She says it was love at first sight. He says, nah, it wasn’t. She’ll be taking up the matter with him later. She’s Jewish. He’s Italian. On this, he says, they agree: “We never eat spaghetti and fried squid on the same night we eat bagels and lox.” She’s in a hit TV series. He’s out of one. Yet there are no hard feelings. “Any good thing that happens to someone you love can only be good for you too,” she says.
This is hardly the kind of wedded bliss you might expect from Danny De Vito, 39, and Rhea Perlman, 35, two of TV’s feistiest shoot-from-the-lip characters. He starred for five years as Taxi’s tyrannical dispatcher, Louie De Palma, a man whose tenderness you could fit in a thimble and still have room for your finger. Perlman’s performance as man-hungry, smart-mouthed barmaid Carla Tortelli on NBC’s Cheers earned her an Emmy nomination this year as best supporting actress. (She lost to Taxi’s Carol Kane.) “She’ll get hers next year,” says Danny, who won one in 1981.
The plain truth is that after 13 years of living together (the last two as husband and wife), the diminutive pair—he’s 5’0″, she’s 5’1″—records not a shudder on the marital Richter scale. “Ours is not a fighting relationship,” says Rhea. “We both always feel terrible after even a small amount of harsh words.” His meanest act, insists Rhea, “was refusing to tickle my back when I asked him.” (He denies it.)
The arrival last March of their first child, Lucy Chet (Chet was Danny’s father’s nickname), has added to their contentment. Until baby made three, both were skeptical about having children. “I hated the very thought of a child’s birthday party,” says Rhea. “Now I can’t wait.” Why the change of heart? “Everything in our lives started coming together,” she says. “We started looking at kids in a certain way, and suddenly it became a big desire.”
Now their Hollywood (foot) Hills house resembles a Toys “R” Us showroom. When he’s not working, De Vito plays the doting dad. A vegetarian, he whips up natural fruit and vegetable concoctions for Lucy, rather than prepared baby food. He does diaper duty (“Every day she changes, and every day we change her—about 30 times”) and takes her swimming in their pool. “You name it, I do it,” he says. “I’m the baby man.”
Their personal high has been matched by professional ones. At first depressed by Taxi’s demise, De Vito isn’t short on work these days. “The competition is pretty flimsy for roles around 5′,” he explains. He has received glowing reviews for Terms of Endearment, has finished Romancing the Stone, a feature with old pal Michael Douglas, and just completed a gangster spoof, Johnny Dangerously. He also plans to play New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in a TV movie that his company, New Street Productions, will produce.
Perlman, who played De Vito’s girlfriend on four episodes of Taxi, is thrilled with her success as Carla. “I like being someone who can say whatever she wants,” says Rhea. “In real life I don’t always have a great shot to get off at somebody I’m pissed at.” Perlman was chosen, says director James Burrows (he also directed Taxi), because “we wanted fresh faces and she’d been very good on Taxi.” Observes Perlman’s sister, Heide, Cheers’ story editor: “Rhea has the same earthiness but isn’t bitter like Carla.”
Perlman and De Vito met in 1970 when Rhea went to see a friend in a short-lived off-Broadway play, The Shrinking Bride. But it was De Vito, playing a stable boy, who commanded most of Perlman’s attention. After the show Rhea went out to eat with the cast and ended up sitting across from De Vito. He was different from others she had dated. “He was a lot more fun and a lot more sexy,” Rhea reports. De Vito felt sparks too. “She was vibrant, with a great sense of humor, and real warm,” he recalls. Playing it cautiously, the pair waited two whole weeks before moving in together.
Eleven years went by and, impetuous types that they are, the two decided to make it official. “It just hit us,” says Rhea. The big day was Jan. 28, 1982—a Thursday. When the bride could not choose between “a sweat suit and an attractive T-shirt,” she settled for a rented antique wedding dress. The groom, meanwhile, rushed home during a Taxi lunch break. The rain-soaked garden ceremony was performed by a French-horn player with the Los Angeles Philharmonic who doubles as a licensed minister. As for the wedding march, the happy couple chose a recording of Our Gang’s Alfalfa trilling I’m in the Mood for Love. Marriage, says Danny, has not altered their relationship. “After you’ve lived with somebody for 11 years, what’s a guy in a robe reading from a book going to change?”
In a business littered with crumpled relationships, their endurance is noteworthy. One secret is that they’ve never been competitive about their careers. Although struggling at the time herself, Rhea was delighted by Danny’s success on Taxi. “I might be jealous about a girlfriend getting a great part but never Danny,” she says. They trade career advice and discuss everything—well, almost everything. “If it’s a surprise party, I don’t want to discuss that,” he says. “And I also put my foot down on trying on anything I’m going to be given for Christmas. Call me a beast.”
Perlman was born in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, to a doll-parts company manager and a bookkeeper; De Vito in Asbury Park, N.J. to a housewife and owner of a pool hall and a luncheonette. Bypassing college, Rhea scrambled for work off-Broadway (her first role was in an experimental play called Dracula Sabbat) but supported herself with odd jobs—erasing book markings for a publishing company and testing for allergies for a psychiatrist. A real-life pre-Cheers stint as a waitress ended in disaster when she spilled spaghetti on David Rockefeller’s dining companion at Manhattan’s Rainbow Room and quit. After moving to Los Angeles with De Vito six years ago, she landed small parts in such TV films as I Want to Keep My Baby and Intimate Strangers.
Danny, a former altar boy, attended a Catholic boarding school and later the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1966 he met Michael Douglas in summer stock. After working off-and off-off-Broadway he appeared in such forgettable features as Lady Liberty and Scalawag. His breakthrough came in 1975 when he played Martini in the Douglas-produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That was followed by parts in Car Wash and Goin’ South.
In addition to those four episodes of Taxi, De Vito and Perlman have made a couple of short films together and were recently co-hosts on Saturday Night Live. It’s doubtful that they will ever collaborate on a serious film. How come? “They’ve already done Wuthering Heights,” figures Danny.
Family togetherness is a top priority. Both are up at 7 a.m. to share baby duties. The couple’s weekday sitter (they don’t have live-in help) later drops by Paramount with Lucy for her daily visit with Mom. The baby has her own studio pass. Danny divides his time between home and his Paramount-lot office. When Danny was on location in Houston and Mexico, Lucy and Rhea visited. De Vito just turned down a part in the Ridley Scott film Legend because Rhea and Lucy would have been unable to make the trip to London.
Perlman and De Vito are virtual homebodies. They relax by watching TV and rented movies on an oversize screen in their cluttered family room, playing pool and entertaining friends like Douglas and Taxi’s Tony Danza. “We don’t have real dinner parties,” says De Vito. “We just call up friends and tell them we got some food and come on over and eat with us.” Danny, who does most of the cooking (red beans, brown rice and escarole are specialties), converted Rhea to vegetarianism early on. “I used to be a Hostess-cupcake person,” she says.
Whatever the formula for their successful showbiz marriage, it’s unfortunate that they can’t market it. “There’s a balance to their relationship, and they protect it zealously,” says Douglas. “There’s a magic about them.” Yes, this is one solid marriage. Okay, how solid is it? It’s so solid, says Rhea, that “you’d really have to work hard at breaking us up at this point.” And that’s no joke.