Rodney Dangerfield: Respect at Last

The comedian has wealth, fame, a hit movie and the respect of almost everybody but himself

Rodney Dangerfield in a scene from the film 'Back To School' in 1986. Credit: Orion Pictures/Getty

Hot Rodney!

So now it's Rodney the movie star. Five years ago, last time I talked to him, he was merely America's fastest-rising old comedian. Now he's Rodney, summer-film comet. Every time you turn around, the guy's career goes up a notch.

We're in the back of a chauffeured stretch with all the trimmings. Bar, TV, phone are all ignored. Rodney is up a big bowl of cereal, fruit and skim milk. He's on some kind of diet kick, making a stab at health, not too optimistically. "I got no willpower, forget it, will ya? It's tough, it's tough, whew." Same old Rodney music.

For comic relief, the roof window keeps sliding open unbidden as Rodney inadvertently kicks a door switch. "Oh, I guess I did that with my foot again. Sorry."

Nothing goes right, nothing.

Offstage, he's not Rodney Classic, not the Rodney of a million stand-ups. He's not in the familiar dark suit and red tie, tugging at the tight collar, bouncing up and down, squirming, twitching, sweating, all frazzled, raw nerve endings, eyes popping out, mouth machine-gunning misery gags at a whooping crowd. No, he's a more relaxed model, this Rodney. Casual clothes, easy does it. But the fundamentals are always there. The first-thing-in-the-morning voice, low, guttural, phlegmy, with its New York intonations and the fine comic's rhythm and timing. And always the tragic world view.

Listen, it's tough, what can I tell ya, it's tough, ya know what I mean? Life, whew, it's a rough one. Nobody has it easy, nobody gets a free ride.

That's the basic Rodney riff. Rodney's blues. Lay that down first, that rhythm track for mood, and then all you need to do is add the funny moves and mix in the punch lines, and bingo! You've got comedy. No big deal, no sweat. Just took him thirty, forty years to get it right.

I told my psychiatrist I got suicidal tendencies. He told me from now on I have to pay in advance.

We're driving from New York to Rodney's house in Westport, Connecticut, an hour and change away. Rodney is expounding on life at my request, but passing through some burg in Westchester, he spots a marquee: Back to School. "Did you see it?" he asks. "Did you laugh out loud?"

Hey, somebody did. Who'd have figured it? Here's a pleasant little affair with some jokes, some plot (self-made millionaire goes to college to set an example for his would-be-dropout son), a little slapstick, even a little romance. An old-fashioned, gentle comedy with no special effects, crashing cars or piggish sex japes.

Who'd have figured that for a summer hit and Rodney for a matinee idol in Hollywood's Kiddie Era? We knew he was good for five-minute giggle fixes on Carson, but act? Rodney, where in your long, tortured existence did you come up with that?

"At Vinnie's Boom-Boom Room! I never went to acting school or nothing like that. Whatever it is. I guess when you're a kid and you want to survive, you have to learn to act."

He laughs, without much mirth. And more amazing, what was punchy, paunchy old Rodney doing impinging on Sally Kellerman? Did I really see that?

"I know," he says. "It's a strange thing, going to see someone like me and he's doing a romantic scene. What the hell is his story? What nerve he has! But, uh ..." Slight pause. "I got away with it! Ha ha ha ha!"

Rodney's happy to talk about the movie. It started when Orion Pictures brought him an idea from two writers: Rodney goes to college. He liked it and wrote a minute-and-a-half sample scene that Orion filmed and showed to a convention of theater owners in Las Vegas. They liked it. So work began.

"There were gangs of writers," says Rodney. "Gangs! The whole thing went on for two years with scripts, you know? Usually, you have a script and then you do the movie. We went backward. We had an idea. Hey, let's do the movie! Then we have no script. We had starting dates, everything else, but no script Anyway, we got lucky. It came out all right."

Whew, it's a tough racket, movies. You've gotta be careful, you've gotta know what you're doing. First movie he ever did, The Projectionists, in 1968, was a low-budget job that paid him only $3000 and didn't make much of a stir. It was twelve years to the next one, Caddyshack, with Bill Murray and Chevy Chase. Rodney kind of stole it, if you recall. Three years ago, he made Easy Money, his first starring vehicle, about a guy who has a year to give up his bad habits to collect a big inheritance. It did okay, but nothing special.

