You may be wondering what Rodney Dangerfield, at the age of eighty-two, after nearly a lifetime in the business of making other people laugh, is up to these days. Mainly, he’s bathrobed and hanging out in his airy, ultradeluxe twenty-first-floor apartment in Los Angeles, smoking pot. He watches a lot of TV, too – Jerry Springer, Bill O’Reilly, Greta Van Susteren, boxing, football. He goes to bed around 4 A.M. and typically rises noonish. He might start the day with a bowl of Total cereal or he might just eat an egg, because, he says, “If I want an egg, I can have an egg.” A joint might follow breakfast, depending on the vagaries of blood pressure, residual pain from surgeries and overall general mood.
Today, when I drop in on him for a brief visit to celebrate the publication of his autobiography (It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs), it’s actually kind of hard to get a fix on the mood he’s in. His wife of ten years, Joan Child, 50, blond, buxom, long-legged and totally hot, hovers nearby, a lively, sparkling presence. But Rodney himself sits at a marble table and basically just sits there, lost in thought. His bathrobe, blue in color and materially thin, is spread open to the waist, revealing a substantial and surprisingly hairless stomach.
“So, this is Rodney central, where it all happens,” I say, jauntily.
Rodney shifts in his chair and says, “I don’t know what happens here. Just a lot of boring stuff.”
His voice sounds tired, like maybe he’s aged some since his wiseacre Caddyshack and Back to School days.
“That’s a nice scar you have on your tummy,” I say. “A lot of big operations,” Rodney says.
Right around then, Joan takes me on a quick tour of the environs, which includes the kitchen (spotless, foodless), the bathroom (abnormally high countertops, Rodney’s preference), a closet with no doors (“Rodney doesn’t like doors on closets; I don’t know why”), a gargantuan steam room (“Rodney likes to stretch in there”) and a wide hallway featuring lots of pictures of Rodney with celebrities (Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Elvis).
“Yes, this is the memorabilia room,” Joan says. “See that picture? That’s a picture of Rodney and his lions. He has a love of lions. That one next to him is named after him. Rodney Jr. He was rejected by his mother and lives at the MGM habitat. Notice how brave Rodney is? That’s no small cat!”
Back at the table, Rodney lifts his big head and says, “You want to smoke a little shit? I don’t know how good this is. I just got it. Decent shit costs you a minimum of $500 an ounce. As a kid I bought pot for $25 an ounce. An ounce! Oh, everything’s insane. Oh, everything’s wild!”
He hands me a joint, fires it up, then fires one up for himself. He says he’s been getting high since he was twenty-one. He says he once got stoned at the White House, during the Reagan years. He says that about two years ago, during a heart-attack scare, after being wheeled into the intensive-care unit at an L.A. hospital, he lit up a joint in the bathroom and caught holy hell for it. He says that the only days he isn’t smoking pot are the days when he’s in surgery or similarly indisposed; most recently, he went under the knife to have the superficial temporal artery near his left ear inserted into the middle cerebral artery of his Rodney brain, in a high-risk, high-cost, no-laughs procedure known as an extracranial-intracranial brain bypass. “The surgeon who did that one calls Rodney his Picasso,” says Joan. Joan also says that she’s a good Mormon and never gets high with her pothead husband. Rodney says that he’s a legal pot-head these days, having received doctor’s orders to smoke the stuff, mostly to control his high blood pressure.
Between puffs, Rodney asks Joan to put on the CD titled Romeo Rodney. It’ll hit stores one of these days and features Rodney belting out love songs, singing only as Rodney can, in that distinctive, wacka-doodle voice of his. First we listen to a quite lovely rendition of “Strangers in the Night,” remarkably melodious, with Rodney and Joan gazing at each other across the table. Next is a much brassier number called “I Spent My Birthday in Las Vegas,” and Rodney in the flesh sings along with it, his clouded, baggy eyes suddenly lighting up like a pinball machine about to tilt.
“The playground of the world, that’s Las Vegas,” he sings swimmingly. “Yeah – I had the best time in Las Vegas, even though my wife and her mother were there!”
That’s a pretty good punch line, and it gets a pretty good laugh from Joan. Meanwhile, I’m tapping my foot and sucking away on the reefer.
“Do you feel it?” Rodney says.
“Not yet,” I say. “Do you?”
“Yeah,” he says.
I say to Joan, “What do you love about Rodney?”
Joan says, “Absolutely everything.”
Rodney says to me, “So it’s doing nothing for you? I feel ridiculous now. I give you some pot, and it don’t work for you. I feel ridiculous. Jesus Christ.”
Joan smiles and nods. “It’ll hit him all of a sudden,” she says optimistically. “Remember that guy who did some work here? He hadn’t smoked dope in a million years. Then he could hardly drive home.”
“What’s it do for you?” I ask Rodney.
