Quarantine has taken a toll on the concept of overachievement; any American who can both brush his teeth and empty the dishwasher in the span of one Earth turn feels Nobel-worthy. In order to prepare for a (hopeful) return to normalcy and recalibrate national accomplishment meters, consider the case of Danny DeVito, icon and true super-achiever.
Fairbank’s disease might have prematurely stopped his vertical growth, but he blossomed in virtually every other way. In his 75 years, he’s starred in (and won an Emmy for) one classic sitcom, Taxi, and continues to plumb the depths of degeneracy in another future-classic, as Frank Reynolds in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which will become the longest-running live-action situation comedy in history when its 15th season airs.
In addition to his movie roles (Terms of Endearment, L.A. Confidential), he’s directed (Throw Momma From the Train, War of the Roses), produced (Pulp Fiction, Erin Brockovitch), and reproduced (he fathered Lucy, 37; Grace, 39; and Jacob, 40, with wife Rhea Perlman, who lives separately, but amicably).
With a smidgeon of CGI assistance, DeVito will now break the species barrier by transmogrifying into Bob, a stray mutt and gorilla companion in Disney+’s soon to stream family tearjerker, The One and Only Ivan.
In researching you, I discovered something that kind of blew my mind. Were you aware there’s an entire genre of Danny DeVito adult coloring books?
No, I’m not, but that’s really cool. I was always a coloring book fan, always trying to stay within the lines.
I’m curious. Has quarantine radically affected your daily habits?
Well, the thing is, I’ve always been pretty solitary. You work alone. Even though actors work collaboratively, when they’re studying they work alone. I’m really careful; I don’t want to be exposed to it. I have a mask with me always. I’ve been very conscious of my kids, too: Lucy, Jake, and Gracie. We do social distancing visits in the yard.
Have you been behaving yourself during all the downtime?
There’s phases I’ve gone through. The initial phase was sitting in one spot, watching TV and movies, eating a lot, cooking a lot of dinners and drinking a lot of booze—doing a lot of that. There were two or three weeks where I was having a cocktail every night. I couldn’t wait for five o’clock. I’d start with gin and lime—squeeze half a lime into a shaker, like a daiquiri without the sugar. Then sometimes a quick gin and tonic. Every night I was doing a different routine: a margarita, a Manhattan, then go rum and Coke. It got to be like, “What the hell, man? Every night?” Lately, for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing it very little. Lately, I’ve been more conscious about exercising. I do Pilates and yoga and bounce around on a trampoline, which is really the coolest thing in the world. It moves the lymph around, keeps that stuff flowing good. I’ve also done two juice fasts.
I’d love to lose some weight but I think juice fast and imagine horrible diarrhea.
Not to get into your gastric system, but it’s not going to happen. No, it’s not about that at all. And you drop pounds, even though you’re a couch potato.
You grew up in Asbury Park, New Jersey. I gather your parents had some tragedy in their lives before you came along.
My grandparents came over from Italy in the 1800s, didn’t speak English. They were laborers. They went through very difficult times. My father used to boast about how he got to sixth grade. My parents had five children, two I never met. One died in the hospital, and one died from whooping cough, from a pandemic. Maybe that’s a reason that I haven’t been out of the house for four months.
Is it true you worked as a hairstylist when you were young?
When I was about 17, my oldest sister, 16 years older, opened a beauty salon, and said, “Why don’t you come to work for me?” She sent me to beauty school; I learned how to do it. At first, she started giving me all the old ladies. So there was a lot of dyeing and a lot of dying. She called me Mr. Dan. And it was a performance, in a way. I did all kinds of hairstyles, shampoos and sets. If anybody’s in the business in those days, they know what I’m talking about. Pin curls, permanent waves, shampoo sets.
You were much, much younger than your two sisters, do you suspect you might have been a mistake?
I don’t know. They never called me a mistake. There was funny story they always told. When my mother got pregnant, she went to her doctor in like 1944. The doctor said, “You’re either pregnant or you have a tumor, let’s check this out.” I don’t know how long after, the doctor said, “Mrs. DeVito, you’re pregnant.” She said, [very disappointedly], “Oh.” They loved telling that story.
What I don’t understand is that you went off to New York to learn makeup, but somehow became an actor, is that right? I wondered how this great transition came.
My sister wanted me to learn makeup, because she wanted to have her own line of makeup. Very enterprising, my sister. So she sent me to New York to go find a place where I could learn how to do it. I found a woman who said she’d teach me makeup and all about the different Queen Helene products, but I had to enroll in the school where she taught at night. It was the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Now I had never thought about being an actor. I’d never seen a play. I never thought about going on stage. So I went, and I would audit all the other classes. I dug it. I started reading plays. But you know I was a big movie fan. I’m like a teenager, basically 18, 19. So I thought, God, who are these guys? Why can’t I do it?
