVito teamed on three films with Michael Douglas. “It made him fun to work with. He knew what he wanted and it was great fun to ride along.”

DeVito brushes off the idea of his own appeal, pointing instead to the characters he’s played and the films themselves: “This new generation of fans has to do with the TV show,” he says. “There are people who loved the movies I was fortunate enough to do.” He rattles off roles: Louie De Palma from “Taxi,” Sam Stone from Ruthless People, playing the villian The Penguin in one of the Batman films. “Hey, those are great parts,” he says. “I’ve been lucky that way.”

For all of the conniving, mean-spirited comic villains he’s so memorably played, DeVito also has a lengthy résumé as a serious actor, capable of vulnerable, soulful performances. Check him out as a struggling single dad in 1993’s Jack the Bear, as a broken-hearted janitor tentatively romancing a fragile Holly Hunter in 1998’s Living Out Loud or as an elderly man finally ready to commit to marriage to his longtime partner in his own 2016 short film, Curmudgeons.

“He is a true actor at the highest level,” Chenoweth says. “Like the best comedians, he can play tragedy and, the next second, have you laughing.”

Look a little deeper at DeVito’s résumé and you’ll find that he’s worked with many of the major directors of his era, from Francis Ford Coppola to Woody Allen, David Mamet to James L. Brooks, Brian De Palma, Milos Forman and Robert Zemeckis.

DeVito went back to the stage in 2012, his first time in 40 years, when British director Thea Sharrock sought him out to play Willie Clark, a bitter, aging, ex-vaudeville performer, in a West End production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, opposite British actor Richard Griffiths. The role proved magical for DeVito, earning him raves from the London critics. Griffiths’ untimely death in 2013 ended the plan to transfer the production to New York, though DeVito brought the show to Los Angeles for a brief run, with “Taxi”-mate Judd Hirsch in Griffiths’ role.

“London was a leap of faith I made with these two people, Thea and Richard, who had such strong backgrounds in theater,” DeVito says. “Going there and working with them, I felt like I was nestled in Willie Mays’ glove.”

DeVito made it to Broadway in 2017, in a revival of Arthur Miller’s The Price. His Broadway debut earned him a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination, both as actor in a featured role.

Danny DeVito

DeVito started directing with a few “Taxi” episodes, then moved into film, with a résumé that includes Throw Momma From the Train, Hoffa and War of the Roses. As a producer, he’s been more prolific; his Jersey Films production company was responsible for a list of Oscar nominees and winners that includes Pulp Fiction, Erin Brockovich, Garden State, Reality Bites, Gattaca, Out of Sight and DeVito’s own films.

“I had the ability to embrace young filmmakers and that’s what I did,” DeVito says. “I felt I was somebody who could protect their integrity, to support them and keep others from tampering with their ideas or vision. They turned Pulp Fiction down at TriStar because it was ‘too dark.’ Meanwhile, their big film of the moment was Cliffhanger, with people hanging off of cliffs. I remember we had 20 walkouts at the first screening of Pulp Fiction. But my deal with Quentin was that I would give him anything he needed and Harvey [Weinstein, then cohead of Miramax Films] had to go along. Harvey went nuts when Quentin wanted to cast John Travolta, instead of Daniel Day-Lewis. But Quentin was right. If someone handed me a 155-page script today by a basically unknown person who had the spirit and commitment that Quentin Tarantino had, I’d get that movie made.”

At this point, DeVito is a guy with a deep appreciation for how long, varied and expansive his career has been. It comes through in his relationship with his friends, who speak of DeVito’s thoughtfulness and loyalty.

“When I got sick with rheumatoid arthritis, he was one of the first to call and tell me, ‘Whatever you need,’ ” Turner says. Adds Douglas, “He’s a good friend because he’s a good listener and he’s compassionate. He has the ability to feel what others feel—and he’s funny.”

DeVito has a sharp memory for the kind of encounters that bowled him over early in his career, when he—an emissary from a new generation—found himself rubbing shoulders with performers who had entranced him as a kid. There was the time he was backstage at his first Emmy Awards, and came face to face with Lucille Ball: “I mean, it’s Lucy!” he says. “She was so meaningful to me. What do you say?” He recounts an unexpected encounter with James Stewart, and a cross-country plane trip on the defunct luxury airline MGM Grand, when DeVito and his nephew shared a private compartment with comedian Milton Berle, who asked the flight attendant for a deck of cards: “It turned out he was a great cardsharp, a great card manipulator, and knew every trick in the book. So we spent five hours watching him do card tricks and telling stories about show business.”

DeVito’s three kids—Lucy, 35; Gracie, 33; and Jake, 31—are grown and launched. His relationship with Emmy-winning actress Perlman (they married in 1982, having moved in together two weeks after meeting in 1971) has weathered storms since 2012. Various announcements of separation and reconciliation have been issued, without the couple ever actually proceeding to divorce.

“We’re separated but we’re very good friends,” DeVito says. “We’ve been together 50 years. We still have deep feelings and these three wonderful kids. And we always will.”

So what’s the secret to marital longevity? “A big house,” DeVito jokes.

DeVito’s take-it-as-it-comes approach has its roots in his parents’ attitudes. “When I was a kid, I always learned the lesson that things are just things. Your bike gets stolen? Well, that’s tough, but it ain’t the end of the world.” He tells a story about taking a brief vacation with Perlman in Key West after their oldest daughter was born. At one point, Perlman realized she’d lost her wedding ring, which had been given to her by DeVito’s mother, who told her it was her own mother’s ring. The couple frantically, fruitlessly searched their hotel room, until they gave up. They called DeVito’s mother to confess the loss. “Eh,” she said, “it’s a piece of jewelry.”

The comment made its mark. “Really, it’s stuff. It’s just stuff. You’re gonna get crazy about things?”

And so Danny DeVito, at once intrepid and sanguine, faces the future, by not thinking about it very much at all. It’s more entertaining that way.

“I hope I live as long as I can and have fun while doing it,” he says. “You’ve got to look at the bright side. I don’t have projects in my mind or thoughts about what I want to do once I leave this table. I’ve visited a lot of places and I’d like to see more. I don’t know what will happen. I just look forward to the next step.”

Contributing editor Marshall Fine is critic-in-residence at The Picture House Regional Film Center in Pelham, NY.