Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Danny DeVito

Diminutive (5'), chunky, balding Danny DeVito parlayed his characteristically tough and harsh quasi-Brooklyn style of line delivery and formidable flair for the demonically comic into starring parts by the mid 1980s. His breakthrough film, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), marked his first collaboration with longtime friend Michael Douglas (who produced) and introduced him to Jack Nicholson who had grown up in the same Jersey Shore environs as had DeVito. Utterly believable as the touching and pathetic Martini, one of a fine ensemble of mental patients that included future "Taxi" (ABC, 1978-82; NBC, 1982-83) regular Christopher Lloyd, De Vito landed the part of tyrannical dispatcher Louie De Palma on that acclaimed TV comedy series and began developing his patented screen persona that has served him so well, that of the lovable sleaze.

DeVito's height combined with his million-dollar smile works against the meanness of his characters. At first glance, you expect him to be adorable, but when he turns out to be a monster, you still don't believe he's bad and laugh at the apparent contradiction. This explains why a scammer and a scoundrel ("Romancing the Stone" 1984; "The Jewel of the Nile" 1985), a husband reticent to ransom his wife ("Ruthless People" 1987), an insensitive businessman rapaciously gobbling up companies ("Other People's Money" 1991) and a scandal-mongering tabloid reporter ("L.A. Confidential" 1997) never entirely lose audience sympathy. Whether it's true or not, there is that belief that somewhere buried deep down beneath the nasty veneer is a nugget of a pure gold heart, allowing audiences to forgive him even the most egregious behavior.

After helming episodes of "Taxi" and "Mary" (CBS, 1985), DeVito made an acclaimed feature directing debut with "Throw Momma from the Train" (1987), a frenetic reworking of Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" in which he starred as a childish man who tries to persuade his young writing professor (Billy Crystal) to "exchange murders" with him so he can be rid of his shrewish mother (Anne Ramsey). He turned to even darker material for his next directing venture, reuniting "Romancing" stars Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in "The War of the Roses" (1989), a pitch-black comic commentary on yuppie materialism in a marriage gone sour. Though many found the viciousness in this movie disturbing, others loved the flick, perhaps for that very reason. Turner and Douglas gave marvelous performances (as did DeVito in a supporting role), and the director's odd point of view and wild camera angles kept it interesting throughout. DeVito had acted in Jack Nicholson's "Goin' South" (1978), and Nicholson returned the favor in DeVito's "Hoffa" (1992) with the actor's portrayal of the Teamsters Union leader dwarfing both the director's and writer David Mamet's work.

DeVito has enjoyed notable box office successes in roles falling outside his traditional modus operandi, such as co-starring opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger with puppyish amiability in the silly comedy "Twins" (1988) and delivering a striking performance as the villainous Penguin in Tim Burton's surefire sequel, "Batman Returns" (1992). He enjoyed less success with more sentimental fare like "Jack the Bear" (1993) and "Renaissance Man" (1994) before trying for another hit with the comedy "Junior" (1994). Reuniting him with "Twins" co-star Schwarzenegger and director Ivan Reitman, the film suffered from being too much of a one-joke movie, despite enthusiastic performances by the stars (including Emma Thompson). DeVito has found favor as a voice actor in movies like "Look Who's Talking Now" (1993), "Space Jam" (1996) and "Hercules" (1997), but has scored best in more typically DeVitoesque portrayals like the actor who calls the tune in "Get Shorty" (1995) and the rude gambler in lime-green, shooting craps as the Martians blow up the world in Burton's "Mars Attacks!" (1996), a movie which afforded him the opportunity to work with Nicholson again.

