Danny DeVito: My comic career and my Irish family

Danny DeVito. File photograph: Jake Michaels/The New York Times
The actor and all-round force of nature discusses US politics, winding people up, and how his stature shaped him

Look, it’s Danny DeVito. Huddled before the wine rack in his LA home, he seems oddly unchanged from the small sphere of angry energy we first met in Taxi 40 years ago.

“Lockdown, man. It’s totally crazy!” he nearly yells. “I can, thank goodness, work on things here.”

More than a few actors who started in hit sitcoms failed to finesse their fame into long-term careers. DeVito showed us the way. He has remained a vital character actor in films such as Batman Returns, Get Shorty and LA Confidential. The War of the Roses and the hugely underrated Hoffa confirmed him as a director of the highest order. He’s been hilarious as the appalling Frank in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for (squints disbelievingly at Wikipedia) some 14 years. Now he’s voicing Bob the dog in the charming Disney+ release The One and Only Ivan. Based on a novel by Katherine Applegate, it tells the story of a gorilla imprisoned in a shopping mall.

DeVito voices Bob the dog in the charming The One and Only Ivan
DeVito voices Bob the dog in the charming The One and Only Ivan

“That was so much fun,” he says. “He does whatever he wants. Eats a bit of hamburger or pizza that someone has left on the street. What he realises is that the thing he has been missing in life is a good friend. I am lucky to have had really good friends. When I was young I had two sisters who were older and I really wanted an older brother. Bob has the same thing.”

The enthusiasm is undimmed. He is still a mass of hand gestures and stifled cackles. He still tears anecdotes to shreds.

I am interested in that allusion to growing up in mid-20th century New Jersey. Dad ran a small business in the vicinity of Bruce Springsteen’s storied Asbury Park. Danny was the baby in that working-class Italian-American family and was indulged when he inclined towards a life on the stage. He trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts – alma mater of John Cassavetes and Kirk Douglas – before scoring roles in the 1971 Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the subsequent Oscar-drenched film.

I enjoyed winding people up. So that’s how I became that guy in Taxi or being Frank on Sunny. Those characters were in my fabric

“I was the baby,” he says, chuckling. “That was a good thing about my family. I always felt free. I could do pretty much whatever I wanted. I started when I was 14, making ends meet doing odd jobs. I worked for my sister when I was 18. I decided to go to New York and by the time I was 21 I had split Asbury Park, New Jersey to ‘follow my heart’. I had gone on my own merry way to follow the desire of my thespian insides. With a band of merry players!”

Great antagonist

Taxi turned his life upside down. Louie De Palma, poisonous dispatcher, is one of the greatest antagonists in sitcom history. People liked nice Judd Hirsch, naive Tony Danza and bemused Christopher Lloyd. But they really, really loved to hate De Palma’s compact egoist. I wonder, given his classical training, if he was surprised to end up as largely a comic performer. Maybe he wanted to play Hamlet at the Lincoln Center?

Danny DeVito as poisonous Louie De Palma, one of the greatest antagonists in sitcom history, in Taxi
Danny DeVito as poisonous Louie De Palma, one of the greatest antagonists in sitcom history, in Taxi

“No, not at all – even though I was a great fan of all the dramatic movies,” he says. “Yes, I spent time watching all the great movies, as cinephiles do. But in my neighbourhood of New Jersey, you got through by ball breaking. I don’t know what you say in Ireland.”

Maybe “slagging people off”.

“Slagging off? Yeah, if you got in trouble doing that, you’d turn to the funny side. That’s how I hung out. I enjoyed winding people up. So that’s how I became that guy in Taxi or being Frank on Sunny … or the character in Ruthless People. Those characters were in my fabric.”

Danny DeVito during filming of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia in 2016
Danny DeVito during filming of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia in 2016

How can I put this delicately? Maybe actors who are, erm, not so tall get shunted towards comedy parts and character roles. (Diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Fairbank’s disease, DeVito grew to just 4ft 10in.)

“Oh, yeah. Absolutely!” he says with no hint of embarrassment. “Size matters. You could be a very imposing character and walk into a room and the people will back away. On the other hand, you may look like an easy mark but … Those things matter. I got one thing from my sister – God rest her soul – Angie. She put me to work in a beauty parlour, and I think the gift of the gab started coming out.

“It’s one thing being with the boys and girls down at the boardwalk, having a drink and a smoke or whatever. But when you are having a conversation and keeping the ball rolling, that’s more like an improv. That’s kind of like what we are doing. You are asking me a question and I am going with that. And that early experience helped.”

The Irish DeVitos

We need to talk about the extended family. No domestic profile of the great man can fail to note that significant swathes of the family moved to Ireland as other divisions headed for the United States. One set of DeVitos ran an amusement arcade and ice-cream shop on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Another set headed north.