Coming from your background, this isn’t something I imagine that seemed like a practical goal. Was your family supportive?
They were really pulling for me at every turn. I’d done a Starsky and Hutch, a couple of little movies. Then I got a big movie: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Then once, if you’re very fortunate and in the right place, something comes that breaks. You break through the ice, which for me was in 1978. That was Taxi.
You did Martin Brest’s NYU thesis film, Hot Dogs for Gauguin, and then famously get Martini in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. One is mentally ill. The other wants to blow up the Statue of Liberty. Did you have this energy of being able to play off-kilter roles?
Yeah. Extreme. Not your average normal walk-in-the-door, buy-a-donut person. The parts I’ve played on TV were always bookmakers, safecrackers, shady characters of some sort. Somebody who had a twisted past—or has a twisted future.
I’ve read a lot about how fraught it was shooting one One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a mental hospital in Oregon. You played Martini. I read Jack Nicholson wasn’t even speaking to Milos Forman, the director.
Oh no, that’s not true. It was more fun than fraught. Everybody got along. One night we all drove from Salem to Portland to see a basketball game, because if you’re near a basketball arena, Jack wants to go. And he was a big star at the time. Nobody knew who the rest of us were. We had floor seats and there was press and the photographers. It was one of the first experiences I ever had with that kind of attention; people were chasing us. Jack’s friends grabbed me a huge Coke. Huge. Suddenly we were down right on the middle of the court, right on the floor. The ref threw the ball up in the air for the first tip. Exactly as the ball hit the apex, I kicked over my coke and the entire tub went out into the middle of the floor. Whistles blew from every fucking place, and they yelled, “Stop!” and came out with spray bottles and towels. Nicholson just looked at me and said, [doing a Nicholson impression] “You want another Coke, D?” I said, “Yeah.’” He said, “Get Danny another Coke.”
So you didn’t, in fact, have an imaginary friend during the shoot?
Oh, I had an imaginary friend, but why is that crazy? The character Martini’s friend was not like Harvey or anybody like that. It was just a buddy he talked to. It’s an actor’s thing. You have secrets.
How’d you land Taxi?
Joel Thurm is a casting director who worked a lot at the time. He used to send me up for all these parts. I didn’t have an agent and every once in a while, Joel would say, “Go audition for that.” I went to plenty and didn’t get them. Once he said, “This is something that’s really great. You’ve got to go.” All my friends were saying, “Movies are the way to go. Don’t worry about television.” Anyway, Joel sent me this pilot and I read it. Louie De Palma was a character I loved. I went to Paramount to audition, and there were Ed Weinberger, Stan Daniels, Dave Davis, and Jim Brooks, all from Mary Tyler Moore. They were the best. I didn’t know them from Adam because I had never seen Mary Tyler Moore. I might not have had a television. But I know I want this part, because it’s a really cool part and Louie was a particularly well-drawn character. Everybody was sitting down. It was a scary moment. I had the script in hand and I said to them, “Nice to meet you. One thing I want to know before we start: Who wrote this shit?’” And I threw it on the table.
That’s a big gambit.
There was a one-second pause. Then Jim Brooks almost died laughing. Basically, it was one of those things where Louis actually walked into their office. From then on, I could say any word I wanted and get a laugh. If I said, “And?” I’d get a laugh. Anything!
Whenever I think of Louie De Palma, I think about him in that taxi dispatcher cage. Did you know he was going to be performing pretty much in the cage?
Yeah. It was all in the script. Later on I heard that Louis was originally only going to be a voice. The cage worked out great for us. If you remember the pilot episode, I was ripping people, everybody was getting the wrath of this character out of the cage. When I finally walked out, that was a big reveal.
It got a huge laugh. I guess people didn’t know that you were smaller. Is that what it was?
Yeah, it was a sight gag.
The thing that’s so interesting about your career is that height is not something that figures much in most of your roles. But it was something that actually they took advantage of in Taxi. The year you won the Emmy there was an episode in which you have an emotional monologue about the humiliation of having to shop in a boy’s husky department.
Oh, yes, I tell the story about my pants. That’s my story. Once I got to this size, I stopped growing, but I wasn’t skinny. So, I couldn’t go to a store and get clothes right off the rack. So, I used to have to go to the large boys’ department. I told [producers] Ed [Weinberger] and Jim [Brooks] this story. We put that in the show. It’s always good to draw from your life if you can.