“It relaxes me,” he says. “It allows me to cope with life.”
That’s about all he says about that, but I already know a few things. His dad treated him like shit. His mom treated him like shit, too; not once during his entire childhood, for instance, did she ever make him breakfast. How messed up is that? He got along by being funny, started performing at the age of eighteen, traveled the comedy circuit for the next ten years, hardly made a name for himself, hardly made any money and quit the comedy racket to become the world’s only honest aluminum-siding salesman, probably. Twelve years later, after a miserable marriage that led to a miserable divorce, he returned to comedy, this time using his life for material:
One time, when I was a kid, my family played hide-and-seek. They found my mother in Pittsburgh.
In my life, I’ve been through plenty. When I was three years old, my parents got a dog. I was jealous of the dog, so they got rid of me.
My ol’ man took me to a freak show. They said, “Get the kid out of here. He’s distracting from the show.”
It was heartbreaking stuff, but with Rodney’s delivery – eyes bulging, cheeks puffed out-it was a real laugh riot. It led to sixteen appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and a record-setting seventy appearances on Johnny Carson. Over the years, he’s caroused on The Dean Martin Show, Saturday Night Live, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, etc. He also started a comedy club called Dangerfield’s, in New York, and gave big breaks to comics such as Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey and Jerry Seinfeld. He won a Grammy for his comedy album No Respect. That white shirt and red tie he always wears onstage – right now they’re in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institution in the nation’s capital. He’s made millions.
“Can life really be that hellish?” I say.
“It’s tough, man, tough,” he says.
“What’s tough now?”
“What’s tough now?” he asks, almost incredulous. “You feel different when you’re getting old. You know you’re going to die. You just don’t know how. So, what I’m doing now is hanging around, waiting – waiting to see when and how I’m going to die.”
Joan snorts. “We’re trying to delay that,” she says. “We’re going to an anti-aging doctor in Beverly Hills, very la-di-da-di-da. I think it’s working. Our goal is for him to live to be 120. I mean, doesn’t he look good for eighty-two? Rodney, you really do not look your age. It’s the skin. It’s the hair.”
I take a closer look at Rodney. Joan is correct. It’s the skin, soft, beetle-brown, wrinkle free; it’s the hair, silvery. His eyes are milky and somewhat unfocused, but maybe that’s just the weed.
I’m taking Rodney in like this, when all of a sudden his robe slides open and I’m confronted with the sight of his willy and the poor boys. They’re huddled between his legs, looking quite pleased to be out of the dark. I know I should turn my head but I can’t. “I’m not a sexy guy,” Rodney used to tell the crowds. “I went to a hooker. I dropped my pants. She dropped her price.” Ha, ha. Very funny.
“I think he’s high,” Joan says. “Do you think he’s high, Rodney?”
“Why not?” Rodney says, covering himself.
“Do you have favorite jokes?” I ask him.
“Nah,” he says.
“One’s as good as another?”
He shrugs. “If it gets a big laugh, it’s a favorite joke.”
“OK, but when you think of a great joke – doesn’t that bring you great pleasure?”
Again with the shrug. “It all becomes a business,” he goes on. “You don’t appreciate the art form. Well, you do. You never stop doing that. But whatever. I’m just trying to find my way in life.”
“And are you happy with life?”
“Am I happy with life? Sheesh. Oh, boy. Oh, boy. Oh, boy. I’m elated. Life. You kidding me?”
I ask Joan how different the actual Rodney is from the stage Rodney.
“He’s classier,” she says. “More gentlemanly, sensitive and intelligent.”
“My character is the type of guy that gets the short end of the stick,” Rodney says. “People think that’s me. Cabdrivers always turn to me and say, ‘I went to the track, Rodney, and hit ten losers. Ten losers! Oh, you’ve been through that, Rodney. You know what I mean.’ Anyway, when people look at me, they don’t look at me like I’m a classy guy. I don’t get that.”
Joan breathes deeply. “Oh, Rodney,” she says.
Rodney wiggles his legs and out comes his willy again.
“Joan,” Rodney says. “Do me a favor, would you?”
“I think there’s some blood here on my foot. Take a Kleenex, put a little water on it.” “Oh, yes, yes,” says Joan, rushing into the kitchen.
Then it’s just me and Rodney sitting at his table. First, he closes his robe, then he takes the remainder of his joint and lights it up. There’s so much silence around us you could hear a clock tick. If we were out on the street, riding in a cab, people would see Rodney and shout some of his more famous lines from Caddyshack. “Wanna make fourteen dollars the hard way?” they’d shout. “While we’re young!” they’d shout. But we’re not outside. We’re inside, blown away on $500-an-ounce pot. Sixty-one years Rodney has been smoking the stuff. Twenty-two-thousand two-hundred and sixty-five days. Life. You kidding me?