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Danny DeVito is down for whatever


He doesn’t look like a movie star. He doesn’t act like one, either. And if a role requires DeVito to disrobe and get ‘greased up like a halibut,’ so be it.

Danny DeVito is “game for anything,” said his longtime agent, Fred Specktor. That includes posing with a ventriloquist dummy. (Kelia Anne MacCluskey for The Washington Post)

Consider the absurdities we ask of our stars. We want them to be infallible, immutable gods atop Mount Olympus obscuring the sun. Then ponder our actions when we tire of them after they have the temerity to change or, heaven forbid, age. We toss them, trade them in, opting for someone newer, younger, shinier.

None of this has happened to Danny DeVito, 78, a staple of our entertainment diet for 45 years.

There is no next DeVito. They only made one.

“He’s game for anything. When he wants to do something, he knows what he can do with it,” said Fred Specktor, 90, the industry’s oldest superagent, who has represented DeVito for much of the performer’s career. They speak many times each week. The actor invariably signs off by saying, “Get me a freaking job,” only deploying saltier language.

“I don’t like sitting around, you know what I mean? I like doing stuff,” DeVito said before the actors strike when there was more stuff to do. He was sitting around his office, sharing stories, a core talent. His warehouse near downtown doubles as his producer son Jake’s office and his daughter Gracie’s art studio, family and work a porous border. He runs a production company with Jake and daughter Lucy. He will perform on Broadway in Theresa Rebeck’s “I Need That” with Lucy, his co-star in FX’s animated “Little Demon,” in previews beginning Oct. 13. Rhea Perlman (Carla of “Cheers,” a star cameo in “Barbie”) remains a North Star in his conversation, theirs known as one of Hollywood’s healthiest separations, still married and grandparents of a baby girl.

Father-daughter duo Danny and Lucy DeVito will star in “I Need That” in New York this fall. The two spoke to The Post about the play and being onstage together. (Video: Allie Caren, Justin Scuiletti/The Washington Post)

As an actor, producer and director, DeVito’s here for the long haul, entertaining multiple generations. He won boomers as “Taxi’s” Louie De Palma, whom TV Guide rated — wait for it — the greatest character of all time. As a producer, DeVito helped define ’90s independent movies to Gen X (“Pulp Fiction,” “Get Shorty” and “Reality Bites”). He’s beloved by millennials and Gen Z as game-for-anything Frank Reynolds in FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” TV’s longest-running live-action comedy series. The show completed its 16th season in July; earlier this year, tapings of its popular podcast packed large venues in London and Dublin. He’s the rare performer to star in two sitcoms that perch on best-of-all-time lists: one that scored all the prizes (“Taxi”) and one that’s won bupkis (which would be “Sunny”).

DeVito has appeared in a superhero blockbuster (Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns”), “Friends” (doleful stripper Officer Goodbody), “The Simpsons” (Homer’s half brother), a boy band video (One Direction’s “Steal My Girl”), Oscar catnip (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “L.A. Confidential,” “Terms of Endearment”), and Disney-ride-themed popcorn fare (“Haunted Mansion”). He played opposite Andy Kaufman (“Taxi”), co-starred in a movie about Kaufman (“Man on the Moon”) and appeared in a documentary about the making of the movie about Kaufman (“Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond”).

Some roles — Louie, Harry Wormwood in “Matilda” — require the Full DeVito: the snarl and bite, the heavy step, the devious chortle. But he can go quiet. DeVito is capable of doing something else entirely: maternally oppressed Owen Lift in “Throw Momma From the Train” (which he directed) or damaged, unloved Oswald Cobblepot in “Batman Returns.” Of the latter, DeVito said, “That’s in a class of its own. That’s operatic. It’s like all of a sudden I became Pavarotti.” (Then, naturally, he tells a story about meeting the Italian tenor.)

