Danny DeVito, whose performance as an antiques dealer in Arthur Miller’s The Price just received a Tony Award nomination for best featured actor, said he learned to make the most out of smaller roles long ago, in 1974, during auditions for the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Actors were called back again and again to improvise in character, as psychiatric patients. DeVito, who had been in a play version of Cuckoo’s Nest, had to make up his own dialogue while honing facial expressions, body language, even speech patterns.
He was particularly impressed by another regular at the auditions, a googly-eyed soul who made careful choices about how to react. The actor’s name was Christopher Lloyd.
The two men went on to create finely etched portraits in Cuckoo’s Nest and later, most memorably, in the ABC series Taxi, in which DeVito played the ornery dispatcher Louie De Palma and Lloyd was the loopy Rev Jim Ignatowski.
Over lunch recently on the upper West Side, those early collaborations felt like another lifetime for DeVito, 72, whose play is currently running on Broadway, and Lloyd, 78, who starred in the Back to the Future movies and will appear in the Syfy series 12 Monkeys this month. They spoke about what Cuckoo’s Nest taught them, how they came to love television and the impact of a hit show on a career. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Danny DeVito: The time I met Chris, I’d never gone to an audition like that.
Christopher Lloyd: It was unusual, even for the Seventies.
DeVito: You go up this endless, steep staircase at Harlequin Studios to a rehearsal room, and there’s the movie’s director, Milos Forman. He had arranged seats in a semicircle, and he’s playing the Big Nurse himself, Nurse Ratched, leading us in a group therapy session.
Lloyd: Usually you read lines with another actor. This was all improv, with Milos playing the scary nurse.
DeVito: He’d ask you, have you got a family? A sister? Tell me about your sister.
Lloyd: The point was to be in a conversation that felt unsure, risky, and then, what do you say?
DeVito: Chris knew how to listen, to pause. He was committed and didn’t try too hard.
Lloyd: I didn’t want to look like I wanted the job as much as I did. I was in my 30s, working off-off-off-off-off-off-Broadway. Little money.
DeVito: The first New York play I did, in 1969, I was paid $68 a week. My mom used to send me, every once in a while, 20 bucks.
Lloyd: Once the movie was cast, we all headed to Oregon to shoot at an actual hospital with mentally deficient people.
DeVito: Milos actually wanted us to live and sleep in the hospital, but we couldn’t because right above where we were shooting was a real mad house. Like, guys who were murderers.
Lloyd: We rehearsed by doing real group therapy sessions with some real patients. I remember somebody on the staff commenting that it was hard to tell the fact from the fiction.
DeVito: Milos’ big direction was always, “That is not natural,” for anything he didn’t like.
Lloyd: I learned from that. There were a couple times with close-ups where I tended to overact. I would use more of my face than I needed to... I learned how to be more subtle.
DeVito: Chris and I got together again with Jack Nicholson a few years later, when he directed Goin’ South.
Lloyd: I was in a Broadway musical, Happy End, with Meryl Streep, and Jack came backstage to talk to her about being in Goin’ South. And he saw me and just said, “I’m going to send you the script.” And that was it.
DeVito: Jack called me and said, “Come meet me over at Paramount.” And I came over, and that was it. Nobody auditioned for that movie.
Lloyd: That was a good thing for me, because other than Cuckoo’s Nest, I never got a second look on any film I auditioned for. It didn’t click. I could feel it in the audition room. Not happening.
DeVito: Why do you think?
Lloyd: I guess I’m not good at being a “type”. And I had an attitude about some work, like television sitcoms. It was selling your soul.
DeVito: I went out for TV shows – Police Woman, Starsky & Hutch. One day I got this script for this thing called Taxi. I was all for it. Go audition, why not?
Lloyd: I had told my agents that I didn’t want to do television. I can’t believe I had that gall, looking back on it. I would never condescend to do TV, and then Taxi called up for a guest spot in the first season. And my common sense kind of took over, I guess.
DeVito: Everyone was excited to get Chris on.
Lloyd: There’s been so much speculation about whether you were the person who got me Taxi.
DeVito: Honest to God, I don’t remember having the brainstorm to do that. I may have been positive about having you play Reverend Jim when I heard the Taxi guys were thinking about it. I think they just saw us work together in those movies, and they knew – they were pretty smart guys.
Lloyd: I only had the script for a weekend and went into audition for a bunch of guys. I put together a costume, and the guys said, wear that to the show. That was my costume.
DeVito: It was a great introduction for Reverend Jim. He was presiding over the wedding of Latka (Andy Kaufman) and a hooker so he could get a green card. She’s gorgeous, her boobs are out to here, and Latka has written a speech that goes, “You will always be a tart to me.” He meant “part of me”. It was so hysterical.
Lloyd: In New York theatre, you always talk about wanting a great ensemble of actors. That first episode, I thought, this is the ensemble people talk about.
DeVito: It changed everything for me, acting in that show and getting to direct a couple Taxis.
Lloyd: It was a whole new ballgame.
DeVito: After that, I moved into directing, producing, starring. James L Brooks (a creator of Taxi) was very influential. I worked on Terms of Endearment with him, and one thing led to another. Now Broadway.
Lloyd: Cuckoo’s Nest started changing things for us, and Taxi put us on the map, as far as playing character roles for a career. Which was fine by me.
DeVito: Me, too. We’d like to work together again, two good characters. Chris and I see each other more now that we’re both in New York more. A lot of the Taxi actors are in New York now.
Lloyd: A great ensemble.
DeVito: Maybe we’ll threaten the Broadway stage with something together.
© The New York Times
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