In the end, he got respect. Shortly before his death on Oct. 5 from complications following heart surgery, Rodney Dangerfield, briefly emerged from a coma and found himself surrounded by those he loved. “He kissed me and squeezed my hand,” said his wife, Joan. Then the 82-year-old comedian simply smiled a goodbye. No google-eyed mugging. No shtick. As a stand-up and actor in movies such as Caddyshack, Dangerfield made millions playing a sad sack. But to those who knew him best, he was far more than comic relief; “lie perfected the underdog persona,” says Rita Rudner, part of a generation of comedians he mentored and inspired. “Me wasn’t like that in real life. He was clever and smart and knew exactly what he was doing. And he was very sweet.”
For audiences, though, Dangerfield will always be the lovable loser, a Borscht Belt veteran who punctuated his comedy routines with his trademark mantra of failure: “I don’t get no respect.” Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the catchphrase—and Dangerfield—caught on. Late in life, he became an unlikely superstar: a sold-out Vegas act, cult movie hero and, at his own Manhattan nightclub, an incubator of talent like Roseanne Barr, Sam Kinison and Jim Carrey. “Rodney didn’t care what kind of comedy you did,” says Carrot Top. “As long as you were a comic, you were part of his fraternity.”
Even by comedy standards, where the most successful are often the most insecure, Dangerfield’s jokes sprang unfiltered from a life with more than its share of pain. Born Jacob Cohen in Babylon, N.Y., he grew up, he said, “feeling on the outside.” His father, a vaudevillian turned stockbroker, left home when Jacob was a baby, and his mother moved to a wealthy area of Queens, beyond their means. “It’s really not too good to be brought up in a nice neighborhood when you can’t afford it,” he told People in 1980. “The kids I went to class with, I’d be delivering groceries to their houses after school.”
At 19, he began doing stand-up at a Catskill resort under the name Jack Roy. At 28, tired of living hand-to-mouth, he wed singer Joyce Indig and became an aluminum-siding salesman in New Jersey, a life he later called “a very colorless existence.” The couple had two children—Brian, 44, a songwriter, and Melanie, 40, the mother of his two grandsons—but their marriage was tumultuous. They divorced in 1961, then briefly remarried and divorced again later in the decade.
In his early 40s Dangerfield re-launched his career. His new life brought another name change; a club owner suggested the catchy moniker Rodney Dangerfield. He worked the same Greenwich Village comedy clubs as Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor and sold jokes to Joan Rivers and Jackie Mason. In 1966 he hit it big, landing a spot on the Ed Sullivan Show. He went on to became a regular on The Tonight Show.
His career peaked in 1980 as a boorish millionaire in Caddyshack. More comedies followed-such as Back to School and Easy Money-as well as a chilling performance in 1994’s Natural Born Killers. Still, Dangerfield preferred alive audience, and it was Dangerfield’s, his successful New York City comedy club, that gave him the greatest pleasure. “He gave younger comics the courage to be themselves,” says manager Bernie Brillstein, who has handled many of Hollywood’s top comics. “Performers like Adam Sandler flocked to him.”
In recent years, Dangerfield—who wed Joan Child, a florist, in 1993—suffered from heart problems and underwent double bypass surgery in 2000. Through it all, he delighted in kicking himself when he was down. “Everyone says I’ll be good as new in a couple weeks,” he told People in 2001. “Hey, if I was any good as new.”
By then Dangerfield had made his peace—and a mint—with a lousy self-image. Two decades earlier he said that after talking to “46 Austrian psychiatrists,” he had arrived at a conclusion: “People think, ‘With success, I’ll be happy’ But it doesn’t work. What matters is the head you were born with.”
Mike Neill and J.D. Heyman. Michael Fleeman and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles