Rodney Dangerfield, 82; Comedic Icon Built a Career on Getting ‘No Respect’
Rodney Dangerfield, who tapped an enduringly rich vein of comedy gold when he created his stage persona as a middle-aged everyman who got no respect, died Tuesday. He was 82.
Dangerfield died at UCLA Medical Center of complications following heart valve replacement surgery Aug. 25, said his publicist, Kevin Sasaki.
After the surgery, he slipped into what his family described as a “light coma,” from which he emerged briefly before his death. The comedian had undergone arterial brain surgery in April 2003 to improve his body’s blood flow in preparation for the heart valve replacement.
Ever the joker, Dangerfield had cracked: “If things go right, I’ll be there about a week, and if things don’t go right, I’ll be there about an hour and a half.”
Dangerfield, whose successful comeback as a stand-up comic in the 1960s when he was in his 40s made him a familiar figure on television, in movies, and on Vegas and comedy-club stages for more than three decades, had been active in comedy until his recent surgery.
Standing on stage in his trademark black suit, the bug-eyed Dangerfield was always the picture of sweaty unease, nervously tugging at his red tie as he delivered his sharply timed, self-deprecating lines.
“My wife’s a water sign, I’m an earth sign; together we make mud.
“I mean, she’s attached to a machine that keeps her alive -- the refrigerator.
“It takes her an hour and a half to watch ’60 Minutes.’ OK, she’s dumb.
“The other night, she met me at the front door wearing a see-through negligee. The only trouble is she was coming home.
“No respect -- I don’t get no respect at all. Are you kidding?”
In an hourlong performance, Dangerfield would do about 325 jokes, his stream-of-consciousness delivery and lovable loser persona combining to create one of comedy’s most recognizable icons whose appeal spanned the generation gap.
An admiring Jack Benny once came backstage after watching Dangerfield perform. Benny had his vain and cheap image, he told Dangerfield, “but your ‘no respect,’ everybody can identify with that.”
Like Benny, Dangerfield would become a comedy institution, whose trademark white dress shirt and red necktie (sans the black suit) are housed at the Smithsonian Institution. But even then, as Dangerfield told it, he got no respect.
“They got my shirt and tie next to Lindbergh’s plane.
“I tell myself they’re using it to wipe off the plane.”
Like many comedians, Dangerfield drew on a lifetime of hurt and angst to make people laugh. Despite the fame, fortune and adulation that came his way, he was not a happy man.
“I have never been happy,” he told a reporter in 1997, when he was 75. “My whole life has been a downer.”
“I was an ugly kid. My mother had morning sickness after I was born.”
He was born Jacob Cohen in Babylon, Long Island, on Nov. 22, 1921. His father, a vaudeville comic whose stage name was Phil Roy, abandoned the family when Dangerfield was a young child. He and his sister were raised by their mother, who moved them to a neighborhood in Queens that was, he once recalled, “too rich for us. When I was young, I had to deliver groceries to the homes of the kids I went to school with. I had to go to the back doors to make the deliveries. It was embarrassing.
“So constantly, I felt like they were better than I am, and my self-esteem was very low ... things like that in life I guess can stay with you, where you never think you’re as good as anybody else.”
Dangerfield also remembered teachers making anti-Jewish remarks about him in front of the class. At 15, he began writing jokes -- “not out of happiness, but to go to a different place, because reality wasn’t good to me.”
“I’m so ugly, when I was a kid, my father bought a new billfold, and, instead of my picture, he carried the picture of the kid who came with the wallet.”
He was soon trying out his jokes at amateur nights under the stage name Jack Roy.
At 18, he landed his first paying job as a comic, earning $2 for a performance at a theater in Newark, N.J.
At 19, he got a gig in the Catskills, the mountain resort area north of New York City -- 10 weeks at $12 a week, plus room and board -- and he legally changed his name to Jack Roy. He also was hired as a singing waiter at the Polish Falcon nightclub in Brooklyn, where Lenny Bruce’s mother, Sally Marr, was the emcee. Earning $20 to $30 a week for three nights’ work, he considered it his first break in show business.
After two years as a comic, Dangerfield was earning about $150 a week. But it was a constant struggle, and after working a series of what he termed “dumps,” he gave up show business at 28 to marry Joyce Indig, a 23-year-old singer, “and lead a normal life.”
“To give you an idea how well I was doing at the time I quit, I was the only one who knew I quit,” he’d joke.
The couple had two children, Brian and Melanie, and Dangerfield made a decent living running an aluminum siding sales office in Englewood, N.J. But there were domestic problems. The couple divorced in 1962 and remarried a year later. They divorced again in 1970.
It was while going through his divorce in 1962, a time when he was $20,000 in debt and living in a seedy New York hotel, that the 40-year-old Dangerfield decided to give stand-up comedy another shot.
“Everyone thought I was absolutely insane,” he once recalled. “But show business was like a fix, and I had to have it to escape reality.”
Telling an old club owner friend that he wanted to get back into comedy, Dangerfield said he was too embarrassed to have his name advertised in case he failed. So the club owner gave him a new name: Rodney Dangerfield.