In 1982, DeVito married actor Rhea Perlman whose character on TV's "Cheers" was virtually a female Louie De Palma. They had lived together since 1970 when she moved in to share an apartment her husband had once shared with Michael Douglas. Perlman played his girlfriend on episodes of "Taxi" that humanized Louie more than did any other events in the series, and before that, during the 1970s, the two had written and produced (DeVito directing) two short films together, "The Sound Sleeper" (1973) and "Minestrone" (1975). The pair starred together in the DeVito-directed "The Wedding Ring" (1986), the second season premiere of the NBC anthology series "Amazing Stories", and then duplicated the feat a decade later in the feature adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel "Matilda" (1996). Again directed and this time produced by DeVito, the picture was a disappointment at the box office, failing to recoup its cost. DeVito also produced "Sunset Park" (1996), starring Perlman, and then, following his critically-acclaimed turn as a sleazy tabloid journalist in "L.A. Confidential", acted the role of a paralegal in the Francis Ford Coppola-directed adaptation of "John Grisham's The Rainmaker" (both 1997), which reunited him with producer-friend Douglas.

As an actor he would continue straddle the line between DeVito the actor and DeVito the icon. The former delivered very effective and often moving turns, such as the karaoke-addicted middle aged romantic of "Living Out Loud" (1998), the aging and troubled salesman of "The Big Kahuna" (1999), Andy Kauffman's paternalistic Hollywood manager George Shapiro in "Man on the Moon" (1999) and a very able turn as a vile fence in writer-director David Mamet's serpentine caper drama "Heist" (2001), as well as in smaller turns like Dr. Horniker in director Sophia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides" (1999). DeVito the icon--varying takes on his familiar, gleefully vicious persona--would fare less well in duds like "Drowning Mona" (2000), "Screwed" (2000) and "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" (2001) After a lengthy hiatus away from the director's chair, DeVito returned (also in a supporting role) to the helmer's seat for "Death to Smoochy" (2002), a comedy starring Robin Williams and Edward Norton intended to skewer the personalities behind kiddie TV shows. However, ostensibly attempting to revel in the film's mean-spiritedness, DeVito's heavy-handed often cartoonishly violent approach to the material was off-putting and the script seemed about two years too late to throughly mine and anti-"Barney" sentiment. Back in front of the camera, DeVito also had a nice comedy turn in the lesser-grade Woody Allen film "Anything Else" (2003), playing as Harvey, a manager whose client list has been whittled down to one client. Next as a director DeVito put Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore through homeowner hell in the broad comedy missfire "Duplex" (2003). After a supporting turn in Tim Burton's "Big Fish" (2003), DeVito reprised his role as actor Martin Weir for an amusing string of cameoes in "Be Cool" (2005), the amusing sequel to "Get Shorty." The actor also signed on to costar in the FX comedy "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" for its second season in 2006, playing a retiree who has moved back to the city to spend time with his children.

Co-founder of Jersey Films, DeVito earned his first producing credit for "Hoffa" and served more frequently as producer or executive producer than he has as an actor. Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" (1995) was arguably the most successful of the movies in which he did not act, but he also functioned in a similar capacity for the lesser-performing "Reality Bites" (1994), "8 Seconds" (1994), "Feeling Minnesota" (1996) and "Gattaca" (1997). As his reputation as a producer grew larger, DeVito was also responsible for shepherding director Steven Soderbergh's cool crime noir "Out of Sight" (1998); screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's well-reviewed directorial debut "Living Out Loud" (1998), in which DeVito also co-starred; "Man on the Moon" (1999) Milo Forman and Jim Carrey's slightly too-pat biopic of comic provocateur Andy Kauffman; Soderberg's Everywoman vehicle "Erin Brockovich" (2000), whicj earned Julia Roberts an Oscar; director Kasi Lemmon's "The Caveman's Valentine" (2001), the Ben Stiller-Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy "Along Came Polly" (2004) and actor Zach Braff's debut as a writer-director "Garden State" (2004), along with lesser endeavors such as the critically reviled comedy "Drowning Mona" (2000).

As an executive producer, DeVito struggled to make a mark on television, with such one-season wonders as "Kate Brasher," "UC: Undercover" and "The American Embassy," as well as the critically hailed but ratings challenged ABC crime drama "Karen Sisco" (2003 -2004) derived from the female lead character in the film "Out of Sight" and the Comedy Central cult favorite "Reno 911!" (2003- ).

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