Danny DeVito: The little big man

He's a Hollywood success story - and it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy, discovers Elaine Lipworth
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The Independent Culture

Danny DeVito's films have grossed more than $3bn worldwide - movies as diverse as Romancing The Stone, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Twins and The War of the Roses. His Jersey Films production company has been responsible for numerous box office hits. Erin Brockovich alone, the drama that won Julia Roberts an Oscar, made nearly $300m. In financial terms, the 5ft tall film-maker is a Hollywood giant.

But you would never know it - other than the fact that we are meeting in the screening room of his Beverly Hills mansion. At 62, DeVito is matey, lacking the usual celebrity reserve. He wears that East Coast Italian, blue-collar image on his sleeve: the rasping New Jersey accent, the tactile, loud personality. He is so proud of his roots that a mural of the old boardwalk in his hometown, Asbury Park, dominates the film-maker's private cinema. DeVito points out that the small figures depicted in the painting are himself, his wife, former Cheers actress Rhea Perlman, their three children and their dogs, transposed onto the 1950s scene.

"Asbury Park was unique because it was a mile-square town on a beautiful coastline, with six movie theatres which were always full," he says. "The whole town was packed in the summer and in the winter it was empty; you could see parking meters for miles along a barren beach. It was like a Bergman movie. [DeVito's anecdotes are peppered with cinematic references.] But it was a fantastic place to grow up because there were so many movies to see. The Lyric had all the foreign films which the Catholic Church had on their obscene list, so of course that was the one my friends and I wanted to go to most. They would show Christopher Isherwood's I Am a Camera, The L-Shaped Room, A Estrada, any film with sex in it. We knew the projectionist; the same guy also opened the theatre up and did the candy counter, so we didn't even have to sneak in. I saw everything: Jerry Lewis movies, Edward G Robinson, John Ford westerns." DeVito adds that Alec Guinness was one of his greatest inspirations. "Any time Alec was in a movie we'd go to see it without a doubt. Kind Hearts and Coronets - I love it, and The Bridge On The River Kwai. I remember when that was playing; they built a big bamboo bridge in front of the St James Theatre as a publicity stunt. And we watched a lot of films on TV. I still love going to the movies. I go in the afternoon when nobody bugs me and the theatre's empty, I get my popcorn and enjoy myself - it's the best entertainment."

His parents were second generation Italian Americans. "We always had food on the table," he says. "My dad had a candy store and a luncheonette for a while, and my mother ran a small dry cleaning shop. We had friends on the block who had more money than us, and there were also poor people living in shacks in shanty towns," he says. "But I always felt closer to them than the rich doctors and lawyers on the other side of the tracks. I still do."

Despite his love of films, there was never a moment when DeVito considered an acting career. "I went to Catholic school and I wasn't a great student," he says. "A lot of my friends were mechanics, another friend opened a little pizza restaurant. I thought I'd end up in construction."

In fact, DeVito left school and got his first job as a hairdresser. "My sister Angie was 16 years older than me and had a beauty parlour. She said, 'Why don't you come and work for me?' It was kind of embarrassing but I said, 'Oh, what the hell'; and ended up having quite a feel for it. None of my friends gave me a hard time about it because they all loved Angie. She was great and paid for me to go to hairdressing school, which was amazing. I walked in and I was stunned. There were 35 young women in the room, each one better looking than the other." DeVito, always the entertainer, leans back and slaps me on the shoulder laughing. "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven."

While doing shampoo and sets at his sister's salon, DeVito developed an interest in make-up (he still can't explain why) and, with Angie's support, he applied to join a beauty course at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. The move to drama happened quite by chance, when he discovered that in order to study theatrical make-up at the college, he had to attend acting classes. "I'd never seen a play and I had to audition for the school, perform a monologue. I picked something from John Patrick's The Teahouse of the August Moon, prepared it and had no idea what I was doing. But they liked it a lot; I enrolled and within a couple of days I was hooked on acting."

Plays on and off Broadway followed, and then his first big film: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in which he played one of the patients. "It was a smashola hit," says the actor, who moved to LA, then landed a starring TV role as Louie De Palma in Taxi. "I really wanted to do movies but when I read it, the part was so great I couldn't pass it up. And it was a lot of money," he says. "At the time in 1978 you had three channels and so everyone watched it and everyone knew who I was. People knew you on the street, they still do." He kicks off his Birkenstocks. "But it's not a bad thing. When they're screaming about your latest film, it's all good stuff."

