Why Danny DeVito is happy in the shadow of his comic creations

Eternal sunshine boy: Danny DeVito on the set of a revival of The Sunshine Boys in London last year. He plans to shoot The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle in Ireland next year. Photograph: Andrew Testa

Eternal sunshine boy: Danny DeVito on the set of a revival of The Sunshine Boys in London last year. He plans to shoot The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle in Ireland next year. Photograph: Andrew Testa

Thu, Feb 21, 2013, 00:00

Ever since his early days on 'Taxi', Danny DeVito has wanted to direct, yet despite a string of solid films, he'll always be best known as Arnold Schwarzenegger's brother, writes TARA BRADY

Danny DeVito is, in many ways, a serious man. His production company, Jersey Films, has helped with the development of such eye-catching films as Erin Brockovich, Get Shorty and Garden State. He directed The War of the Roses, Matilda and the seriously underrated Hoffa.

Last year, he braved the West End stage for a revival of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. He’s the real deal. He deserves his pending Volta award – presented for lifetime achievement – at this week’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Still, he’s the sort of fellow whose very name still triggers a smile.

Since he broke through as the aggressive, comically unpleasant Louie De Palma in the television series Taxi, he has been seen as a man with irresistibly funny bones. “I don’t know the difference between comedy and drama,” he cackles in his largely unaltered New Jersey twang. “It’s hard to put your finger on it. I have never done any stand-up. That seemed like a nightmare. But I do the other funny stuff.”

How did he end up this way? “Well it’s just what comes naturally,” he says. “I guess it always seemed like fun to get that sort of reaction from an audience. But I didn’t really set out to do any particular thing apart from act. A doctor sometimes does the heart. Sometimes he does the feet. Sometimes he does the brain. But he’s still a doctor.”

His mention of areas of medical interest triggers a comic riff. “I could go other places. Ha ha! I’m not going there. I can tell you which one I’d pick.”

The diminutive, spherical polymath, now 68, was born and raised in a working-class corner of the Garden State. He comes from a big Italian family. Large parts of the clan ended up in Ireland (more anon), but his branch slotted comfortably into the largest community of Italians outside the Mediterranean. He doesn’t remember any performers in the clan.

“Oh no, no. Not at all,” he says. “My father had a candy store and my mother was a housewife. My grandparents are all from Italy. One of my grandfather’s brothers, instead of going to Ellis Island, went to Belfast. That’s where the Irish connection comes from.”

It is said another branch of the family opened an ice-cream parlour and amusement arcade on O’Connell Street in Dublin. When, on Friday night before a screening of War of the Roses, he receives his Volta at the Savoy Cinema on that thoroughfare, he will, in some mad sense, be returning to the family manor.

“Yeah, there are some DeVitos on O’Connell Street. They spread all over the place. My family did set up a little gaming place on O’Connell Street. Games of chance. Yeah, that’s always been a thing.”

DeVito knows how to play the room. He’ll happily chat about the Irish wing until darkness falls. He’s eager to confirm that his production of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle – an adaptation of a young-adult novel by the pseudonymous Avi – will begin shooting here in 2014.

“You should read the book. You have to read it,” he says. “While I am not talking to the press in Ireland and being showered with praises by the audience – thank you very much – I will be looking for locations and meeting with production designers.”

Anyway, back to the biography. Having decided to make for the stage, the young DeVito trained at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

He remembers his parents being fairly tolerant of his new obsessions. He was, after all, “the babe of the family”. The 1960s was a thrilling time to be in New York City and the young DeVito greatly savoured the Bohemian mayhem.

He first gained mass exposure when he repeated the role he had originated off-Broadway in Milos Forman’s classic film of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (A long professional and personal relationship with Michael Douglas, that movie’s producer, resulted.) That was 1975. Three years later, he secured the role of Louie, the permanently apoplectic dispatcher in Taxi. That ogre is one of American television’s great comic creations.

“That was like a total windfall of luck,” he says. “I was perfect for the part and I gave a great audition. I was exactly what they wanted in terms of the role. Those five years were formative in many ways. I had an excellent time. It got me on the map in terms of popularity. That was very good for me.”

Every second actor learns to be a director. Often those who make the transition fail to get the respect they deserve. DeVito is surely such a creature. The War of the Roses added real poison to the romantic comedy cocktail. Matilda is a delightful family film. The films – although very different – show signs of a real directorial voice. They are imaginative, energetic and comic.

DeVito began this voyage while still on Taxi. “I directed some episodes,” he says. “I was always pushing the fact that I wanted to direct. I was aiming that way before I even did Taxi. But you go with the flow.”

Does he ever feel he has been hard done by? Recent, amusing films such as Death to Smoochy and Our House received puzzlingly poor reviews and disappointing box-office takings. Something seemed to have gone wrong with the marketing.

“Yeah, you can make a good movie. You can have a good idea. But if the studio doesn’t promote it you are never going to see it. Everything has to be in place. You know how it is.”

Still sunny after all these years

He is still doing very nicely. In the last year, his 30-year marriage to the great Rhea Perlman – whom he mentions with apparent affection – hit the rocks. (Tellingly, he still refers to her as his wife.) But his unmistakably gruff voice-work helped The Lorax become one of the biggest animated hits of the past decade. He can still be seen on television as the abundantly sleazy Frank in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Then there is the continuing chatter about a sequel to the massively popular 1988 comedy Twins. As you will surely recall, that was the movie that defined the term “high-concept comedy”. Danny and Arnold Schwarzenegger played the most unlikely of fraternal twins. The sequel is said to star Eddie Murphy as an unlikelier long-lost triplet.

“Yeah, we have talked about it a couple of times,” he says. “All we need is the right script. So far we haven’t quite come across that. But I think Universal are working on that.”

Schwarzenegger and DeVito were an odd couple in many ways. DeVito, a lifelong Democrat, has always made a point of supporting liberal causes. One wonders how he gets along with the former Republican governor of California. Do they just avoid talking about politics? “No, no. I love talking about those things. If the opportunity arises I will always speak my mind – especially when somebody does something I don’t really agree with. Then I’ll say it. I wouldn’t be political. I would say it to their face how I feel.”

He pauses for a cackle. “I am very, very socially minded.”

In all senses of the word.

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