A Labor-Intensive ‘Hoffa’ : Jack Nicholson got the part, but it’s Danny DeVito, directing with the bark of the Teamster boss himself, who acts like Jimmy Hoffa
Every man has his price. What’s yours?
If Danny DeVito were a rubber band, he’d be ready to snap.
For two days, the director has been trying to shoot a complicated sequence in “Hoffa,” which stars Jack Nicholson as Jimmy Hoffa, dark prince of the American labor movement.
Nothing is going right. The sound is garbled. Extras knock over chairs. A flock of pigeons flies across the sound stage’s cavernous rafters, making a racket.
Just when DeVito finally thinks he has a usable take, his camera goes on the blink. “We’re in hell now,” Nicholson groans. “Eighteen takes. Fourteen technicals.”
A camera operator balls up his fist and starts pounding the camera, literally whacking the side of the film magazine. Nearby, Nicholson watches in disbelief. “Real high technology you got here,” he says. “Imagine how they’d fix a jet plane.”
Suddenly, the rubber band has stretched too far.
DeVito bounds out of his director’s chair. He barrels across the set, his stubby legs churning. He races past Nicholson, who looks strikingly like Hoffa, his face fleshed out with a prosthetic nose, hairpiece and fake right front tooth.
“YOU QUEEPS!” DeVito bellows, his voice echoing across the sound stage. “YOU QUEEPS. I GET ALL YOU DO-DOS!”
Nicholson’s eyebrows shoot up. He throws back his head and spreads his arms wide. “QUEEPS!” he answers, his voice a human fog horn. “QUEEPS! YOU AIN’T GOT ALL YOUR DO-DOS!”
It’s a breathtaking sight. Two grown men--not to mention two Hollywood superstars--are shouting complete gibberish at each other, talking in tongues, like a pair of demented winos with a bad buzz on Skid Row.
DeVito runs another circle around Nicholson, continuing the refrain: “QUEEPS! YOU QUEEPS!”
The uproar subsides as quickly as it started. Having worked for more than two decades as an actor--first in theater, then on “Taxi” and finally in movies like “Ruthless People” and “Batman Returns"--DeVito shrewdly sensed that Nicholson’s energy was flagging.
Hoping to get his star’s motor revved up, DeVito launched into the “Queep” routine, an old in-joke between the two men, who grew up in neighboring seaside New Jersey towns and have worked together as far back as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“We realized at some point that we both knew the same guy, this crazy guy named Mitchell, who everybody called Turtle,” explains DeVito, who at 47 is eight years Nicholson’s junior. “Mitchell and Jack would go to basketball games together. And if Mitchell didn’t like the way the game was going, he’d just run out on the court and take the ball away.”
De Vito starts to laugh. “And when he’d get excited, he’d start yelling, ‘YOU QUEEPS! YOU AIN’T GOT ALL YOUR DO-DOS!’ ”
Having both spent years struggling before stardom, DeVito and Nicholson get along like two guys who fought in a foxhole together.
The shot they’ve been laboring over opens in a prison visiting room where Hoffa’s wife, Josephine, played by Natalija Nogulich, informs him that he’s being pardoned by President Nixon. Then the camera, affixed to an immense Luma crane, rockets up past a bank of spotlights and into a completely different set, swooping down onto a raucous Teamsters welcome-home rally.
“Once we get past Hoffa and Jo and up into the lights, then we should really go ,” DeVito tells his camera operator. “As fast as you can.”
“OK, but we have a certain speed limit,” the cameraman replies, cautioning DeVito on the crane’s technical limitations.
DeVito’s eyes bug out. He flaps his hands in the air. “What speed limit?” he growls. “Just go like hell !”
“Of course life is a jungle. Anybody who thinks that it isn’t just doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Jack Nicholson may be playing the part, but on a movie set, it’s Danny DeVito who really acts like Jimmy Hoffa. Blunt, out- spoken, rarely prone to introspection, he is beloved by his crew and given a wide berth by the studio brass. Fiercely loyal and doggedly protective of his turf, DeVito, like Hoffa, operates at only one speed--go like hell.
