It’s not often that Danny DeVito does a play. The last time was in 1971; it was the off-Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that launched his film and television career. (Unless you count the live tour version of "The Nightman Cometh," a musical episode from his TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in which he played a troll.)
This week, the veteran film and TV actor begins a six-week run of Neil Simon’s comedy The Sunshine Boys, his first stage play in more than four decades. Famous for portraying conniving curmudgeons, DeVito plays the suitably cantankerous Willie Clark, half of a vaudeville duo that reunites for a TV special after years of bad blood. Life imitates art in this Ahmanson Theatre production. Judd Hirsch co-stars as Clark’s old partner, Al Lewis, bringing the two actors together for the first time since they were castmates on the late 1970s sitcom Taxi (minus the bad blood, of course).
We chatted with DeVito about differences between theater and TV, his onstage reunion with Hirsch, and the late, great Richard Griffiths.
Tell us a bit about The Sunshine Boys.
Neil Simon has written so many great, funny plays, but this is a special one. It’s about a vaudeville team who separate because one of them wants to do other things. Eleven years later, after a lot of brooding, they’re thrust together again to do one night on a television special celebrating the golden era of comedy. It’s contentious and there are a lot of hard feelings about the split-up, which makes for a really funny reunion.
It’s not the first time you’ve done this play.
I did it in London last year with [Tony Award winner] Richard Griffiths, and I had a great time. We did 106 performances at the Savoy Theater and we were all set to go to the Ahmanson. I was really excited about it; we all were. But you know the way life is sometimes… When Richard passed away, I didn’t know whether we’d get to do it again. He was terrific in the part. I actually couldn’t imagine doing it without him until Judd came to the rescue.
Who brought Judd into the mix?
The producers, the director Thea Sharrock—we all felt that it was the right thing to do. I mentioned Judd and they all went crazy. But you don’t know if somebody’s going to be available or want to do it. So we sent him the script and he jumped at it.
I’m so grateful. I had such a wonderful experience with Richard. To have Judd in there, it just renews my energy, and in a way it fits perfectly. It’s a show about a reunion between two guys who hadn’t worked together in 11 years, and Judd and I haven’t worked together since Taxi. He’s perfect for the role.
What makes Judd so good for the role of Al?
We’re both really suited for the way the characters are drawn. Al and Willie were together for so long and were kinda like a married couple. One of them wanted to move on and that was tragic for the other. Willie was left with a two-man act that had nobody on the other end of it.
Judd and I are comfortable foils for each other; we did it for five years on Taxi. It’s not the same kind of a relationship—it’s a much deeper relationship in The Sunshine Boys. It kinda fits perfectly. Judd has done so many plays and he’s so comfortable on stage. It’s like being up there with DiMaggio.
Have you and Judd done any theater together?
We were on stage together in 1970 in Philadelphia, in a play called The Line of Least Existence. It was the first time we’d worked together, and that was eight years before Taxi. Then I did a small part on his TV show called Del Vecchio. I played a safecracker. We have such great history, Judd and I.
This is the first play you’ve done in more than 40 years. What drew you to it?
It’s so intricate. It’s not a cakewalk for an actor. There’s a lot underneath, a lot of baggage that these guys are carrying around with them.
This play means a lot to me. I’m at a time in my life when I sometimes wonder what I’d be without my work. I’ve been my work for so long; when you take that away, there’s kind of an emptiness. That’s basically what happens to my character, Willie. For 43 years they were going along, and all of the sudden the bottom drops out. I relate to that in a big way. Also, it’s hysterical. A lot of physical comedy; it’s not just sitting around talking.
How different is theater compared to film or TV?
Live theater’s a trip, man. Every night it’s a new experience. There’s no take two. Well, I guess there is the next night.
On TV, there’s just a camera. When we shoot It’s Always Sunny, we have three cameras and we just go absolutely nuts. We improvise. With a play, there’s room for interpretation, but there’s no improvisation. We stick to what Neil wrote to the letter. Being out there with an audience is totally different. You have the play and [the actors] have each other.
The Sunshine Boys runs at the Ahmanson Theatre through November 3.