Move over, Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone and all you other perfecto nabobs of Nautilus. Take a hike, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe and all you models of yuppie youth. You wanna keep working? Get cool: Break your nose. Eat enchiladas before bedtime. Buy your clothes at Kmart. Take a look around. The stars of this season’s two hottest comedies—Ruthless People and Back to School—are Danny DeVito and Rodney Dangerfield, and as leading men on the far side of fashionable, they’re not alone. Whether it’s Pat Morita in a mall movie like The Karate Kid Part II or Bob Hoskins in an art-house hit like Mona Lisa, moviegoers seem to have forsaken the hale and hunky for the dumpy and lumpy. Take Dangerfield (please), a bug-eyed lug with a ruddy complexion and a permanent case of the sweats. And as for his body—well, as he says in Back to School, it should be donated to science fiction. Then there’s DeVito, who could pass for Raymond Burr’s bowling bag. Ever seen him walk? Like R2-D2. Although neither actor will ever see 40 again, in both comedies they exude a leering down-and-dirty sexual energy—and ladies no less lusty than Sally Kellerman and Anita Morris succumb to their advances. If this trend shows signs of continuing, anyone holding health-club stock should phone a broker immediately. These days, the most likely to succeed are couthless people.
The limo is late, and Rodney Dangerfield is fuming as he paces in front of his New York apartment building. “Where’ve you been?” he asks, throwing two thermoses of ice water and a pillow into the backseat. “You were supposed to pick me up first,” he says. Not to worry, he’s told, just a mix-up in plans. Finally, Rodney, 64, jumps in and stretches out for the trip to his second home, in Westport, Conn. He’s silent for a moment. Then he says, perfectly calm and surprisingly sweatless, “Where do we begin?”
Indeed. As he has demonstrated this summer, Rodney Dangerfield is no joke. His film Back to School has emerged as the sleeper comedy smash of the season. And with a take already topping $50 million, it could finish as the top-grossing comedy of the year. Beyond a newfound box-office clout, Back to School has brought Dangerfield a new kind of respect: critical cachet. Rhapsodized New York magazine critic David Denby, “Amazingly, he’s giving a performance…[Dangerfield] fills the role out and turns the gag concept into an interesting man.”
As Thornton Melon, a self-made millionaire who enrolls in college to keep his freshman son from dropping out, Dangerfield has been perfectly packaged. Raucous, rowdy but with redeeming social value, Thornton Melon gives bad taste a good name. Although Back to School is Dangerfield’s fourth film, it’s the first to plug into both his onstage persona and his offstage personality. “There are so many parallels to his own life in that character,” says co-screenwriter Harold Ramis. According to the film’s director, Alan Metter, when Rodney first heard the plot, “He said, ‘I’m gonna be a guy who’s wealthy, loves his kid and is funny? Who’s gonna believe that?’ We said, ‘That’s you, man.’ It’s what he is in real life.”
Well, not completely. Unlike the happy-go-lucky Thornton Melon, Danger-field can turn morose over the most mundane things. When he jokes, “Today I had a good day so far—I got a dial tone,” he isn’t entirely kidding. “I expected a 17-year-old 60-year-old,” says Keith Gordon, who plays Dangerfield’s son in Back to School. “He wasn’t at all like that.” Even this new wave of popularity hasn’t tempered Rodney’s temperament. Says Dangerfield, who has admitted to seeing his share of shrinks, “Your head is formed—your attitudes, your way of thinking—when you’re young. And if you’re a down and very serious person, as I am, you don’t suddenly have a trio playing for you and you’re happy. I wish my attitude was a happier one. But that’s the way I am.” Observes Metter, “Rodney will say he’s depressed all the time. But what he means is, he’s serious.”
In an era when kids like Eddie Murphy go from no-names to brand names overnight, Dangerfield is an anomaly. He can tell you in what Brooklyn club he met Lenny Bruce’s mother. He can tell you who was the president of the Singing Waiters Union when he tried to join as a teenager. He can tell you exactly how many times he’s done The Merv Griffin Show. “When I think back on my story, it’s ridiculous,” he says.
