Danny DeVito: Little Big Man

Rising from his humble origins in a working-class New Jersey neighborhood, self-described "pussycat" DeVito took on the persona of a mean, wise-cracking grouch and rode it to the pinnacle of Hollywood success. This could well be his best year yet: he plays The Penguin in Batman Returns, stars in Jack the Bear, and co-stars with pal Jack Nicholson in Hoffa, which he also directs.

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It seems that everything's Jack for Danny DeVito these days. This summer, he's following in the footsteps of his old pal Jack Nicholson as the villain in Batman Returns, playing The Penguin; next, he turns up as a family man in Jack the Bear; currently, DeVito is directing Nicholson, as well as co-starring with him, in their long-planned movie bio Hoffa.

The five-foot-tall DeVito earned his reputation-and an Emmy-as the meanest, nastiest, most hotheaded and funniest jerk ever to appear on TV when he played Louie De Palma, the boss dispatcher on the five-year hit series "Taxi." When the show was abruptly cancelled DeVito didn't let it slow him down.

In 1983 he appeared as Shirley MacLaine's love interest in Terms of Endearment, and the following year he starred with his friend Michael Douglas, and Kathleen Turner in the block-bluster Romancing the Stone. A year later came the sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, and then, in 1986, he broke up moviegoers as he tried to get rid of his wife, played by Bette Midler, in Ruthless People. DeVito bounced back from Brian De Palma's bomb Wise Guys with Barry Levinson's Tin Men, then made his feature directorial debut with the successful Throw Momma From the Train, a black comedy which paired him with Billy Crystal. Next came Twins, in which DeVito played Arnold Schwarzenegger's twin brother.

When he was asked to play Michael Douglas's divorce lawyer in The War of the Roses, DeVito agreed on one condition: that he be allowed to direct the very black comedy. Thus, he, Douglas and Turner were reunited for their third film, a critical and box-office success. Last year's Other People's Money may have missed the mark, but few stars have had a run of box-office hits as successful as DeVito's. And 1992 looks like it may be his biggest year yet. After finishing Hoffa, DeVito will act in and possibly direct Low Fives, the inaugural feature from Jersey Films, a company he formed last year with producer Michael Shamberg.

Danny DeVito was raised in the streets of Asbury Park, where he learned how to hustle in his father's local pool hall and how to dodge punishment at the Catholic private school his parents sent him to in order to keep him out of trouble. He worked as a hairdresser in his sister's beauty salon before deciding to enroll in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. After appearing in short-lived off-off-Broadway plays, he set out for Hollywood, where he wound up working as a janitor and a parking lot attendant for 18 months before he decided to return, defeated, to New York. It was there that he was cast in a revival of the play One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which led to his being cast in the movie. The friendship he developed with Jack Nicholson led to his roles in two other Nicholson films, Goin' South and Terms of Endearment.

While acting in a play, DeVito met Rhea Perlman, who went on to co-star as a kind of female version of Louie De Palma in the hugely successful TV series "Cheers." Within two weeks of their meeting, they moved in together--and 11 years later, they married. They now have two daughters and a son.

LAWRENCE GROBEL: Why don't we start with the movie that everyone is curious about, Batman Returns. Do you have the same kind of deal for playing The Penguin that Jack Nicholson had for playing The Joker in the original Batman?

DANNY DEVITO: I don't know what his deal was. We never talk about money, Jack and I.

Q: He reportedly made over $60 million.

A: Really? Jesus! That's a lot of money. What a lucky guy.

Q: Did Nicholson give you any advice about doing The Penguin?

A: He told me I was going to regret the makeup. He said it was going to be, like, hours in the chair. But I brought my videodiscs and I set up a TV in there and watched everything through the mirror. I couldn't watch foreign films, though, because the titles were backward.

Q: How long did it take each day to get made up?

A: It took a few hours. But I enjoyed every second of it--and sometimes regretted taking it off. I love Penguin.

Q: Did you have any reservations about following Nicholson's Joker?

A: No, Joker is so different a character. I wish I was in the first Batman, so then maybe Jack could have been in the second one.

Q: How did your involvement come about?

A: There had been a lot of rumors in the newspapers right after the first Batman came out that I was going to play The Penguin. I reacted to it like, "I'm really not interested." But when the time came to have a meeting with Tim Burton, I found out what he wanted to do, and it was so different than anything I had imagined, I got hooked by what he had in mind.

Q: Like?

A: I grew up with The Penguin in the Batman comics, and also the TV show with Burgess Meredith. Tim was talking about The Penguin of Batman Returns having a duality of character. Burton saw Penguin as someone who's been dealt a hand, a certain set of circumstances he was forced to live with all his life, and because of these events, he's been pushed into the darker regions. But his intellect and his will to live in another realm kind of clash--his circumstances are dark, serious and heartfelt in the underground, but he desires the above world. So I thought that it was a really great take on Penguin. There was no way for me not to do the movie, because it was doing something I'd never, ever done before. I've never played any character like this. This is something that comes along once in a lifetime. It's a magnificent opportunity to explore not only what is going on in this man's mind and the complex mental avenues that he travels, but physically, too. A very big part of what makes Oswald Cobblepot who he is his physical character and his persona.