“Directing movies is in his blood,” says 20th Century Fox Films chief Joe Roth. “If you didn’t know Danny first as an actor, as the guy from ‘Taxi’ and ‘Twins,’ you’d think of him as a Francis Ford Coppola, as a great movie director. He has a grand vision.”
DeVito sees Hoffa as a rough ‘n’ tumble American hero--an irrepressible rogue who took care of business, even if he flattened a few bystanders along the way. Asked to describe the Teamster boss, DeVito shook his fist: “He was the man with the biggest balls in the world.”
“Hoffa” chronicles Hoffa’s tumultuous rise and fall, sifted through the fertile imagination of DeVito, who directs and co-stars in the film, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, who wrote the screenplay.
Thick with blood and unholy epithets, Mamet’s script is a Hollywood biographical fantasy, a spicy gumbo of fact and fiction. Hoffa is clearly the hero of the story, but the script doesn’t soft-pedal the union chief’s intimidation tactics or mob business dealings.
Real-life characters include Hoffa and his wife, Hoffa’s successor to the Teamster presidency, Frank Fitzsimmons (J. T. Walsh), and his nemesis, Robert F. Kennedy (Kevin Anderson).
Others are composites, fragments Mamet pieced together. DeVito plays Bobby Ciaro, a character based on Chuckie O'Brien, a Hoffa crony often described as his adopted son. Armand Assante plays Sal D'Allesandro, a underworld operator who resembles the late New Jersey Teamster crime figure Anthony Provenzano.
Made at a cost of nearly $50 million, “Hoffa” is a Hollywood 18-wheeler with a lot of heavy freight. For DeVito, whose directing credits include “The War of the Roses,” it’s an opportunity to establish himself as a Serious Film Director. For Nicholson, it’s a chance to rebound from his recent flop, “Man Trouble.”
And for 20th Century Fox, which has been limping along without a summer blockbuster, the film offers the possibility of Academy Award prestige--and perhaps a tidy profit as well.
Roth is gung-ho, to say the least. Visiting the set one day, he volunteered: “Want to hear the early-morning line? Nicholson’s 4-to-5 to win the Oscar on this one.”
Later he expands upon this prediction, saying he’s betting on Oscar nominations for DeVito as director and Mamet as screenwriter too.
DeVito’s expectations are almost as high.
“This is the most ambitious movie I’ve ever done,” he says. “At least, to date--I mean, I ain’t dead yet, right?”
If all goes well, the movie will have plenty of documentation. As DeVito roams the set, he’s shadowed by a photographer, who is doing a book on DeVito, and an assistant, who videotapes DeVito for “Hoffa’s” video-disc release.
None of this seems to distract him. “It’s like I’m in the middle of the square with this big slab of marble and the Medicis say, ‘Look, we could’ve given this to Michelangelo or Da Vinci. But we’re gonna let you take a whack at it instead.’ I mean, how often do you get an opportunity like that?”
DeVito cackles with delight. “So move over, Michelangelo!”
“I may have faults, but being wrong ain’t one of them.”
It’s lunchtime and Danny DeVito’s trailer is nearly dark. The only light comes from the glow of his TV set. Eating swordfish and sipping diet root beer, DeVito is watching kinescopes of Jimmy Hoffa fencing with reporters.
Interviewing Hoffa was not for the faint of heart. Asked an unfriendly question, Hoffa responded with a menacing death stare.
The scratchy, decades-old video DeVito is watching hardly diminishes Hoffa’s extraordinary presence. Here he is, in the Teamsters’ Washington headquarters, lecturing a young David Brinkley. There he is, at the 1957 McClellan Hearings, snarling at Bobby Kennedy like a pit bull.
“You can’t listen to any of Hoffa’s speeches without turning your head around and saying, ‘Whoa. This guy’s got his finger on it,’ ” DeVito says. “I’ve got him on ‘Meet the Press.’ He makes them look like bozos. Like chopped meat.”