Suddenly, Jamie Lee Curtis is everything everywhere all at once

DeVito’s career is dominated by dyspeptic wretches, loudmouths, miscreants and misfits, the relative you’d least like to sit with at family gatherings, sewer rats. Correction: The Penguin is a sewer fowl.

“Consider how many despicable characters he’s performed yet how beloved he is,” said “Sunny” co-creator and star Glenn Howerton. (Most interviews were conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike or with the caveat not to discuss specific film and television projects.)

“I kind of get off playing parts that have texture, where you can be ironic or you can be a little dark,” DeVito said. “I dug ‘Ruthless People,’” the 1986 comedy co-starring Bette Midler. Said Specktor, “There’s something lovable about him, even at his meanest.”

Fans don’t merely like DeVito; they often crave a piece of him. He’s inspired a gallery of tattoos, a cardboard cutout, a cutout who became a prom date, a Christmas ornament, the inspiration of enough DeVitonalia to stock a store on Etsy. His highly documented Troll Foot (the right one) is a cherished meme to 4.3 million devoted DeVito Twitter followers. (It’s a reference to the “Sunny” dirty ditty “Troll Toll” from “The Nightman Cometh” episode.)

Acting opposite DeVito, “you better hold onto your seat. He’s a demon,” said Michael Douglas. They first met on a Connecticut beach at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference more than a half-century ago after DeVito asked if he liked to get high. (He does and they did.) “He will steal every scene. He has a wonderful freedom as an actor,” Douglas said. “Know how some people lock into a scene? Until the final cut, Danny is always looking for new things to do.”

DeVito and Douglas were roommates on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the 1960s. “We were certainly the Odd Couple. He was the messy one,” said Douglas, who acted with him and Kathleen Turner in the hit movies “Romancing the Stone” and “The Jewel of the Nile.” When DeVito directed Douglas in “The War of the Roses,” his style was the opposite. “As loose as he can be as an actor, that’s how specific he can be as a director. He has a strong visual eye,” Douglas said.

He charted a stellar career without the dreamy looks of buddies and repeat co-stars Douglas, Jack Nicholson and Arnold Schwarzenegger or — it should be noted — their physical stature. DeVito admits to being “barely 5 feet tall.”

Did this stop him from landing roles? No, it did not.

DeVito’s descent from the dispatcher’s caged perch in the first 1978 episode of “Taxi” played on his height for laughs. He nailed the audition by barking, script in hand, “One thing I wanna know before we start, who wrote this garbage?” though, again, utilizing more pungent language.

Once hired, a role becomes DeVitofied. Yes, there’s range, but “every part I’ve ever played has been barely 5 feet tall.”

“He turned his uniqueness into a superpower,” said John Landgraf, chairman of FX Networks, who headed television at Jersey Films, DeVito’s production powerhouse in the 1990s. “Danny has a really, really big presence. We overestimate in our business the relationship between cosmetic beauty and the magnitude of intellect and presence that makes a star.”

He adds spice to any stew. The Washington Post’s drubbing of “Haunted Mansion” noted “DeVito’s professor makes for a nice wild card, energizing the film at its slowest points. (You’ll breathe a sigh of relief whenever he’s on-screen.)”

DeVito “totally transcends height,” Specktor said. Yet it’s also his calling card. DiCaprio can don a cap and shades, attempt to melt into a crowd. Not so DeVito. “I’m pretty recognizable. It’s hard to hide me,” he said.

The spotlight has shined on him since birth. DeVito had two sisters: Angie, 16 years older, and Theresa, 10 years older.

“And they spoiled me,” he said. His parents spoiled him, too. So, four parents, all doting. (His mother played Louie’s mother on “Taxi.”)

“I was the prince,” he said, a prince of the Jersey Shore. “My parents always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted.”

A gift and, really, the only thing.

DeVito did hair at Angie’s Jersey Shore beauty shop, an excellent way to study people and charm women. Angie thought it might be smart for him to learn about makeup, so he headed to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. There, he fell hard for acting.