So now he knows something about movies. "I learned that what is important is the mood of a set. If the mood is not right, you don't get the best work out of the actors, because everyone is tense." Also, he learned to take his time and wait for the right idea. For his next hit, he's still waiting.

"I've been having offers from everybody. When you suddenly become somewhat of a draw, they'll put you in any kind of movie. They don't care if it's good or bad, just as long as it makes money. You've got to try to pick out something that you feel is worthwhile doing, you know? You've gotta have the right vehicle."

The vehicle we're in now has rolled into Westport, a moneyed, green suburb on Long Island Sound, far from Rodney's lowly beginnings. Soon Rodney is showing me around his place. If you expected some kind of gaudy star palace, you'd be disappointed. It's tastefully done, comfortable, light and airy, unpretentious. Showbiz mementos are confined to a small study. He shows me the latest one, a shovel from Back to School, inscribed by the director and the art director: Dear Rodney, We really dig you, man.

The most impressive part of the house is the Rodney Health Club. There's an indoor pool in a big, sunny, wood-paneled room with a skylight, then another room with a Jacuzzi, plus some workout equipment.

Rodney had all that built. At sixty-four, he's trying to give his poor old body a fighting chance. Left to his natural impulses, he would overeat, drink and smoke. "I'm a champ at self-abuse," he says. But two years ago, he went to the Pritikin Longevity Center, in Santa Monica, California — "I'm not a kid anymore, so what the heck?" — to try to kick his two-pack-a-day smoking habit. He did. He also got indoctrinated in the rigors of the Pritikin diet, which can be roughly summed up as follows: If it's good, don't eat it He sticks to it ... sort of. "You go off," he admits. "Every day you go off, but it's a question of how much."

He shows me a freezer stacked high with full plastic containers. "This is all Pritikin food," he says. "All different kinds of soup and stuff. It's good for you."

That's the work of one Stafford Borg, Rodney's cook, house manager and road crew. A baby-faced, heavyset thirty-three-year old, Staff, as he's called, has worked for Rodney for four years. On the road, he packs along a microwave to keep the Pritikin flowing.

Rodney ducks off for a quick steam while I, declining to join him due to a morbid fear of health, reflect on how things have changed since I saw him five years ago. The Dangerfield household then was in Manhattan and consisted of five people and a dog. In Rodney's Upper East Side apartment lived his daughter, Melanie, his son, Brian, his Jamaican maid, cook, child raiser and game-show addict, Thelma, and his old pal Joe Ancis. The kids were in school then. Now Melanie, 22, is trying to break into the movies in California, and Brian, 25, is working in a children's camp in Hartford, Connecticut Thelma is still in the apartment, as is Joe, a story in himself. He's a legend among New York comedians, a comic's comic whose stream-of-consciousness shpritzing influenced Lenny Bruce but who never worked in front of a crowd, only convulsed his friends. "Funniest fellow ever, ever, ever," says Rodney. "But Joe's stuff can never be repeated. You gotta be there, that's all." One time Joe had a fight with his wife, walked out and went across the street to Rodney's. Rodney commiserated. He knew how tough marriage can be. Oh, did he ever know that one! He said, Why not stay here tonight? This was ten years ago. Joe is still in the spare room.

Yeah, some things have changed. No house in Westport then. Rodney bought it about four years ago, and now he leaves the apartment mostly to Joe. Uses it himself only for business meetings. And there's this movie-star thing. But that hasn't changed Rodney's personality. Or his primary occupation: stand-up. Not now, not after a million jokes. He's still making dates for talk-show spots, one-nighters, clubs, hotels. "Once you're on the road, you're on the road," he says. "I mean, movies are great, but there's no emotional satisfaction from it, you know? You work ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day, very tedious, hanging around, doing the same thing over and over again. But when I do my act in variety, then you can have immediate satisfaction. You have a romance going with the audience. And that's show business. That's the way it started — live, you know? The guy who does it in one, who stands up and does it."

Do it in one, that's Rodney talk for performing live, doing it for real, no retakes, no jump cuts, no laugh tracks, no mirrors, just go out in front of people and tell jokes, that's what he does. Real showbiz. The comic's true test, where he lives or dies.

And no matter how big Rodney gets, he remembers how small he was. It's what makes Rodney Rodney, that deep deposit of woe he mines and refines into comic gold. Fame? Riches? Private steam baths? Bah! "It's a question of attitude, where your head is at," Rodney says. And if you were unhappy at the start, he figures, chances are you stay that way until the end.

