His living room is as white and still as an ashram, but he stands there looking as exhausted and rheumy-eyed as we remember him. Rodney Dangerfield, creator of all those edgy, collar-yanking stand-up routines, the "I can't get no respect" Rodney Dangerfield who, at 72, is as much a part of our collective cultural consciousness as his fabled white shirt and red tie now lying in state at the Smithsonian.
If he is not the oldest stand-up comedian still working, he is most certainly the only comic whose influence spans three generations; his nightclub act predates Lenny Bruce and his proteges, fostered at his own club, Dangerfield's in New York and on his HBO specials, include the late Sam Kinison, Andrew Dice Clay and Jim Carrey. "Rodney Dangerfield," as one critic once put it, "is the godfather of the cutting edge of comedy."
He has not performed live for more than a year, but he has not been idle. After launching a modest but successful film career in 1980 with "Caddyshack"--and becoming something of a box-office draw with his 1986 sleeper hit, "Back to School"--Dangerfield has embarked on two new endeavors: his second marriage, to Joan Child, a 41-year-old florist, and a first-ever dramatic role, as Juliette Lewis' reprehensible father, in Oliver Stone's controversial film "Natural Born Killers," which opens Friday.
"I'm always on to the next thing," he says, padding around his minimalist Wilshire Boulevard apartment in his black velvet slippers as if he were looking for something long ago misplaced. Here's the white marble steam room he had installed ("it was a closet but I'm not into clothes"), here are photographs of himself, with Joan, with his two grown children, with President Clinton--"To Rodney . . . thanks for the respect, Bill Clinton." Here's the impressive view off the living room window. "We're waiting for drapes, those are just temporary," he says, sinking into the massive leather chair behind an equally massive burled wood desk while he continues the tour. "This furniture was supposed to be in the other room, but Joan had the brilliant idea of putting it in here."
He sighs and lights a cigarette. After years of playing clubs and Vegas and back again, years of an equally turbulent personal life, he now seems a man of carefully considered routine whose days are as clean-limbed as his home. He has three scripts he's trying to shepherd into production, but mostly that means writing and phone calls sandwiched between mornings spent in the pool and afternoons at the gym, sweating it all out in the steam room. He explains all this puffing serenely on a series of cigarettes. "I'm still very self-destructive," he says, slapping the pink sliver of paunch protruding between his shirt and trousers.
And Dangerfield does seem a walking anomaly. Despite the obvious happiness of his marriage--"OK, Joan baby, I'll see you at 6," he sings into the phone--he still nurses a brutally Darwinian approach to life, that nobody, as he puts it, "gets a free ride." Even as he insists "that comfort in my life comes first now," he evinces a startling insecurity, an emotional nakedness that, at times, is colored by the free-floating hostility of his old stand-up routines. "Do I scare you, honey?" he says, his bloodshot eyes suddenly as wild as they ever were. "Because I could scare you."
Question: So, this past year has been a big one--your second marriage and your first dramatic film role--all after you turned 70.
Answer: Well, I never thought I'd get married again, but I met Joan 10 years ago--she owns a flower shop and I stopped in to smell the flowers and I guess Joan smelled better--and when you add it all up, I love her, she's a great girl. You know, I quit show business to get married the first time, when I was 28. I used to do a joke about it, that I was the only one who knew I quit. Then I came back at age 40 and everybody thought I was crazy. But I've always worked. I've been writing jokes since I was 15 and now I guess I'm an actor too. Or at least Oliver Stone thought so.
Q: Let's talk about this role. It's quite different than anything you've played in the past.
A: Oliver calls me--I don't know him and I wasn't even that familiar with his work because we all have our own bags, do our own thing, you know? But he's very complimentary about my work, seen all my movies and thinks I'm an actor. He says he's got this part for me. Well, I never saw a script, he just said I was supposed to be "the father from hell." And the way I act in the movie is horrible. I deserve to be killed.
Q: I gather you also wrote, or rewrote, most of your own lines?
A: I wrote "Easy Money" and some of "Back to School" and, with "Caddyshack," I came with 20 new jokes every day. I also write on the spot. So on this movie, all the filthy stuff I wrote. Oliver said he loved it and that was it.
