Rodney Dangerfield

Comedian who got 'no respect'
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The Independent Online

Jacob Cohen (Rodney Dangerfield), comedian, actor and writer: born Babylon, New York 22 November 1921; married 1949, 1963 Joyce Indig (one son, one daughter; marriages dissolved 1962, 1970), 1993 Joan Child; died Los Angeles 5 October 2004.

"I don't get no respect" was the familiar catchphrase of Rodney Dangerfield, the pop-eyed, self-deprecating Jewish comedian whose incongruous Wasp stage name adorns a star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame. In great demand as a stand-up for four decades, the lugubrious Dangerfield also made half a dozen films, successful comedy albums and television specials, and helped to launch the careers of his fellow comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Tim Allen and Roseanne Barr. Only this year, his autobiography, It's Not Easy Bein' Me (subtitled "A Lifetime of No Respect But Plenty of Sex and Drugs"), was published. "I just finished my first book," he said. "Now I'm gonna read anudder one."

Rodney Dangerfield was born Jacob Cohen in Babylon, Long Island, in 1921. He had a miserable childhood; his absentee father was a womanising vaudeville performer and his mother was bitter and undemonstrative. ("My mother couldn't stand me - she breast-fed me through a straw" . . . "When I was seven, I told Mom, 'I'm gonna run away from home.' She said, 'On your mark . . . !' ")

Dangerfield's comedy career began in the 1940s, when he was 19. Under the name Jack Roy, he spent nine years performing his self-written stand-up routine in many of America's smallest, seamiest night-clubs. ("I worked places like Nunzio's - a real tough place. When you entered this club, you went down two steps: physically and socially.")

After marrying and becoming a father, he grew disenchanted with the constant travelling and the short money. At 28, he decided to quit show business. ("To give you an idea of how well I was doing at the time, I was the only one who KNEW I'd quit!") On weekdays he sold paint and aluminium sidings, but continued to perform at weekends. At 40, he returned to full-time stand-up comedy, boasting a brand-new name.

After scoring a hit on The Ed Sullivan Show, he made 97 appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, had his own spot on The Dean Martin Show (1972-73), and spent five years at the MGM Grand Hotel, Las Vegas. ("They've even got slot machines in the supermarkets. I went in to buy a pint of milk. It cost me 238 bucks!")

In 1969, against the advice of everyone he knew, he sank $250,000 into Dangerfield's, his own night-club on the Upper East Side of New York. The venture was successful, and many young comedians got their big break there. Although he was his own featured entertainer, Dangerfield would often stroll over to the rival comedy club, Catch a Rising Star, and try out new material on its audiences.

His first marriage, to Joyce Indig, ended in divorce in 1962; although they remarried the following year, they divorced again in 1970. ("When I got divorced, there was group sex. My wife screwed me in front of the whole court.") In 1993 he married Joan Child, a girl 30 years his junior and a Mormon. This marriage proved to be successful, although some of the gags in his routine suggested otherwise. ("My wife wants Olympic sex. Once every four years" . . . "I asked my wife, 'On a scale of one to 10, how do you rate me as a lover?' She said, 'You know I'm no good at fractions.' ") Since 1992, he had undergone surgery four times, once for a double heart bypass. ("I don't get no respect. On the way to the hospital, the ambulance driver stopped to have lunch.")

His first film was the deservedly obscure The Projectionist (1970). Five years later, he appeared on television as Guest Host on Saturday Night Live, and was so successful that he was cast in Caddyshack (1980), a film featuring such stars of that anti- establishment series as Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. Dangerfield's performance as the nouveau riche slob Al Czervick stole the picture, and he was elevated to stardom for the films Easy Money (1983) and Back to School (1986). He played the straight role of Juliette Lewis's sewer-mouthed father in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994).

In 1988, he braved Broadway in a one-man show. Laurie Stone, who was present on his first night, recalled in her book Laughing in the Dark (1997),

Sadness rises from Rodney Dangerfield, surrounds him, wafts across the footlights, and because the sadness is real, the comedy he spins from it is rich and conscious. Dangerfield's material grows from inside, and it's no wonder so many young, confessional comics credit his influence.

Dick Vosburgh