At the start he was miserable. But he wasn't Rodney. He was Jacob Cohen, Jackie to his family. He was born in Babylon, Long Island, in 1921 and grew up mostly in Queens. His father, whose showbiz name was Philip Roy, did a pantomime comedy-juggling routine in vaudeville with his brother. They were billed as Roy and Arthur. Jackie's father was never home. It wasn't just the road, it was the marriage.

"They were always separated. He only saw me twice a year when I was a kid. Later on, when my old man was old, I became friendly with him; he was okay, he was a right guy, he was all right. I understood everything. He even cried to me; he said, 'Will you forgive me?' For not seeing me more, you know? I said, 'It's all right, forget about it, it's okay.' "

Jackie's mother raised him and his older sister. There wasn't much money, and the Depression, which hit when Jackie was about ten, made matters worse. For a year the three lived with Jackie's paternal grandmother. It was a fifth-floor walk-up in the Bronx, where the boy slept on a cot in the foyer. Then they moved to a rooming house in the Queens working-class beach resort of Far Rockaway. The family slept in one room, and Jackie started working, selling ice cream on the beach.

Next came an apartment over a store in Kew Gardens, Queens, where Jackie would spend the rest of his youth. "Kew Gardens was pretty high-class.... It was a place that financially we didn't belong. I found myself going to school with kids and then in the afternoon I'd be delivering groceries to their back door. I ended up feeling inferior to everybody, know what I mean?"

Always he had to work. Before high school each morning he sold newspapers at a newsstand and made a dollar a week. It was no easy life. But the gift was emerging, the knack for seeing things funny. He was always kidding around for his friends. At fifteen, he started writing jokes and never stopped. At seventeen, he started playing amateur nights in theaters, doing impersonations of Al Jolson and W.C. fields.

Ask why he thinks he gravitated toward showbiz and he usually mentions love, as in lack of. "There's a need for love, I guess. Sometimes a kid doesn't get enough love at home. I was from a split home, I felt on the outside ... so you look to do something ... who knows?"

Whatever. At nineteen, the kid went for it. Borrowing his father's moniker, he called himself Jack Roy and landed a summer job in the Catskills, the comics' Harvard, by paying an agent's commission up front. "You had to beg 'em for the job, you know?" He worked in a small hotel for twelve dollars a week, plus room and board. In the fall, he came back to New York ready to land a job in showbiz.

Showbiz couldn't have cared less. Jack settled into a routine: Mondays and Saturdays he drove a laundry truck. On Thursdays he drove a fish truck. Tuesday and Wednesday he importuned showbiz. He was still living at home then, chipping in to support the family. The comedy gigs came, but very slowly.

One time he was sent to the Bronx to MC at a club. But the boss told him there was a mistake; he didn't need an MC. So Jack asked if he could wait tables, and he picked up a night's pay — two bucks. "But as I'm workin'," he remembers, "I see they have singing waiters working there. People are throwing them money. I said, 'Gee, what a good racket,' you know?"

So now our boy Jack became a singing waiter. It was a good racket. At the wonderfully named Polish Falcon in Brooklyn, the people threw money at him; over a weekend he could take in forty dollars. He worked at the Polish Falcon for six months and met Sally Marr, who was the MC there and who was also Lenny Brace's mother. She introduced Jack to Lenny, who was then in the navy and who would not evolve into the Great Dirty Mouth for years.

Showbiz at last. For nine years, Jack Roy worked the clubs, went on the road, learned the comic's craft, tried to put it together. It was a long, slow climb to the middle. Rodney jokes about Vinnie's Boom-Boom Room now, but there were really some tough joints in those days. "I once had a bouncer say to me after a show, 'I think ya stink; whatta ya want to do about it?' " By the end he was making decent money, maybe $300 a week on average — when he had work. "But I never had any money," he says. "I was always broke."

And then he dropped out of show business. Quit cold. Ask him why, he tells you he did it for love.

At twenty-eight, Jack Roy married Joyce Indig, a singer he'd met at a showbiz hangout. They quit together. He figured the craziness of the business, the instability, the constant traveling, would doom a marriage. His parents hadn't worked it out. Maybe he could. "We wanted to lead a normal life. I wanted a house and picket fence and kids, and the heck with show business. Love was more important, you see. When the show is over, you're alone."

Oh, but marriage was a tough one, very tough. They had two children, but the going was stormy. Things didn't work out. Jack and Joyce got divorced, and then they remarried. Joyce died in 1974. Rodney once told another interviewer, "I later learned it wasn't show business that was crazy, it was me."