Following Taxi, DeVito says the big challenge - "the biggest of my life, probably" - was getting back into movies. It is typical of the actor that he gives his friend Michael Douglas the credit. "Michael was my good buddy and it had a lot to do with him. I was a star on Taxi but he put me in Romancing The Stone [he played a small-time crook] and gave me my name above the title. There are a lot of selfish people in the world who might not have done that and it did help me to break through the barrier of TV, because that is always hard."

DeVito's career has been a big success story, with numerous notable roles from the sleazy editor in LA Confidential to The Penguin in Batman Returns. A life-size model of the character stands in the corner of the room. Obviously, he's never played traditional romantic leads like his friends Michael Douglas and Jack Nicholson, and there have been box office failures, such as the well-reviewed dark comedy Throw Momma From the Train, Death to Smoochy and Be Cool, the disappointing sequel to Get Shorty, but he's sanguine about his choices. "There are a few that you don't even want to think about, but 99 per cent of the time it is a beautiful trip getting into the vibe of the movie. I look for projects that are a little different and I don't read the reviews. It would upset me. They are usually vitriolic if they're bad and overblown if they're good." His own favourites? "It was great doing Cuckoo's Nest with Jack; that was a once in a lifetime experience. Matilda was one of my favourites," he says, referring to the film version of the Roald Dahl classic he directed. "I really loved LA Confidential. Curtis Hanson is a great director - and Kim Basinger is so beautiful." DeVito whistles and shakes his head, "It's hard to take your eyes off her."

His latest comedy, Deck the Halls, is full of broad physical comedy and snowy slapstick - as well as the obligatory message about the true spirit of Christmas. DeVito plays a brash but well-meaning car salesman who moves into a sedate New England town and decorates his house with a gaudy display of lights. Inevitably, the house turns into a flashy tourist attraction. Matthew Broderick, his stuffy neighbour, is appalled and vows to sabotage these vulgar plans.

"I love this film," DeVito shouts, tapping his fingers on the table. "Here is a guy who is working hard selling cars. But he's never had that 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol was talking about, that little bit of self-esteem. So my character, Buddy Hall, gets this idea to light up his house with tons and tons of lights so it can be seen from outer space and, of course, it is very annoying to Matthew Broderick, who has a very proper approach to Christmas."

"Everything is by the book. I must say this kind of movie is a little bit of a cakewalk," he chuckles. "You go and have some fun and you just let it all go, you can be a little bit over the top - well, a lot over the top. I do a lot of improvisation with Matthew, but it's great. And it's a different "camper life" you don't get when you're an actor-producer - you can be off the set for a little bit while they're lighting, make a phone call, watch a movie. It's a break, it's a respite.

"I enjoy all different genres," he says. "But truthfully, nothing gives me as much joy as family entertainment like Deck the Halls. I remember years ago taking my daughters to see a production of Peter Pan and when that window opened at the top of the stage and Peter flew in, I looked over at my kids and there is no way for me to communicate the look on their faces. When you can get that kind of response from children, it is one of the greatest feelings in the world, to sit there and listen to that laughter and those gasps."

Aside from film-making, DeVito and Perlman, both long-term Democrats, are committed philanthropists. "I'm very concerned about everything in America just now," he says. "Those catch phrases like 'compassionate conservatism' translate into 'You do what you want and I'm going to make money.' They are planning to join former President Bill Clinton in his coalition to side-step politics and big business and fund a large-scale, international charity programme. "I have lost faith in the political system, there's so much bare-faced lying from elected officials who have abused our trust," says DeVito.

He has no plans to enter the political arena himself. DeVito is still engrossed in his career. He is about to launch an internet documentary channel Jersey Docs; he has several new films on the horizon including a remake of I Married a Witch with Tom Cruise and Famke Janssen that he's directing, and he is starring in the American comedy TV series It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. DeVito is still ridiculously enthusiastic about his job. "I get excited about everything - directing, producing, acting. he says. "I do other things in a happy way; I like to lie on the beach with a rum drink and have some peace once in a while, I like going out to dinner with my family and friends, I like being with my wife - we've been together more than 25 years. I don't know what the secret is - not seeing each other a lot, probably. The kids are at college but they come home a lot and I love being with them. The five of us go on vacation together. But I love my work and I have to be busy all the time. When you are with creative people, filling that viewfinder with powerful imagery and thoughts, it is the most magical thing. My goals? A remake of Dr Zhivago isn't out of the question," says the film-maker, laughing. You have to wonder what David Lean and DeVito's idol, Alec Guinness, would make of that.

'Deck the Halls' opens on 1 December

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