DeVito stomps his feet. “He knocks ‘em down on everything. It’s like debating with Plato!”
After a while, this video seance seems to put DeVito into a trance. He sits quietly, eyes riveted on the TV screen, entranced by the crackle of Hoffa’s savage thunder.
When Hoffa scratches his ear, DeVito scratches his. Hoffa wags his head. DeVito does the same. He’s bedazzled.
When a tenacious interviewer interrupts the Teamster chief, DeVito barks: “Let him finish! Let him finish!” When Hoffa makes a snappy comeback, momentarily silencing his adversary, DeVito throws up his hands, exclaiming, “See!”
It’s no wonder, considering the sour taste of today’s political affairs, that when DeVito starts talking about Hoffa he ends up trying to get him to run for President.
“He’s genuine,” DeVito contends. “If we had a guy like this running the country, I’d breathe easy. He’d be working for us 24 hours a day, not like the guys we got now. He was honest.”
DeVito is unfazed by the voluminous evidence of Hoffa’s mob connections. “Sure he knew them. Sure he did business with them. But did they control him? Not at all. What controlled Hoffa was his desire to do anything to help the people in his union.”
“My ethics are very simple. Live and let live. And those who try to destroy you, make it your business to see that they have problems.”
The once-elegant Ambassador Hotel, now a faded dowager, wizened and gray, has been given a face lift so it can double for a Las Vegas hotel hosting a boisterous Teamsters convention. The Ambassador’s Coconut Grove nightclub is packed with extras: beefy gents in tuxedos, wives on their arms, wearing clinging gowns and beehive ‘dos. A haze of cigarette smoke hangs over the room. A huge poster of Jimmy Hoffa looms high above the stage.
It somehow seems appropriate that DeVito is directing the scene with a snub-nosed .38 in his hand.
As Ciaro, Hoffa’s right-hand man, DeVito is positioned at the back of the room, watching Hoffa give a fiery speech. When he hears a loud explosion behind him, DeVito pulls his gun and rushes backstage. Luckily, it’s not gunfire--just the sound of a huge beer keg falling, sending foam spurting across the kitchen.
Sticklers for detail, the crew has provided a Coconut Grove dinner reservation book, standing at the nightclub entrance. A joker has written a series of fanciful reservations.
“DeVito: 9:15. Frank Sinatra: 9:30. Bobby Kennedy: 9:45. Marx Brothers--Party of 4: 10:05. Daryl Gates: Canceled.”
The first beer-keg take is a washout. Not enough fizz. “Let’s go again,” DeVito says. “We need more booze!”
He’s asked if he’s using real beer. “Of course it’s real,” he growls, pointing the revolver at his visitor. “Go over and get a whiff of the stuff. You’d smell of beer for a week!”
DeVito gestures toward a pair of elderly extras, dressed as hotel help, who are supposed to wrestle with the beer keg.
“Phil and Marty only agreed to do this scene so afterward they could have a few beers and then go home and tell their wives they just smelled of booze from doing the scene.”
It’s time for another take. “Come on, Phil, don’t screw it up this time,” DeVito bellows. “We paid for the kegs!”
Phil isn’t just any extra. He’s Phil Perlman, DeVito’s father-in-law, who plays bit parts in all of DeVito’s films.
DeVito calls for action. The beer keg sputters. No foam. Something’s wrong with the pressure gauge.
“So? So?” DeVito demands. “How long till we can fix it?”
Five minutes later, they shoot again. Struggling with the beer keg, Phil delivers his big line: “Get a rag. Get a rag!”
DeVito yells encouragement: “Bigger, Phil! Bigger!”
Finally the scene is humming. The beer spews sky-high, drenching everyone in sight. The assistant director shouts instructions: “Roll the keg! Turn it over. Turn it over!”