We're driving again. Rodney took his steam bath, and now we're heading back to Manhattan. We're doing a lot of talking, and suddenly, things become rather strained.

There are things Rodney doesn't like talking about, and his dropout phase is maybe the biggest. It's easy to sympathize. After years of struggle, he quits showbiz for love, but love goes bust and leaves him high and dry. Talking about it, he gets tense. "Whatever" creeps into his conversation more. Obviously, this was a painful time in his life, a depressing time.

Funny thing, though. It isn't asking about the marriage that sets him off but asking about how he made a living. What he did for many years was sell paint and siding. He slaps away questions about it with the stock line "It was colorless." I persist A mistake.

"What's the difference?" he snaps. "It's unimportant. It's an unglamorous part of my life. It's uninteresting. Doesn't mean anything. I was in the paint business selling paint. What the hell, it's boring. Did it make any difference if I was selling shoes? If I was opening clams? What difference does that all make?"

Okay, okay, I'm off paint. Sorry. Forget it.

Whatever he was doing, he never stopped writing jokes. The whole time, he kept jotting them down and tossing them in a duffel bag. At the end of twelve years, he had a bag full of jokes. He had something else, too, something he couldn't suppress anymore.

"It was like a need. I had to work. I had to tell the jokes. I had to write them and tell them. It was like a fix, like I had the habit, you know? Like I hadda do it, hadda do it, hadda yell it out, hadda get it out, you know?"

At the age of forty-two, Jack Roy (that was his legal name now) went back. He played a club in Upper Manhattan that he'd worked fifteen years before. The Inwood Lounge, it was now called, a historic joint, because there he got the third and ultimate name of his life. He wanted to break in his new stuff quietly without anyone he knew watching. So he told the owner, George McFadden, not to bill him as Jack Roy. Well, McFadden came up with a lulu. It wasn't Jack Roy who came out but Rodney Dangerfield.

And there, staring at him, was mostly the same crowd he'd played to before, but fifteen years older. They looked at him and they said, "Rodney Danger-field?" Rodney had an answer: "If you're gonna change your name — change it!"

One friend said, "Wild name; why not keep it?" As you know, he did. "I don't know, I was crazy in those days. I was a little depressed. Okay, I became Rodney Dangerfield."

Rodney redux. He worked here, he worked there. He was better now, he thought. "I matured. I wasn't a kid anymore, I was a man coming back." Some places he worked free, just to polish the material, work on the image. Sometimes a comic needs a hook, you know? Jack Benny's stinginess, Billy Crystal's mahvelous. Rodney's came out of his real life, his despair, his feeling of always being on the bottom end. He had this joke he wrote: I played hide and seek. They wouldn't even look for me. "To make it work better, you look for something to put in front of it: I was so poor, I was so dumb, so this, so that." He thought, "Now what fits that joke? Well, no one liked me was all right. But then I thought, 'A more profound thing would be I get no respect.' "

He tried it at a place in Greenwich Village called Upstairs at the Duplex, equally historic in the annals of comedy. There he declaimed, "I don't get no respect. When I was a kid, we played hide and seek. They wouldn't even look for me."

"And the next day, people started saying to me, 'Hey, Rodney! No respect! Me, too. I don't get no respect' So I started writing more and more no-respect jokes."

It was magical. He'd struck a universal chord. All that misery, and now he found out he wasn't alone. Everyone identified. Everyone else was miserable too! But unlike the rest of them, Rodney made it come out funny.

Every time I get in an elevator, the operator says the same thing to me: "Basement?"

Better things were happening to him the second time. The Ed Sullivan Show got him his first national attention and opened television up to him. In 1969 he was able to start his own nightclub, Dangerfield's, with a borrowed $250,000, mainly so he could work close to his children. There were Johnny Carson shows and beer commercials and a rap video and TV comedy specials and all the rest, a gradual climb to the top. Success, fame, wealth, who knows? Maybe even respect.

But of course, for Rodney, something will always be missing. Love, happiness ... whatever. Best not to dig too deep there. At any rate, you know the Guy Who Does It in One will always see the downside. Rest assured that won't change.

"You know, it's funny," Rodney muses as we ride it home. "No matter how big an act you are, to get to the stage, you end up walking through the kitchen. I just worked at the Hilton Hotel, you know? You walk through the kitchen. I worked at Caesars Palace — the kitchen. Every place you go, you're always in the kitchen."