By John Stark
July 28, 1986 12:00 PM

Danny DeVito, America’s favorite sleazeball, sits on the patio of his rented beach house north of Malibu. As his daughter Lucy builds a sand castle, he says, “Look at the little darling, having a ball on the beach.” When she asks if she can have a treat that’s inside, DeVito coos: “You can have anything at all you want, darling.” From out of the house comes Danny’s older sister, Angela, puffing on a cigarette. “He doesn’t want me to smoke,” she says. “I want you to live. I’m only thinking of your health,” says DeVito. Enter DeVito’s 82-year-old mom, Julia, who recalls how her son the altar boy trudged through the snow on winter mornings in New Jersey to get to 7 a.m. Mass on time. “He’s always been a good boy,” she says, beaming. “I thought he was going to become a priest.”

What’s wrong with this picture? Can this be the Danny DeVito that we know—the one with the wicked heh-heh-heh laugh and the Peter Lorre smirk? Surely this isn’t Louie De Palma, the dictatorial squirt who dispatched cabs and venom on TV’s Taxi? Or Ralph the con man who terrorized Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile? Or this summer’s infamous Sam Stone, who plots to kill his wife in Ruthless People? That guy says of the murder, “My only regret is that the plan isn’t more violent.” That guy has already inspired a bumper sticker that echoes the film’s filthiest punch line, “I love wrong numbers.”

Ironically, that bad guy has brought DeVito great good fortune. After two decades in show business, DeVito, 41, has found himself a hot Hollywood property thanks to Ruthless People. “Danny’s got big-time movie star quality,” says Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has three films in development with DeVito. “You love to react to him. And you want to hug him while you hate him.” Observes Jerry Zucker, who co-directed Ruthless People, “He could play Sam Stone without turning people off. He can tell you your hair’s just turned green and you’ll believe him for a minute. He’s like a sheepdog staring down the sheep.” Even DeVito’s wife has sensed a new surge in popularity: “He’s had to stop standing in movie lines or going to the grocery store,” says Rhea Perlman, the iguana-tongued Carla of TV’s Cheers. “I can get along a lot better than he does. I’m not as mobbed as Danny. He’s in movies and I’m not.”

The piñtata-shaped man puttering on the Malibu patio isn’t nearly as intimidating or unapproachable as his screen alter egos; he doesn’t understand Sam Stone any better than we do. “I usually try to find the redeeming qualities in the guys I play so that I can have a good sleep at night. But with Sam Stone, I’m hard pressed to come up with some icing on the cake.” Nearly fanatical about the importance of family life, DeVito has flourished in his 15-year relationship with Perlman. A doting father, he genuinely enjoys cutting his daughter’s hair.

Domestic, yes. Docile, no. “He’s not wishy-washy,” says Perlman. “He has a tough streak in him. There’s something of Louie in him. He can be pretty rowdy and off-the-wall sometimes. He knows what he wants. He doesn’t settle for anything half-assed.”

Like Rodney Dangerfield, DeVito’s domestic attitudes were formed during his East Coast childhood. Julia DeVito bore Danny, her youngest child, at age 40. “I didn’t want him,” she admits. “But I’m so proud of him.” (Julia, who shares her son’s mischievous grin, landed a role in two Taxi episodes as Louie’s mother.) His father, Dan Sr., who ran a pool hall in Asbury Park, N.J., did not discourage Danny’s appetite for acting. Says Danny’s mother: “Anything he wanted to do, we said, ‘Go ahead, try it.’ ”

So he did. As a joke, he and his buddies would pretend to rob his father’s pool hall, then race outside to a getaway car. “We were pretty much harmless, merry pranksters,” he says. Not all of his pals, however, made it out of Asbury Park. “We lost a couple to heroin,” DeVito says. “I look back and say, ‘Thank God I’m one of the lucky ones to get out with only a few bruises.’ ”

After high school, DeVito enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. But he also sought alternative employment: He learned to style hair in his sister Angela’s beauty parlor. “I’m not bragging because he’s my brother,” says Angela, “but he was excellent at it. Fabulous hairdos. The women loved him. He had a personality. Still today, they miss Danny. Mr. D. they called him.”

Doing summer stock in 1966, Mr. D. befriended Michael Douglas, who later produced Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile. That friendship led DeVito to the role of Martini in Douglas’ film version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. In 1978 he hailed Taxi, which won him a 1981 Emmy—and imposed on him the curse of typecasting. He’s more sanguine about that than most. “Maybe 10 or 12 more vulgar movies and then I’ll do the straight ones,” he says. “I’ve been saying for years that I want to try to tailor my career after Jimmy Stewart’s—be the guy who rescues the town from the flood and walks off into the sunset with Jane Wyman. But it ain’t worked out like that.”

In the meantime, he has set up housekeeping (five bedrooms in L.A.) with Perlman, who at 5’1″ stands an inch over her husband. They met backstage after an off-Broadway performance of his in 1970. Within two weeks, Perlman moved in. Eleven years later they married during a Taxi lunch break. Since then they’ve had two daughters—Lucy, 3, and Gracie, 16 months—and probably won’t have more kids soon. “We’re gonna have to get some sleep first,” says Danny.

His success has not been without consequences for the relationship. Although they worked together in an episode of Amazing Stories that DeVito directed and that will appear next fall, such opportunities don’t come along often. This month he starts production on Tin Men, a new film with Richard Dreyfuss; location shooting will take Danny to Baltimore, which doesn’t thrill Rhea. “There’s a lot more separation now,” she says. “That’s the hardest part.”

For DeVito, the best part is relishing the nice life these mean guys have brought him. “Only good things are happening,” he says with some surprise. “The whole nine yards.” Gazing out at the Pacific, DeVito can’t stop grinning. And no wonder. The odds against a short, balding actor being more sought after than Mel Gibson can make a guy feel like a lucky star.