DeVito is ecstatic. Just before he’s ready to cut, he shouts: “Come on, Phil! More! More!! Take your clothes off!”
“You always run away from a man with a knife. But you always run toward a man with a gun.”
It’s a shame Jimmy Hoffa never met Joe Isgro. Hoffa might’ve hit it off with the former record industry kingpin who’s resurfaced as the executive producer of “Hoffa.” Both men were hounded by the feds, accused of mob connections, indicted--but Isgro was set free after his indictments were thrown out during a dramatic federal trial.
Isgro once ruled the record business, making a reported $10 million a year as the industry’s top independent promotion man. If you wanted some help landing a Top 40 hit, you’d hire Isgro, who had a bodyguard, a Rolls-Royce Corniche and was described by CBS Records exec Dick Asher as a “grade-B movie character.”
Isgro insists he was simply a good businessman. Still, his promotion firm had such extraordinary influence that in 1989 a grand jury indicted him on 51 counts of payola and drug trafficking. The charges were dismissed a year later, but Isgro ceased to be a force in the music business after a series of legal battles with several major record companies.
Before his fall, Isgro was approached by three men interested in pursuing a movie project--the life of Jimmy Hoffa.
One of the men was Frank Ragano, a former Hoffa attorney who made headlines earlier this year with his claim that in early 1963 Hoffa asked a pair of top mobsters to kill John F. Kennedy.
Another was Brett O'Brien, son of Chuckie O'Brien, the man known as Hoffa’s adopted son. Ragano said he’d obtained rights for a film based on Hoffa’s life from the Hoffa estate and Chuckie O'Brien.
“I really identified with Hoffa’s plight,” Isgro explains in a rare interview. “He had a lot of run-ins with the law and I could relate to the kind of government pressure he was subjected to.”
Not long after Isgro signed a letter of agreement to do the film, he says Brett O'Brien informed him that his partners actually didn’t have the film rights--their option had expired.
What happened next is a subject of considerable debate--and a lawsuit, still pending, filed by Ragano, who says Isgro breached an agreement to make a Hoffa film with him.
Isgro says he told Brett O'Brien their deal was off. He then made a deal with a separate production company for the rights to Chuckie O'Brien’s story, which along with interviews with other Hoffa intimates, was used as the basis for a script written by Robin Moore, author of “The French Connection.”
Isgro then contacted Ed Pressman, a highly regarded Hollywood producer whose films include “Wall Street,” “Reversal of Fortune” and “Das Boot.”
Pressman agreed with Isgro--the Hoffa story was a great movie idea. He developed the project through one of his production companies, with most of the funding coming from 20th Century Fox, which will distribute the film.
Convinced the Moore screenplay was not a “finished material,” Pressman and the studio contacted David Mamet, whose plays and scripts celebrate the four-letter-word eloquence of working-class salesmen, cops and hoods.
“We thought Mamet was unavailable,” recalls Fox’s Joe Roth. “But his father had been a labor lawyer and he was fascinated by this whole environment. He went right to work on the script.”
The studio didn’t have much input. As Roth puts it: “David’s terms were simple--we send him all the research and he’d send us the finished screenplay.”
Delighted by Mamet’s script, Pressman and Fox began approaching a variety of directors. “We gave it first to Barry Levinson,” Pressman recalls. “But I remember having meetings about it with Oliver Stone and John McTiernan and perhaps others.”
Not long before, Danny DeVito and his agent had lunch with Roth, who went down a list of scripts in development.
“When he told me about ‘Hoffa,’ I said, ‘Stop right there,’ ” DeVito recalls. “ ‘That’s the one I wanna do.’ ”
DeVito left for Europe, thinking about what a great movie the Mamet script could make. On the flight back, he sat with his friend, James Brooks, who at that point had a production deal at Fox.
“He tells me, ‘Hey, I saw that Hoffa script you were interested in. You should read it. It’s really good.’
“And inside, I’m steaming. I’m thinking--how come I haven’t seen the (expletive) script?”
