Dom Deluise: Actor celebrated for his work with Mel Brooks and Burt Reynolds

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:10

The chubby and likeable comic actor Dom DeLuise had a long and distinguished career as comedy support on stage, screen and television, often working with his lifelong friend Burt Reynolds, but he is particularly known for his contributions to the manic comedies of Mel Brooks, such as Blazing Saddles (1974), Silent Movie (1976), History of the World, Part I (1981) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1994). For Brooks' parody of Star Wars, Spaceballs (1987), he provided the voice of Pizza the Hut.

A lover of good food who often had to battle weight problems (at one point he reached 325lb), he also became a celebrated chef and author of two acclaimed cook books. Burt Reynolds, with whom he acted in such films as Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981) and Cannonball Run II (1984), said. "There will never be another like him. I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone."

On television, he acted in The Munsters, Diagnosis Murder and many other series, and he provided stalwart support for such stars as Dean Martin, who cast him as a regular on his weekly variety show in the Sixties, and Carol Burnett, who said this week, "To know Dom was to love him. Not only was he talented and extremely funny, but he was a very special human being."

DeLuise's Broadway credits included the Meredith Willson musical, Here's Love (1963), and the Neil Simon comedy, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969), in which he took over from James Coco in the leading role. In Here's Love, based on the hit movie Miracle on 34th Street, he took over from David Doyle as the department store psychiatrist who interviews a man claiming to be Santa Claus, and DeLuise's sterling display of twitching nervousness, compulsive glass-wiping and mounting hysteria (he is plainly the crazy one) impressed television host Garry Moore, who hired him to play the magician "Dominick the Great" on his comedy-variety show. Hollywood offers followed, and he made his screen debut in the political drama Fail-Safe, starring Henry Fonda – one of DeLuise's rare non-comic roles. His next film, The Glass Bottom Boat, starred Doris Day, who said, "I loved him from the moment we met. Not only did we have the greatest time working together, but I never laughed so hard in my life."

The son of Italian immigrants, he was born Dominick DeLuise in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933. His father was a rubbish collector who spoke only Italian, but DeLuise determined to go on the stage after playing Peter Rabbit in a school play at the age of eight, and in junior high school he starred as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. After graduating from Manhattan's School of Performing Arts, he worked in repertory for several years, and while appearing in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he met the actress Carol Arthur (whom London theatregoers saw in 1963 playing the forceful taxi-driver Hildy in On The Town).

The couple married in 1965 and had three sons, Peter, Michael and David, all of whom are actors – all three appeared with their father in an episode of the television series, 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996) in which David had a recurring role. At one point DeLuise was so discouraged with his progress that he started to study biology with a view to beoming a teacher, but he returned to the theatre to join the company at the Cleveland Playhouse, where he worked behind the scenes as well as playing roles ranging from Shakespearean characters to Nicely-Nicely in Guys and Dolls. DeLuise's initial television appearances (from 1960 to 1962) were on a morning children's show hosted by Shari Lewis in which he played a bumbling private eye, Kenny Katchem, until he finally found fame on The Garry Moore Show with his routines as "Dominick the Great", a Tommy Cooper-like magician whose act was always going wrong.

He then became a regular performer on Dean Martin's show, and on the variety series, The Entertainers, with Carol Burnett. In 1970 he appeared on The Des O'Connor Show, and the same year he worked for the first time with Mel Brooks when he played a covetous Russian Orthodox priest, one of several characters wildly seeking priceless jewels that are hidden in one of a dozen chairs, in the film The Twelve Chairs. In 1973 he starred in the situation comedy, Lotsa Luck, in which he played the custodian of a bus company's lost-and-found department, but it failed to find an audience. The following year he was featured in Brooks' hit western spoof, Blazing Saddles (as "Buddy Bizarre"), after which he joined Brooks and Marty Feldman as a modern version of comedy team The Three Stooges in Brooks' Silent Movie. In Cannonball Run II (1984), one of his films with Burt Reynolds, he spoofed The Godfather with his portrayal of "Don Canneloni", and he satirised the same character in Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), in which he played Don Giovanni. His other films with Reynolds included The End (1978) and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982).

DeLuise was also active providing voices for animated characters in television series including All Dogs Go To Heaven (1996-98, as Itchy Itchyford), and Stargate SG-1 (2000, as Togar), and for the film An American Tail (1986) he provided a voice for Tiger, inspired by Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.

Deluise directed two films, the TV movie Boys Will Be Boys (1997), and Hot Stuff (1979), the latter a lively comedy of corrupt policemen featuring himself with Suzanne Pleshette and his real-life wife, billed as Carol DeLuise. He also cultivated his love of food and cooking. A cookbook of his favourite recipes, Eat This: It'll Make You Feel Better, was followed by Eat This Too! He also wrote several children's books. Mel Brooks said of DeLuise, "It's hard to think of this world without him... he created so much joy and laughter on the set that you couldn't get your work done. So every time I made a movie with Dom, I would plan another two days on the schedule just for laughter."

Tom Vallance

Dom DeLuise, actor: born: Brooklyn, New York City, 1 August 1933; married 1965 Carole Arthur (three sons); died: Santa Monica, California, 4 May 2009.

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