Q: Beyond the writing, how did you prepare as an actor?
A: Well, you know a lot of comedians want to be actors and this was an acting piece--different, but still it was easy. A lot of people when they want to do a thing about Puerto Rico, say, they got to move there for a month to prepare. Me? You just go into character and you do it. That's it. You put a sneer on your face and you do it.
Q: It has to be more complex than that. Even your reviews for "Caddyshack" praised your performance as "actually playing a character."
A: I can act easy; stand-up is the hard one--months to prepare an eight-minute act. But when I do a movie they're all me, but a shade off. This one ("Natural Born Killers") was a big change, but generally speaking, you just adjust it toward you.
Q: What do you think when you see yourself on film, particularly as in this, in an unsympathetic role?
A: I hate myself. Are you kidding? Oh, yeah, I'd rather be young and on a surfboard. Who wants to be that character?
Q: Well, the whole movie is rather surprising. What do you think of it, all the violence, particularly since your character is so venal, and yet the scene is played as a comedy with a laugh track?
A: It's funny to have this vicious guy and put him in a sitcom. I don't know whether to laugh at me or take me seriously. People are taking me seriously, aren't they? The acting we're doing is to try and make it seem believable. But the movie brings out a good point how parents can ruin children. Of course, not every parent is as bad as me in the movie but in general, parents can hurt their kids without even knowing it.
Q: What can you possibly follow this role with?
A: The idea is to keep busy. To do nothing is tough. I love stand-up, but I haven't done any in more than a year. It's hard honing an act, to make it look off the cuff. I love it, because it's just you by yourself and it certainly pays better than doing a movie. You know what I got for "Caddyshack"? $35,000. As a matter of fact, it cost me a quarter of a million to do the picture because I had to give up Vegas for six weeks. But I haven't played Vegas in a year. Now, I'm concentrating on these creative projects instead, these three films that I've written, with a friend of mine.
Q: Are they comedies like "Caddyshack" or something more serious?
A: They're all sort of about what a man will do for love. One is called "Serenade Cafe," which is sort of a true fairy tale. The other one is wild, totally fictional, called "My Love Affair With La Contessa," and the last one is called "Ladies' Man," where, according to my religion, I have 12 wives. It takes place in this country. See, my wife is Mormon and from Utah. . . .
Q: Wait a minute, your real wife is a Mormon, or this is in the movie?
A: My real wife. I got the idea from talking to her family. I like the whole situation so much next week I'm marrying her sister. (Pause) That's a joke, honey.
Q: It sounds like you found some kind of new religion--a happy personal life--which is a switch for the guy who built his career on chronic unhappiness.
A: Well, as much as I love stand-up, you can do a show, feel good, take your bow and when you walk into your dressing room, you're alone. The audience doesn't love you, they love what you did. Well, that love isn't enough for me now. I did it for 20 years, but now, I'd rather have the love of a person you can respect and love.
Q: So Rodney Dangerfield has become a Panglossian optimist after all these years?
A: Listen, we could all write a book. I'm one of the masses--I could never be a big shot--and they (audiences) know it. Thirty years ago, I'm in a domestic situation where I suddenly am not living at home but in a cheap hotel in New York. I was broke. I owed $20,000 and I decided to go back into show business and everybody said I was nuts and was finished. I was 44 and I couldn't get booked anywhere.
Q: But that's when you became "Rodney Dangerfield" and became really successful.
A: You mature and I also developed an image and they're hard to find. At 44, I finally had an image and something to say--that nothing goes right--and people identified with it. When I did the Sullivan show for the fourth time, that's when I came up with "No respect." I told the joke "I played hide-and-seek and no one came to look for me" and that was it.
Q: Why do you think it was the "no respect" image that got you professional respect?
A: I don't know, I guess people think I'm a nice guy. But it's funny having that image because people actually believe it and try to take advantage of you. You wouldn't believe the things that people say to me. One night, I'm doing a show at my club in New York, and right before I go on stage a guy at a table stops me and says, "Rodney, do me a favor. Can I have your autograph and some more butter?"