In 1971, he appeared in the play “The Shrinking Bride.” The New York Times praised his performance: The stable boy “is an oaf, a buffoon, but he is very funny, particularly because of the zany performance by Danny DeVito.”

It closed in one night. This was before cellphones, the internet and such. DeVito reported for work the next day. He recalled the general manager telling him, “there’s this play that’s casting and they’re looking for one part and they can’t find an actor. But you might be right. You should go up there and take a look.”

That was Martini in the 1971 off-Broadway revival of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” which he appeared in for a couple of years. (Not to be confused with the original 1963 Broadway production, starring Douglas’s father, Kirk, which bombed.) This ultimately led to the 1975 Milos Forman movie that earned the Oscars’ Big Five (best picture, director, screenplay, actor and actress), produced by Michael Douglas, starring Nicholson and featuring DeVito.

The next couple of years grew lean. He was a stage actor and a veteran of a big-deal movie. He appeared in “Goin’ South,” directed by Nicholson, who also starred. He did a “Starsky & Hutch,” a “Police Woman” but, then again, who didn’t?

Along came Louie in “Taxi.” It’s “my go-to part. I mean, that’s beautiful. It was a mind-blowing moment being a part of that show,” DeVito said. Five glorious seasons. “Everybody knew at the time that we were doing something that was going to be a lifelong, lasting experience.” The cast remained tight, scheduling regular Zoom calls during the pandemic.

DeVito is credited with saving “Sunny,” a sitcom that went largely unwatched during its first, Danny-less season.

“We were marketing a strangely original anti-sitcom that makes ‘Seinfeld’ look like a Hallmark movie. Danny has sort of the dark, satirical, take-no-prisoners fearless humor that they do,” said Landgraf, who suggested that a known actor, specifically DeVito, join the show that was at risk of cancellation.

Fifteen minutes after Rob McElhenney made the pitch at DeVito’s house, the star called the “Sunny” co-creator in the car and said, “I’m in.” The young cast was incredulous.

“Why is this man doing this? It’s such a bad career decision on his part,” Howerton recalled them asking after DeVito agreed to play Frank, a character almost twice their age and just as foolish. “I’m so impressed with his willingness to take risks at this late stage in his career. We have definitely pushed him to do things that an actor of his stature normally wouldn’t do. He was willing to take risks and look ridiculous. He was going to take himself out of this elite world and come crawl around in the dirt with us.”

Far worse than dirt. They had him pop out of a leather sofa naked, slicked down in clear goo. Said DeVito, “I was greased up like a halibut.”

The veteran actor’s reasoning for doing the show: “I can’t miss out on this because, for some reason, I just want to be there. I want to hang out with these guys. I want to have some fun — and, look, I kind of made the right choice.”

His aim is to retain currency, instead of aging out like many of his peers, doing work that appealed to his three children, now ages 40 to 35.

“My dad is very sensitive and pretty vulnerable even though he comes off as having this hard Jersey shell,” Lucy DeVito said. “He’s quite a softy. He cries at movies. He cries at commercials.”

A large part of DeVito’s appeal is that he never appears to be working — and yet he’s always working. His default mode is loose. He’s an unrepentant ham, always on but seemingly chill. During a photo shoot for The Washington Post, time ceased to be an issue. He was game for working with everything thrown at him: a stuffed bird, oversize glasses, a ventriloquist dummy. “I’m an actor. I crave the lights,” he said with a shrug.

Though he’s known for playing brash characters in loud clothing who make lousy decisions, DeVito possesses refined taste and exercises smart judgment. He loves Thelonious Monk. Opera, too. His favorite movie is “The Battle of Algiers.” He hires well. His Jersey Films assistant Pamela Abdy is now co-chair and CEO of Warner Bros. Motion Picture Group. He chose Barry Sonnenfeld as director of photography for “Throw Momma From the Train.”

Time for a story. “He’s always got a story for something. I’ve heard these stories lots of times,” Lucy said.