There’s some controversy about Man on the Moon, which you produced and starred in. Andy Kaufman is now considered a comedy God, and in the vein of Elvis and Jim Morrison, there’ve been all these rumors that he faked his death and is going to come back. Most of the Andy Kaufman mystique has been fanned by Andy’s longtime writer and friend Bob Zmuda. But then the late Sam Simon, a writer on Taxi, says that Andy Kaufman, despite being portrayed by Bob Zmuda as an outlaw and guy whose process would make everybody’s life miserable, was actually a pretty nice guy and easy to work with.
Andy didn’t make everybody’s life miserable on Taxi. Andy Kaufman was a simple guy. Not a bad guy. Andy was a performance artist in an actor’s role on a popular television show. But I think he would have been happier if he could just go out on stage and play the bongos at clubs and stuff like that. He probably would be happier if he wasn’t on a TV show every week, even though we were blessed to have him.
This documentary about the making of the film, Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond, came out a couple years ago, using a bunch of behind the scenes footage that had never been seen of Jim Carrey disappearing into the role of Andy and his loutish lounge-singer alter ego, Tony Clifton. I have to say, it look highly unpleasant for those who were working there because of Jim’s process. Was it?
Yeah, but it was because of Tony because Tony was an asshole.
Tony was an asshole.
Pretty much. I mean, to everybody. When Jim was Tony, he tried to do it to the fullest, as you would say.
In the documentary, Jim says that Ron Meyer, who was the head of Universal, didn’t want the footage to get out because people would see it and think that Jim, their star, was an asshole. After seeing it, I kind of agree with his instinct.
Jim was obviously trying to channel anything that he thought Andy would do, and Tony was the offensive side of Andy. You can’t even put Andy and Tony, oddly enough, in the same breath because Tony was like Tony, and Andy was just a sweet guy from New York. Jim was trying to be involved in all that because that’s the performance art.
My kids and I just rewatched Batman Returns, a fantastic movie, scarier and darker than I remember, in which you played Penguin. So that fish you’re gnawing on…
Salmon. Yeah, I ate the fish. And people said, “You ate a raw fish?” I said, “Yeah.” Like nobody’s ever had sushi? It’s the same thing.
It’s sort of denatured when you go for sushi and they cut it up so nicely. As The Penguin, you’re holding a whole fish and taking a bite out of it.
Yeah, man. Did you ever see Lifeboat?
I did, but a long time ago. What do they eat?
They eat a fish. I’m from New Jersey: raw fish, clams, shrimp, crab.
I finally watched “A Very Sunny Christmas” from the sixth season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s so wrong, but so funny, and there’s a scene in which you’re sewn into a leather sofa, you seem to have been lubricated beforehand—and you’re nude.
Well, you’re supposed to believe I was sewn into the leather sofa and it got so hot I had to take my clothes off, and it still was like in a sweat lodge. So when I come out I’m covered with sweat, like a newborn halibut.
And there’s a lovely long shot of your bare bottom which I felt was impressive. Not a double?
Oh no, no, that was me.
It’s totally shocking. It made me wonder if the producers or writers ever asked you to do something and you were like, “Nah, too far.”
No, not really.
They’ve taken five episodes of Sunny off that include blackface. I think you guys might have the record. The whole show is wrong in so many ways. You waterboarded your daughter in a urinal. I think if you took everything out from It’s Always Sunny that was socially wrong, inappropriate or offensive, there’d be no show.
Right. We have to keep provoking. But there is a limit.
You’ve done 14 seasons of Sunny. How much longer can you do it?
Yeah, we don’t know what we’re doing. But we could probably go some more. We could do this show forever. I could. Now, I recommend every actor out there do theater, do movies. But if you can find a bunch of people to work with on a television show do it, man, have some fun. You go to work every day with a bunch of people that you really like, and what are you doing? You’re making people laugh hopefully, you’re having a good time, it’s a great living. Come on.
Since we’re on Zoom, I can see you have an extraordinary bar behind you. It’s making me thirsty. We’re almost done, so I’m ready for a drink. You see what I’m pouring? It’s limoncello in your honor.
Oh yeah, but that’s not mine. We stopped making [Danny DeVito’s Premium Original Limoncello.] So let me see you drink it, go for it.
I’d never heard of limoncello until you mentioned it on that memorable drunken episode of The View. Your excuse was, you’ve been out with George Clooney, consuming limoncellos.
Yep. It was those last seven limoncellos that got me.