Danny DeVito has no fear, and that's how he got this far

From playing a pantheon of delicious vulgarians to promoting political candidates, Danny DeVito has never stopped short of having a good time, writes Maureen Dowd

Wednesday 27 March 2019 20:53 GMT
Danny DeVito at the 'Dumbo' European premiere 21 March 2019 in London
Danny DeVito at the 'Dumbo' European premiere 21 March 2019 in London (Getty)

Hollywood: Danny DeVito has a spoon hanging off his nose.

He’s trying to impress the beautiful woman having dinner at the next table at Craig’s, the Hollywood clubhouse. And it’s working. She’s cracking up.

But a mere utensil is not enough to hold Jennifer Lopez’s attention for long. Soon, J-Lo swings back around to return her focus to A-Rod. Their engagement is on deck, after all.

When I meet up with DeVito for an interview the next night at the Palm, he explains that he was not trying to come between J-Rod.

“No, she had her eyes glued to him,” DeVito says, laughing. “But I think everybody did. It was kind of cool.” He says he’s friendly with J-Lo because his company, Jersey Films, produced her best movie, Out of Sight, also starring George Clooney.

Sipping cranberry juice with club soda and eating Chilean sea bass, DeVito is a far more civilised dining companion than his character in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Frank Reynolds, who would no doubt order the most expensive bottle of wine, guzzle the whole thing, wave around a gun, wax nostalgic about the time he waterboarded his daughter in a urinal and then skip out on the check with a doggie bag of bacon bits for lovemaking later with a girlfriend who likes to role play that she’s a Cobb salad.

Danny DeVito on the set of ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ (Getty)
Danny DeVito on the set of ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ (Getty) (Getty Images)

“She’s really rough,” DeVito crows to me about his TV girlfriend, bragging that they have sex in a dumpster. “I like a little bit of that.”

Frank is in a pantheon of delicious vulgarians played by DeVito, characters who compress the seven deadly sins into one compact package, yet somehow still charm.

A native of Asbury Park, New Jersey, DeVito became a TV star in 1978 as Louie De Palma, the lewd, loud taxi dispatcher, for five seasons in Taxi and this year will begin filming his 13th season as the lewd, loud Frank in It’s Always Sunny.

“Tinseltown’s Tiny Terror,” as Time once nicknamed him (he has called himself “the 5-feet guy”), has also had an extraordinarily long, successful career as a producer, director and actor in indies and big-budget films, most recently as Max Medici in Tim Burton’s Dumbo, a reimagining of the 1941 Disney classic, which opens this week.

“Danny’s just got a good Felliniesque spirit about him that makes you want to be around him,” says Burton, who has directed the “DeVito trilogy” of the actor as top-hatted ringmasters in Batman Returns, Big Fish and now Dumbo. (Burton says that the film, featuring a very woke circus and an adorable CGI blue-eyed baby elephant, won’t upset those who swore off circuses because of elephant abuse, noting, “As a child, I felt very uneasy about the circus for that reason.”)

Michael Keaton, who has a dastardly turn in Dumbo as an archcapitalist, says he marvelled that when DeVito played Oswald Cobblepot, better known as the Penguin, in the 1992 film Batman Returns, he created an entire garden outside his trailer, with beautiful hedges, potted plants, a chair and a table for water, where he presided, doing “his Danny thing, his Jersey funny, irreverent thing.”

Robert De Niro, who met DeVito in an equity picket line in the rain at a theatre in the Village when they were in their mid-20s, admired his fellow Italian so much that he called to ask him for tips before he directed A Bronx Tale.

Basically, De Niro tells me, DeVito’s advice boiled down to: “Don’t worry.”

Danny DeVito stars in and directs on the set of ‘Hoffa‘ in 1991 (Getty)
Danny DeVito stars in and directs on the set of ‘Hoffa‘ in 1991 (Getty) (Getty Images)

Pioneering Meme Lord

It is a measure of DeVito’s magnetic presence that, despite his diminutive stature, he has said he was never bullied as a child. The first time he emerges from the dispatcher’s cage in Taxi, the audience erupts into shocked laughter, because his height is such a contrast with his character’s outsize confidence and belligerence.