It was slow going at first. The turning point came in 1967, when Dangerfield’s agent arranged an audition for him with Ed Sullivan, whose Sunday night variety show was the premier television showcase for performers. Sullivan liked what he saw.
Dangerfield had been talking about how nothing goes right for him -- a topic that perfectly suited his hang-dog, been-through-the-wringer demeanor. But before making the fourth of his 16 appearances on the Sullivan show, he recalled that the gangsters he saw in the clubs he worked at always talked about getting or not getting respect. The phrase, “I don’t get no respect,” would become the unifying theme of his act.
When he next appeared on the Sullivan show, he tried out a joke that defined his new comedy image: “When I played hide-and-seek, they didn’t even look for me.”
The first of dozens of appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” as well as repeated spots on the Dean Martin and Merv Griffin shows, followed. In 1969, wanting to get off the road and be home for his children, he opened his own Manhattan nightclub, Dangerfield’s.
“Life on the road was murder. I played one date, it was so far out in the sticks, I was reviewed by Field and Stream.”
In 1971, Dangerfield made his movie debut as a tyrannical theater owner in the low-budget “The Projectionist,” starring comedian Chuck McCann.
Dangerfield didn’t make another movie until 1980, when he appeared as a wealthy boor in the hit comedy “Caddyshack” with Chevy Chase and Bill Murray.
By then, his career was really cooking, especially with the younger generation. He had been invited to speak at Harvard and had come out first in a 1978 survey of college students’ favorite comics. Although he was in his mid-50s, young audiences considered him one of their own.
Like their elders, they could relate to the dark, sometimes absurdist tales of victimization of a man who goes into a store to buy rat poison only to have the clerk behind the counter ask, “Should I wrap it, or do you want to eat it here?”
Dangerfield’s career flourished even more in the ‘80s. In 1981, he won a Grammy for his “I Don’t Get No Respect” comedy album.
“I tell you, I don’t get no respect. When I step into an elevator, the attendant looks at me and says, ‘Basement?’ ”
In 1983, he followed up “Caddyshack” with his first starring vehicle, “Easy Money,” in which he played an obnoxious heir who is required to give up his numerous vices before he can claim a multimillion-dollar fortune. The film was a box-office failure, but Dangerfield redeemed himself in 1986 with “Back to School,” in which he played an uneducated self-made millionaire who enrolls in college to keep his freshman son from dropping out. The film grossed more than $100 million at the box office.
There were also ABC and HBO comedy specials, a series of Miller Lite commercials, his Broadway debut (“Rodney Dangerfield on Broadway!”) and even a hit rap parody, “Rappin’ Rodney.”
Through his HBO specials, Dangerfield also introduced many new comics to television, including Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Saget, Sam Kinison, Andrew Dice Clay, Tim Allen, Jeff Foxworthy and Jim Carrey.
In 1994, Dangerfield played his first dramatic film role, as the loathsome father who molests his daughter in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.”
Although there was some talk that his performance was worthy of a supporting actor Oscar nomination, Dangerfield’s application for membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was rejected. With major parts in at least three theatrical releases, he met the minimum criteria for consideration. But, according to a letter signed by Roddy McDowall, chairman of the Actors Branch Executive Committee, Dangerfield lacked “enough of the kind of roles that allow a performer to demonstrate the mastery of the craft.”
“This is ridiculous -- especially since thousands of Academy members haven’t done any movies to speak of,” Dangerfield said when informed of the Academy’s decision. “Maybe the character [in ‘Natural Born Killers’], which I wrote myself, was so distasteful that it turned the Academy off.”
Yet the Academy’s rejection of Dangerfield somehow seemed fitting for a man who spent nearly four decades portraying a loser.
“I’m very lucky to have an image,” he said in a 1995 interview. “Most comedians do not have an image. They do, ‘Did this ever happen to you?’ or they do satire. But there’s practically none around today with an image. [Jack] Benny had an image. [W.C.] Fields had an image. An image is tough to come by. It doesn’t just happen. And people try to create it and think, ‘What’s an image for me?’ But it has to happen from your soul, I guess. You have to feel it.”
Even as he aged, Dangerfield remained true to his image.
“I told my doctor that when I woke up in the morning I couldn’t stand looking at myself in the mirror. He said, ‘At least we know your vision is perfect.’ ”
The title of his 2004 autobiography is “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs.”
He is survived by his wife, Joan, whom he married in 1993; two children; and two grandchildren. Memorial services are pending.
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A sampling of classic Dangerfield lines:
“I could tell that my parents hated me. My bath toys were a toaster and a radio.”
“I remember the time I was kidnapped, and they sent a piece of my finger to my father. He said he wanted more proof.”
“I never got any respect from my old man. I said, ‘Nobody likes me.’ He said, ‘Don’t feel that way. Everybody hasn’t met you yet.’ ”
“And my wife. As soon as I got married I knew I was in trouble. My in-laws sent me a thank-you note.”
“My wife, let me tell you about my wife. She wants to have sex in the back seat of the car, but she wants me to drive.”
“My wife made me join a bridge club. I jump off next Tuesday.”
“The other night I had a fight with my dog. My wife said the dog was right.”
“I got no respect again last week. I went to buy a new suit and told the salesman I’d like to see something cheap. He told me to look in the mirror.”
Los Angeles Times