“My grandfather’s brother went to Belfast when my grandfather went to Ellis Island,” he says. “That’s the DeVito connection. They married into the Lucia family. Some people did restaurants. Some went into gaming places. Yes, they had a place in O’Connell Street on the corner. I visited people there and had dinner with them. I also flew to Shannon to go visit a first cousin of my father’s. She was there in Kilkee. I had an Italian dinner with my Irish relatives. Eggplant Parmesan. Spaghetti and meatballs. We had the whole deal and we had some Guinness.”

He was here in 2013 for the Dublin International Film Festival. Has he managed to get back since? “I miss that I haven’t been able to come over there,” he says. “I got close. A few times I almost got there, but I didn’t make it.”

Throughout his career, DeVito has remained true to his beloved family and to his solid left-wing politics. His relationship with Rhea Perlman – whose role as Carla in Cheers is as resonant as DeVito’s in Taxi – remains an eccentric wonder. They married in 1982 and, after raising three children, broke up in 2012 before coming back together in 2013. They separated again in 2017, but, by all accounts, remain good chums.

“Danny and I have always loved each other. We have three wonderful children and we agree on everything important,” Perlman said last year. “Our [relationship] is better because all the tense stuff is gone.”

DeVito supported Bernie Sanders in the last two presidential nomination races and, like so many in his country, seems alternately flattened and enraged by the current regime.

“We have a political quagmire is what we have,” he says. “We have a president who is a psychopath and is so narcissistic he feels the democratic process doesn’t apply to him. We will see what happens with the next few months with absentee ballots and people maybe not wanting to stand in line. In our country we have fallen so far behind in the virus department it is embarrassing. Don’t worry. I can spit all over my computer and you are not going to get it, Donald – not that I have it. But we are in a pickle. It’s not only us.”

Hey, I am capitalist. I think about putting food on the table. But I am still a social democrat, a socialist

He goes on to bemoan the lack of action on the environment and healthcare and social welfare. He complains about Trump threatening to pull the US out of the World Health Organisation. “Come on … Please!” he says in something close to despair.

Nobody on the other side of the aisle wants to jinx it, but it does look as if the president is in trouble. Then again, almost nobody thought Trump could win in 2016.

“Who knows what the hell is going to happen?” he says. “Look, the Republicans are in a minority. They have the press. They have the money. They have all kinds of ways to supress the vote. If you are in a democracy – and we’re supposed to be – that means a democratic way of choosing things. Doesn’t it? Last time I looked, anyway. But there are ways of manipulating that. Hey, I am capitalist. I think about putting food on the table. But I am still a social democrat, a socialist.”

After a good five minutes of pondering the US’s decline, he gives himself a shake and the sparkier DeVito re-emerges.

“Hey, let’s lighten up. The One and Only Ivan. It’s a great movie! The 21st August, it’s on Disney+. It’s beautiful. Helen Mirren is great in it. And Sam Rockwell!”

The man’s a pro.

The One and Only Ivan streams on Disney+ from August 21st

WHAT BECAME OF THE TAXI CAST?

A decade or so before he created The Simpsons, James L Brooks established himself as the presiding deity of American situation comedy. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda and Lou Grant were all his creations. Taxi, which ran from 1978 to 1983 and is set in a New York cab company, won 18 Emmys and created a handful of durable stars.

Judd Hirsch (Alex)
The closest thing to a protagonist in the ensemble, Alex had the sanest voice in an insane environment. Hirsch went on to win two Tonys and was Oscar-nominated for his role in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. Seen recently as Simon Wiesenthal in the TV series Hunters.

Jeff Conaway (Bobby)
Bobby, a struggling actor, was the frequent target of Louie’s bile. Conaway hit big in the same year Taxi emerged with his role as Kenickie in the colossally successful Grease. He later appeared in Babylon 5 and assorted TV series. He died following multiple health problems in 2011.

Marilu Henner (Elaine)
The only woman among the drivers. Elaine was never short of a New York zinger. Henner didn’t become a star, but she had a nice role opposite Burt Reynolds in the well-remembered sitcom Evening Shade.

Tony Danza (Tony)
Danza, who played the dim-witted Vietnam veteran, has never left our screens. Appeared in two entities called The Tony Danza Show. He was also a reasonably successful professional boxer (nine wins, three defeats) in the late 1970s.

Christopher Lloyd (Reverend Jim)
Lloyd played a stock figure of the era – the acid-addled dropout – and did not look back. Doc in the Back to the Future trilogy. Clocked up multiple credits every succeeding year. Did an episode of NCIS just before lockddown.

Andy Kaufman (Latka)
One of the great enigmas in the US entertainment business. Kaufman, who died in 1984, was something between a comic and a performance artist. Jim Carrey played him convincingly in Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon (1999).