DeVito says his older sisters, Angie and Theresa, filled him with self-esteem. Angie brought him into her salon and taught him to do hair. He was affectionately nicknamed “Mr Dan”.

“They loved me, yeah,” he says. “They treated me like a little prince.”

A former altar boy, he is described by friends as a Tasmanian devil. “He has no fear,” says Michael Douglas, an old friend and former roommate. “He will comedically take any chance, and he savours darkness.”

DeVito has been nude on film twice, once in Big Fish, when his ringmaster turns from a werewolf back into a man, and once on Always Sunny, when he busts out of a leather couch he’s hiding in looking like a greased-up halibut.

“I’m no Willem Dafoe,” he says blithely, “but I’m not shy about taking my clothes off.”

I tell him about a young guy in Boston who is such a big fan that he bought a 1996 Chevy Lumina van and named it Vanny DeVito. He tattooed it on his leg and printed out bumper stickers of DeVito’s face to hand out on a cross-country trip.

He’s unfazed. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “I know about these things. They’re all over the place. There was a girl last year who took me to her prom with the cardboard cutout of me. I was her date. I love all that stuff.

“You know, I did a movie called The Van one time. It was like a low-budget people-in-a-van movie.”

When a sophomore at SUNY Purchase constructed a DeVito altar made from trash in a men’s room last year, DeVito tweeted: “Your shrine honours me. My heart is filled with love and garbage.”

He was a pioneering meme lord with his #Trollfoot, which features pictures of his right foot out and about, including moments of repose, drinking wine on the beach and painted in rainbow colours to match his feather boa on a float at the Los Angeles pride parade last year.

“My first tweet was, ‘My nuts are on fire,’” he recalls. “And then what am I going to do? So I started taking pictures of my foot and sticking it online.”

DeVito has been in many great movies: LA Confidential, Tin Men, Get Shorty, Twins, Ruthless People, Man on the Moon, Romancing the Stone, Terms of Endearment, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Matilda and War of the Roses, which he also directed. And he has produced several, including Gattaca and Erin Brockovich.

He bought a script sight unseen from a fledgling filmmaker in the 1990s because he had liked the young man’s first movie script and wanted to do whatever was next. “A year later – and it was a long year – he finally showed up with 155 pages,” DeVito recalls. “It said, ‘Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino: Final Draft’. So I sat down in a comfortable chair and I read it. And I was blown away.”

I tell him that Dumbo is well timed for the Trump era, when the circus, clown and elephant-in-the-room metaphors are flying thick and fast. DeVito himself has referred to both the president and Democrats as “clowns” (except for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom he hails as “a gift”).

DeVito, who likes to listen to Democracy Now and is reading Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, says that he will campaign for Bernie Sanders, as he did in 2016, and that he’d like to see him run with Tulsi Gabbard.

DeVito on the campaign trail with Bernie Sanders in 2016 (AFP/Getty)
DeVito on the campaign trail with Bernie Sanders in 2016 (AFP/Getty) (AFP/Getty Images)

“If you look back on that election, a lot of his progressive ideas are accepted now,” he says. “Like free college education. Yale’s not going to be free, we know that, right?” Indeed we do, thanks to Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. “I didn’t go to any college. Forgive the debt, so people can live their lives and not feel they’re under a wet blanket. Let’s let the sun shine. We have a beautiful country. We got a lot of resources. You know, Medicare for all. What’s the big deal? Why not open that up?

“We got to take a big breath and move on and get out of this muck and mire. I don’t wish anybody ill, but I think it would be a good thing to get a lot of people out of our government. Let them go fishing or someplace south, stick them on a farm somewhere, and get our country moving. The ones that are there now are really stinking up the joint.”

Many liberals in the Twittersphere regard DeVito’s succinct 2013 tweet as certified platinum: “Antonin Scalia retire bitch.” Even more gratifying than when he went on The View in 2006, after a long night of downing limoncello with Clooney, and blurted out that George W Bush was a “numb nuts” and that he and his wife, Rhea Perlman, had enjoyed a wild night in the Lincoln bedroom when Bill Clinton was president.