DeVito called his agent, who informed him that Fox had given the script to a DeVito pal, Barry Levinson.
“That really got me going,” he recalls with a laugh. “I start screaming and yelling, especially when I hear that Barry Levinson was at some (expletive) party and when he said he was interested in the script, they sent it to him!
“I’m going, ‘What the (expletive)! That’s how people do business around here? You go to a party and get the script?’ So I’m screaming at everyone--and in the midst of this, who calls?”
DeVito leans forward and stares in your face. He clearly relishes the drama of all this. He roars: “Barry Levinson!”
“The great thing is--he doesn’t know anything about what’s going on. He only called because he saw ‘Tin Men’ on TV and wanted to tell me he thought we did a really great job.”
Of course, DeVito can’t contain himself. He casually asks his pal about the Hoffa script. Levinson tells him he’s reading it, saying he’s a Mamet fan. After they hang up, DeVito stews.
A few days later, the movie gods cut DeVito a break. Levinson passes on the script. “Hoffa” is all DeVito’s. By now, he’s built up a huge head of steam. Bursting with enthusiasm, he phones Mamet.
“I say, ‘I got a few ideas.’ And he goes, ‘Uh-oh.’
“And I say, ‘What’s that mean?’
“And he tells me, ‘Whenever I hear a director say--I got a few ideas--that usually means they want to put people in chicken suits.’ ”
As it turns out, Mamet did make some minor revisions for DeVito, emphasizing Hoffa’s candor and honesty. “You know the one thing I really did?” DeVito says. “I got David to finish his sentences.
“He’d have all these (expletive) ellipses and I’m thinking, ‘How am I gonna tell the actors what to say here unless we know where the (expletive) the sentence is going?’ ”
When it came time to pick an actor, DeVito had only one choice--Jack Nicholson. However, even with Nicholson signed on, it took some haggling before Fox and the filmmakers could agree on a budget.
“We wanted to finance the whole movie,” says Roth. “It’s just that the numbers we came up with were different than Danny’s. As a director, he saw the film on a larger canvas.”
To make up the difference, DeVito deferred his salary for a piece of the film’s profits. Pressman persuaded a French cable TV firm to pitch in some extra money. Finally, “Hoffa” was ready to shoot--first in Pittsburgh, then Detroit, then back to Los Angeles, with a final two weeks in Chicago. It was a grueling shoot, 85 days in all. Initially budgeted at $42 million, the film came in at just under $50 million.
A healthy chunk of the budget--roughly $10 million--went to Nicholson. Was he worth it? Could the 55-year-old star capture Hoffa’s youthful fervor and brawny aplomb, all while wearing a putty nose?
DeVito waves off the query. “Jack has saturated himself in this part,” DeVito says proudly. “You can’t go anywhere with him when he’s not talking to people about Jimmy, reading about him, watching clips of him.”
To get into character, Nicholson has his own mantra. He walks around the set, chanting, “That’s right . . . that’s right,” steeping himself in Hoffa’s harsh Midwestern twang. (When the crew celebrated Nicholson’s 55th birthday, they rolled out a cake with the greeting: “That’s Right, Jack. It’s Your Birthday.”)
Ready to shoot a new scene, DeVito hops out of his director’s chair. “Jack’s in the role. He’s way in. He’s so far inside the character that I’m sure his friends are shaking their heads, saying, ‘Is he ever gonna come out?’ ”
“There are more con men in Washington than there are at a carnival.”
When “Hoffa” was shooting in Detroit, a local lawyer came down to visit the set. He chatted with both DeVito and Nicholson and stayed around to watch them film a scene. When he spotted Nicholson, outfitted as Hoffa, a strange look swept across his face.
James P. Hoffa had never imagined he would see one of the world’s biggest movie stars made up to look like his father.
“You do a double take,” he says later. “He is a very powerful Hoffa. I thought he looked enough like him to pull it off. Nicholson was very charming. He was doing lines from the movie for me, telling me all the clips he’d watched.”