Sonnenfeld calls from the airport. He’s reading Elmore Leonard’s “Get Shorty,” thinks it might make a fine movie. This was during the mid-’90s when Jersey Films was producing one gem after another.

While Sonnenfeld is in flight to Hawaii, DeVito options the rights for the novel that he has not opened, let alone read.

Upon landing, Sonnenfeld calls back.

DeVito says (rather urgently): “Tell me you finished the book.”

Sonnenfeld: “Yeah, I loved it.”

DeVito: “Good, because I bought the book.”

Sonnenfeld: “I want to do it.”

DeVito (more urgently): “No, you got to do it. I bought the book.”

Sonnenfeld did. Specktor recalled: “Nobody wanted to make ‘Get Shorty.’” The 1995 movie, starring John Travolta, Rene Russo, Gene Hackman and DeVito in a smaller role as a Dustin Hoffman-like star, was a critical hit, earning a respectable $115 million.

Hollywood loves Elmore Leonard. The feeling was not always mutual.

When he read “Pulp Fiction,” DeVito said, “I knew immediately what he needed, where you have to be to work with Quentin Tarantino,” and everything necessary to make the cult classic happen. “It is Quentin’s vision. You fight for everything that’s in his head.”

DeVito saw the wisdom in making the family classic “Matilda,” which he directed, produced, narrated and performed in, and which remains among his favorites.

“There weren’t that many movies out there that had girls as a protagonist, a smart girl who rebels and makes a family for herself,” said Mara Wilson, the movie’s titular star. DeVito, she added, “has always been my favorite uncle. He’s just always been there for everything that I do.” Wilson’s mother was dying during the 1995 shoot “and he took care of my family. He and Rhea helped our family stay together. They totally spoiled me.”

DeVito seems a regular guy — and, then again, not. He’s a noted liberal, all in for Bernie Sanders: “I feel like fairness is what it’s all about — and consideration.” On the other hand, he and Perlman lived in a 29,000-square-foot Beverly Hills palace (with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston as neighbors), which they sold for $28 million in 2015. (The couple separated two years later.) He’s a lifelong beach person, though now his beach is Malibu.

DeVito doesn’t look like a movie star. He doesn’t act like one, either. His legendary holiday parties might feature fireworks, games, toys, ice cream carts and balloons, as though planned by a child with a bloated bank account. He’s been to Coachella several times. He attended one of Phish’s first farewell concerts in Coventry, Vt., with his children, noting, “I was the one who did mushrooms. They didn’t.”

“He does not follow the herd. He’s not predictable,” Landgraf said. “He’s funny. He’s curious. He’s open. He’s sociable. He’s brave. He’s grateful for his success in life.”

His everyman quality; the undiluted Asbury Park rasp, forever hawking Jersey (Nov. 17, his birthday, being Danny DeVito Day in his hometown); his contagious joy for almost anything he’s doing make fans comfortable approaching him constantly, piercing his privacy.

So he surrendered. When he stays at a hotel, there’s often a wedding. Inevitably, people in the wedding party recognize DeVito, ask him to pose for a selfie. At first, he was somewhat aggrieved, Landgraf recalled, “but then he realized, you could go to houses all over the world and there Danny would be in their family wedding photos,” a matrimonial Zelig.

“Don’t ever end the show if you don’t have to. That would be a crazy thing to do. Figure out a way to do your other things simultaneously,” Howerton recalled DeVito advising his younger “Sunny” co-stars. “We’ve pretty much done what he told us to do.”

“Once I stepped into the abyss of acting, I was always just confident and had this feeling that there was going to be something to land on,” DeVito said. And so there was and he has.

The actors strike halted many projects, though not his plans. DeVito and Schwarzenegger want to work together again, with DeVito directing. There’s the Broadway limited run with Lucy, and an animated holiday movie in the can (“Migration”). The sun has yet to set on “Sunny.” DeVito’s on board for at least two more seasons, when he will turn 80, because why stop when you’re having this much fun?





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