Q: Oswald Cobblepot?

A: That's The Penguin's real name.

Q: Was the set refrigerated? And did you work with real penguins?

A: Yeah, we had hundreds of penguins, and they needed it cold. Also, it's a winter movie and Tim wanted the breath coming from our mouths.

Q: Did you come to feel about the penguins the way W.C. Fields did about working with children and small dogs?

A: No, I loved the penguins. They were my babies.

Q: Did you have any scenes with Michelle Pfeiffer?

A: [cackles] Oh, yeah. I enjoyed working with her, and with Michael [Keaton]. Michael and I had done one movie together years ago, Johnny Dangerously, so I've known him for a long time.

Q: Are you on-screen as much as Nicholson was as The Joker?

A: I don't remember how much he was on-screen, but I don't think you'll forget that I was there [laughs].

Q: And will Penguin be the character you'll be remembered for most?

A: Either that, or I'll know the reason why [laughs]. I think it's going to be a brilliant film that will shock and delight everybody.

Q: Last Batman Returns question: Do you have a piece of the merchandising as well as a percentage of the picture?

A: I haven't any idea. I don't worry about deals, or anything like that.

Q: Let's talk about your next film, Jack the Bear. Do you know what the expression "Jack the bear" means?

A: "Everything is cool." It's from the jazz era: everything is "Jack the Bear." I didn't know this until I was talking to Clint Eastwood, who's a big jazz guy, and he told me. It really makes sense because there is a certain task that my character in that film has, and that is to keep light and not deal with those emotional things that could be overwhelming. His wife's been killed in a car crash and he's got two boys he loves dearly. It turns out that maybe it's not the best thing to do--maybe you should explore those feelings, and get them out.

Q: You play basically a nice guy in Jack the Bear, which is a departure for you, isn't it? I'll mention some of the characters you've played, and you fill in what comes to mind. Martini in Cuckoo's Nest.

A: Sensitive, wacko.

Q: Sam Stone in Ruthless People.

A: Greedy, lustful, sicko.

Q: Vincent in Twins.

A: Greedy, lustful, sicko.

Q: Harry in Wise Guys.

A: Greedy, lustful, sicko.

Q: Tilley in Tin Men.

A: [laughing now] Greedy, lustful, sicko.

Q: And Gavin from War of the Roses?

A: A lawyer, need I say more? Jack the Bear is a whole different thing--although there are some very sick and fun things that I do. Jack has a late-night TV show and introduces horror films. A creature-feature show called "Midnight Shriek." And he comes out as this character called Al Gory. Every night he puts in these teeth, he's got hot, white makeup, and he's introducing Boris Karloff in The Mummy and Lon Chaney as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Q: Sounds like you get to play out a split personality.

A: Metaphorically, we all have demons inside of us and this character has them really deep inside. He also has the demon that is on the surface, and doing this horror show allows him to vent that.

Q: How about you? Do you repress your own demons?

A: I do have my share of demons, baggage that I carry around with me. We all carry around demons from our childhood or adulthood, or early adulthood or late adulthood. I usually let them out. I'm very vocal. People know how I feel right away about something, like it or not.

Q: The two adjectives most often written about you as a director are "tough" and "demanding." Is that your demons coming out?

A: I don't know. I know what I want. It's not a simple thing making films.

Q: What other words would you use to describe yourself as a director?

A: [big devilish smile] "Gentle." "Understanding."

Q: What do you like best about directing?

A: It's a way to communicate and visualize everything inside of you. You control the picture, you get to work with all these talented people. It's a great thing to be a director and say, "I don't like that couch," and it's gone before you turn around. Or the colors of the wall. Or, "When I was dreaming last night I saw the fence was 15 feet higher than it is now. Let's do it, okay?"

Q: So you like the power. What are the negatives?

A: Where do you want to start? Finding good material is a problem. Deals, budgets, all that stuff. One day on War of the Roses we were setting up this scene and I started feeling really weird, like, "My God, I'm dying." I said to my assistant, "Take me to the hospital, I'm having a heart attack." I didn't tell anybody, got in the car and started going off the lot while the scene was being set up. Michael Douglas was in his trailer, nobody knew what's going on, and I'm leaving the lot. I got my doctor on the phone and said, "I'm pulling out right now, meet me at the hospital, I think I'm dying." He said, "Danny, how many cups of coffee did you have today?" "I had three double espressos," I said. He said, "Turn around and go lay down. You're nuts." So there is that fear that you have when you are shooting. It's really crazy. You are sometimes so crazy. I don't know how to sit down.

Q: Do you still drink double espressos before you work?

A: No, I drink cappuccinos. But I haven't had coffee now for a couple of months.

Q: What does Danny DeVito, the actor, think of Danny DeVito, the director?

A: He can't direct traffic, for crying out loud!

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