‘We’re all suffragettes’

He has occasionally leavened his loathsome but lovable little men by playing a romantic lead. But DeVito relishes villains. Not gangsters but crazy conmen and ne’er-do-wells in black comedies.

I wonder if kids ever get scared if they see him on the street and realise he’s the really mean dad from Matilda.

“No, it’s cool,” he says. “The mother usually says: ‘He’s OK. He’s not going to hurt you.’”

He says playing the Penguin was the biggest kick, even though a monkey went wild on the set, “leapt at my balls and grabbed me. It was the scariest thing. They had to rip him off.”

Other than that, he recalls, “It was a lot of fun. You got to put all the clothes on and the suit and the mask. It’s like real commedia dell’arte. We all hide behind masks anyway. And you add something else onto that, which is like a beak, flippers, and you live in the sewer and you drool black crap out of your mouth.”

He is very relieved that the monkey in Dumbo is CGI.

Danny DeVito alongside Rhea Perlman in the 1996 movie ‘Matilda’ (Getty)
Danny DeVito alongside Rhea Perlman in the 1996 movie ‘Matilda’ (Getty) (Getty Images)

At 74, DeVito has separated from Perlman, his wife of 37 years, and splits his time between a house in Los Angeles and an apartment in New York.

“I get to see everybody,” he says. “I see Rhea. I see the kids. I just live apart.”

He said he hasn’t checked out Tinder, adding dryly, “I rely on the kindness of strangers.”

He seems carefree. Asked about the Net-azon streampocalypse underway in Hollywood, where many people were privately breathing a sigh of relief that Netflix’s Roma did not win the Oscar for best movie, DeVito shrugs. He caught only some of the Academy Awards on TV because he was busy barbecuing.

“I’m just looking for a good story,” he says. “And a good book. And a good screenplay. Work with people that you like. Go to dinner. Go on vacation. Have a good time. Yeah, no stress. Vote for Bernie Sanders.”

He was equally nonchalant about the racial politics roiling the town in the wake of Green Book beating BlacKkKlansman for best picture, which caused Spike Lee to try to storm out of the auditorium.

“I have nothing to say about Green Book and BlacKkKlansman,” he says. “But I do know that we are a bunch of racists.”

I ask DeVito, father to two daughters and a son, if Hollywood has changed in the wake of #MeToo.

“The only thing I can say is I’ve talked to women about this and what I come away with is four words: ‘Women must be heard.’ That’s my mantra. Is that five words? No, four words. It’s like I say to my agent every day, the magic four words: ‘Get me a job.’ Come on!”

Are studio moguls just waiting to resume their bad old ways when the umbrage abates?

“Well, we’re all suffragettes,” he says. “We got to get women equal pay. We got to get ’em on the map. We got to respect ’em. We got to keep our hands off ’em unless they beg for it.”

Danny DeVito in ‘Man on the Moon’ 1999 (Getty)
Danny DeVito in ‘Man on the Moon’ 1999 (Getty) (Getty Images)

DeVito produced and acted in Man on the Moon with Jim Carrey, about the late comedian Andy Kaufman, who played Latka Gravas on Taxi. He recalls the days when Kaufman used to belittle and then wrestle with women delivering UPS packages to the Taxi set.

“He’d say: ‘Why are you taking a job away from a man? You should be in the kitchen cooking! You know how many men need a job? You’re taking a job! Go on, what are you going to do, honey?’ And they would wrestle him.

“I actually thought, in hindsight, that Andy was having us on. Now that I know everything about him, it’s not out of the question that Andy got a woman, got her a costume, gave her a big package with nothing in it and had her act like a UPS person.”

He says the best way to thrive in Hollywood is to not focus on all the jerks and talentless hacks and insecurities.

“It’s like going through the jungle,” he says. “You hear all the sounds. Somebody’s being eaten on the other side of a plant. But you got to just stay on your path.”

Before we go, DeVito takes a stab at teaching me how to hang a spoon on my nose. “Clean it off first,” he instructs. “You have to breathe on it, something about the condensation.”

I tell him that I’ll probably see him out on the road with Bernie Sanders.

“He’ll be the tall one,” DeVito says, and jauntily waves goodbye.

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