Q: What did you do?
A: (Laughing) I told the waiter to get him some more butter. But is that an image?
Q: Regardless of whether your "no respect" persona is true to life, it has had amazing longevity. Unlike a lot of comedians your age, you appeal to a younger generation, as a New York Times review of your 1988 show, "Rodney Dangerfield on Broadway" pointed out.
A: I don't like to brag about it, but Jack Benny came to my club once before he died and he said, "I've got the cheap image, but you appeal to everybody." And not to talk or anything, but kids are very into me. My audiences are like 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds and I get mail from kids like 3 and 4 years old--like I'm some weird uncle of theirs or something.
Q: But beyond your own image, you have been very influential in bringing along new comics. You've found a lot of people, most notably Sam Kinison, and given them exposure at your club and on your HBO specials.
A: Well, I get a kick out of seeing a guy make it. Sam Kinison was a genius. Mad, but a genius. I put him on twice and boom. I gave Roseanne some of her first exposure. Dice. No one would put Dice on, so even though I thought he was doing a dirty version of what I did a little bit, I put him on and he busted right out. One special I had on Sam Kinison, Roseanne, Jerry Seinfeld, Robert Townsend.
Q: Jim Carrey gives you a lot of credit for helping launch his career.
A: Jim I found in Canada about 10 years ago when he opened for me there and I thought he was great, very talented, very unusual. So I brought him to Vegas to open for me at Caesars and then out here when I played the (Universal) Amphitheatre. I'm very happy for his success. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.
Q: What's the future of the comedy-club scene, with so many comics having big TV and movie careers?
A: Today the director is the star or the editor or the producer, but for me, stand-up, where they show they love you right away, will always be the one. Because I'll tell you, with TV you lose the chance to perfect something. My father used to go on the road for 10 months to break in an eight-minute act. When I did "The Tonight Show," it took me three months to prepare for it, three months of writing and breaking in something like 32 new jokes, getting the rhythms right so when I was talking to Carson, it looked all off-the-cuff. You don't get that with movies or television. . . . I could tell you stories, but what the heck.
Q: Oh, tell the stories.
A: Listen, I worked so many joints and clubs, but nothing is ever easy. Whatever business you get into has problems. Mine was coming from the bottom. What could I do? Anything. I used to drive a laundry truck on Mondays and Saturdays and a fish truck on Thursdays and Fridays and Wednesdays I'd go into the city to look for a job in show business.
I got a job as a singing waiter at the old Polish Falcon club in Brooklyn because I sweetened their Christmas fund. Lenny Bruce's mother, Sally Marr, was the emcee and she introduced me and I'd go on and sing (he breaks into song) "There will be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow you just wait and see. . . ." I was 18 and I wanted to get involved with show business where I could get some of the love I never got at home. You know, "Tell me I'm OK, people," because I had many ill experiences as a youth.
Q: The proverbial difficult childhood . . .
A: Hey, we all get wounded and if you think you have it bad, thousands have it worse. I started writing my autobiography but it was too painful. I had a difficult mother and a father who saw me twice a year. But every childhood is worse than another. Are you happy? I say you got to be born dumb, lucky or religious to make it in life. And, in most cases, kids never live up to their baby pictures. Show me a kid when he's 4. Have I got a winner! Show me a picture of Al Capone at 4. Have I got a winner. Picture of Hitler. Cute kid. A winner. But I will say that people who are outside show business tell me they don't have the same need for love that people in show business have.
Q: But there must have been a time when you put that behind you and realized you made it on your own.
A: Mine was a very slow procedure, not like Elvis, who did one song and the country went crazy. I can't say one thing did it for me because I did 16 Ed Sullivan shows, 45 Merv Griffin shows, 70 "Tonight Shows" with Carson. Listen, I did 20 Lite beer commercials.
I don't ever think in terms of making it. It's a job. If a guy, a bellman, picks up my suitcase, I still feel awkward. I've been broke most of my life, on the other end of the stick. So I got lucky now. I'm still one of the masses, and I can never change.