Born Jacob Cohen in Babylon, Long Island, Dangerfield was estranged from his father, a vaudeville comedian who left the family when Rodney was a child. He started writing jokes at age 15 and four years later was performing in small clubs in and around New York. But at 28, Dangerfield succumbed to the charms of the bourgeoisie. Despite modest success under the name Jack Roy (his legal name today), he quit show business and married a 23-year-old singer named Joyce Indig. “I wanted marriage. I was always in love with love, the whole thing, the white house, green shutters, whatever.” He started a paint business in Englewood, N.J. But instead of domestic bliss, Dangerfield found disillusionment and suburban sadness. In 1962 Rodney and Joyce divorced, then remarried a year later, only to divorce again in 1970. Nine years ago Indig died, leaving Rodney to bring up their children, Brian, now 25, and Melanie, 22.
The aftermath of marital disappointment still plagues Dangerfield. “You see rows of houses. They all look so cute with the cars outside and basketball hoops on the garage. Go in the house and find out what’s going on inside the heads of people there. Boy, it’s nothing like the outside lawn that looks so nice,” he says.
At 40, Dangerfield decided to start his comedy career over. “I owed $2000 had two kids, I had problems domestically. Everyone thought I was nuts.” Toting a duffel bag of jokes he’d written, he returned to some of the haunts he played as a kid comic. “It was like a fix. I had to have it,” he recalls. “I didn’t want it. I wanted love in life—love comes before show business.” At one of his first engagements, he allowed a club owner to christen him Rodney Dangerfield. “I says, make up some name. I don’t want people to come and see me.”
In 1967 Rodney got the break he’d been looking for: a shot on The Ed Sullivan Show. He performed wearing what would become his trademark black suit, white shirt and red tie—the latter two now enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution. “I wore the same thing for every show, not because it was a gimmick,” says Rodney, “but because I didn’t know what to wear. I’m bad at clothes. They got to know me from that outfit.” Even as a stand-up success, his paternal instincts prevailed: He opened his nightclub in New York, Dangerfield’s, because “I wanted to take care of my kids.”
In 1979 Rodney was approached by director Harold Ramis and asked to appear in the movie Caddyshack. But only after coaching did Rodney learn the tricks of screen acting. Says Ramis, “We began to shoot, and I yelled, ‘Action.’ Rodney just stared at me, not moving. There was a long silence. Then he said, ‘Do you want me to do the bit?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said his lines—straight to the camera.”
Ironically, as he ages, Dangerfield has enjoyed an ever more youthful audience, augmented by beer commercials and his Rapping Rodney video. With relish, he reads aloud a fan letter from a 10-year-old: ” ‘Hi, Rodney. My name is Jeff. I got two crummy sisters, aged 4 and 8.’ To me, that’s hilarious. How can kids 4 and 8 be crummy?” What’s the appeal? “I guess I never grew up, maybe,” says Rodney. “My head is young. I can talk to a kid 22 and have just as much to say to him as I have to someone 55.”
Although the studios are suddenly hounding him for another hit (his next venture is an HBO special), Dangerfield hasn’t exactly gone Hollywood. He still commutes between a New York City high-rise apartment and the house in Connecticut, where novelist Robert Ludlum is his next door neighbor. As befits his image, “I’m sort of a champ at self-abuse,” he says. But in the last few years, with considerable difficulty, he has given up smoking and started on the Pritikin Diet. “I don’t know moderation,” Dangerfield admits.
It is late afternoon, and the limo is headed back to New York. Rodney is sitting with the same thermoses and pillow he started the day with. “I’m exhausted,” he says. “I’ve been in Vegas and my sleeping is all off. I’m trying to think of some more jokes.” But instead of doing that, Rodney Dangerfield suddenly acts his age: He puts the pillow up to his head and dozes off.