James P. Hoffa is silent for a moment--a son trying to imagine his father, being reinvented in a movie.
“That’s all I can say. He really had the character down.”
Now a successful labor lawyer, the younger Hoffa had no script approval. DeVito showed him a screenplay as a courtesy. However, Hoffa knows the impact “Hoffa” could have on his father’s legacy.
“You have very mixed emotions,” he says. “Even though this is a fictionalized account of his life, it’s still going to be the story most people will know about my father.”
“If one of you boys ever drives a truck, just give me a call.”
--Jimmy Hoffa, to the jury after it acquitted him of trying to bribe a government official Danny DeVito restlessly wanders the set, smoking a cigar. It’s been a long day. The pigeons are still squawking somewhere up at the top of the sound stage.
“Coo! Coo!” he chirps, mimicking their calls. “Coo! Coo!”
He wags his head. “It’s a good thing my grandfather’s not here. He’d cook ‘em and eat ‘em. Just put some sauce on ‘em.”
DeVito pinches his fingers together, like an Italian waiter describing a luscious pasta dish. “Hmmmm. Good!”
DeVito is on a roll now. One of his gifts as a filmmaker is his verve for storytelling. He relishes each spark of drama, every scrap of detail.
“I remember my father would cook anything,” he continues. “He’d come home and there’s this sheep’s head--a whole head--with stuff cooked in the middle, oozing out the sides. You’d eat it right out of the skull.”
DeVito grins. “Makes you hungry just thinking about it, doesn’t it?”
To DeVito, Jimmy Hoffa is the equivalent of this sheep’s head stew. Repellent but heroic, enigmatic yet irresistible, a man who symbolizes life’s messy contradictions.
To tell his story in an era of Hollywood budget belt-tightening, DeVito has fought for every piece of cable, every extra prop--anything that’s not tied down.
“Hey, your loyalty is to the movie,” he says. “If you’re looking over your shoulder, worrying about what the studio’s thinking, you’re looking the wrong way! You might feel their breath, you might smell them.”
He cackles. “You know, that particular odor that people who look over your shoulder emit?”
By the time “Hoffa” wraps, the film is about seven days over schedule--and without its original line producer, Harold Schneider, who was quietly replaced in what Pressman calls a “personality conflict” with DeVito and others.
“I’m surprised any film finishes on time,” says DeVito, who won’t comment on his problems with Schneider. “If you ask the powers-that-be for 90 days, they’ll only give you 70 days. They never give you a realistic number. So why lose sleep over it?”
Between shots one day, DeVito and his cinematographer, Stephen Burum, warm to this topic, talking enviously about director Stanley Kubrick’s ability to make movies on his own terms.
Kubrick didn’t have some accountant breathing down his neck in the middle of “Clockwork Orange.” David Lean didn’t have some studio errand boy counting how many camels he herded off into the desert when he made “Lawrence of Arabia,” did he?
“I mean, if you’re gonna take Aqaba, the place can’t look like a (expletive) bowling green, right?” DeVito says.
To see this intense perfectionism at its peak, simply sit back and watch DeVito direct himself. In character as Bobby Ciaro, DeVito stands at a urinal, having just been approached by a shady character who wants to test his loyalty to Hoffa.
DeVito is quiet until the cameras roll. Then he explodes with laughter--wild, maniacal laughter. There’s no other actor in the scene, just DeVito, doing his close-up for the camera.
“You piece of (expletive)!” he rages, punctuating his dialogue with volleys of laughter. “You want me to give up Jimmy Hoffa? You want me? You piece of. . . .”
He repeats the scene over and over, each time the laughter more spooky and malevolent, the howls of a man cursing the fates.
After perhaps a dozen takes, DeVito stops and takes a deep breath. His crew is silent, in awe, maybe slightly unnerved.
DeVito studies their faces. He seems to spot a shadow of doubt. “Well,” he says finally, stepping back to his marks. “What’s everyone waiting for? Let’s go again!”