Danny DeVito doesn’t need a map of his DNA to know one thing for sure: he has what he calls “the Jersey gene.” The main genetic traits include not taking yourself seriously and having great pride in your birthplace.
“Everybody likes to break chops. That’s like a big Jersey thing,” he says. “When Bruce said that [giving the finger] should be the New Jersey [state] bird, it’s that sense of humor,” DeVito says, referring to Bruce Springsteen’s 2008 induction speech into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. “Everybody’s ragging on Jersey all the time and that’s cool too. You have to take everything in stride and have a good sense of humor about stuff.”
Though he now lives 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, that vast distance can’t diminish DeVito’s deep love for the Garden State. A nostalgic halo surrounds his glowing memories of growing up in Asbury Park in the 1940s and ’50s.
“It’s always with me,” the 65-year old Emmy and Golden Globe-winner says of New Jersey. “I was one of the lucky ones. Asbury Park is just the greatest place in the world to spend your childhood.”
He remembers the routes he and his buddies took, furiously pedaling their bikes up Second Avenue to New Street or to First Avenue, around the Esso station on Asbury Avenue, past Ridge Avenue. “If we had any money, we’d stop at the Asbury Diner and maybe get a little sandwich or something,” he says.
They’d stay out of harm’s way, other than occasionally getting chased off the local golf course after sneaking in with a found ball and someone’s uncle’s clubs.
If DeVito wasn’t on his bike, he was at the cinema. “Every Wednesday, the movie would change and we’d go to the Mayfair or the St. James or the Lyric or the Paramount over by the Convention Hall,” he says.
By DeVito’s teenage years, Asbury Park was going through tough times, enough so that his dad, a small business owner, and homemaker mom decided to send their son to boarding school at Oratory Prep in Summit. “A few of my friends were going in a direction that would be a little bit dangerous for one reason or another and my father was worried about that and my mother was too,” he says. “That’s why I wound up [at prep school]. Someone would drive us up to Summit on a Sunday night. We’d stop for pizza. We could smoke. We could do anything that we couldn’t do when we were around our parents. We all made it work.”
DeVito graduated from prep school in 1962, later training at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After appearing in a handful of obscure movies and off-Broadway plays, he landed his first major motion picture role in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, produced by his former roommate Michael Douglas and starring fellow New Jersey native Jack Nicholson; both are still DeVito’s close friends.
DeVito’s breakthrough came as the surly, deliciously unrepentant cab dispatcher Louie De Palma on the television sitcom Taxi, which ran from 1978-1983. The show also featured Rhea Perlman, his wife of 28 years. The couple has three grown children.
Thirty years later, fans still approach him about De Palma. “I love that,” he says. “You gotta look at [roles] as your kids, as your babies, your brothers and sisters and relatives. Someone comes up to you and says, ‘Remember your Uncle Frank? He was a really cool guy,’ and you enjoy talking to him about that.”
Since Taxi, DeVito has seamlessly toggled back and forth between movies and television, in front of and behind the camera. He has acted in more than 60 films, including such major releases as Terms of Endearment, Ruthless People, Batman Returns, and L.A. Confidential, often playing offbeat characters. He has directed six films, and under his and Perlman’s currently dormant Jersey Films, was producer for Erin Brockovich and executive producer for Pulp Fiction, as well as, naturally, 2004’s Garden State. (In further tributes to his home state, he has also run Jersey Records and Jersey Television, which produced Reno 911!)
One of DeVito’s proudest moments was returning to Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre in 1987 for the premiere of his directorial debut, Throw Momma from the Train.
“I went in with Orion Pictures and we put a new screen in and we made the sound Surround Sound. We even built [a new] projection booth,” he says. “It was a great night. My mom was still around and all my relatives, of course, came. [They] have always been supportive of me whatever I do.”
That includes his two sisters, who, with their families, live in two houses he owns in the Monmouth County borough of Interlaken. “I go back whenever I want, I have a nice room there,” he says. “I know there’s going to be some pasta on the table and we’re going to have some really nice cold cuts from the local places around…some good bread, good cheese, nice wine.”
However, these days he’s more likely to drink the Italian liqueur Limoncello. Four years ago, following an appearance on TV’s The View in which he was still feeling the giddy effects of being over-served the liqueur the night before, a distributor approached DeVito about creating his own Limoncello line. Danny DeVito’s Premium Limoncello, made in Italy, comes complete with its own scratch-and-sniff label. “We’re in a particular spot because the supply is low and the demand is high,” he says. “We can’t make it fast enough.”
DeVito returned to television four years ago to play the twisted bar owner Frank Reynolds, who pimps out his son and waterboards his daughter in the quirky FX comedy series, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And those are among Frank’s lesser transgressions. It’s a demented role that DeVito relishes. This is, after all, a man who makes travelogues by tweeting pictures of his bare foot, dubbed “troll foot,” from various locations all over the world.
DeVito says his Philly colleagues are fearless. “They’ll come up with some really inane thing to do and go after it wholeheartedly. I just can’t tell you how wonderful it feels to be part of that,” he says. “I don’t like getting up very early in the morning, but I do it because I love these guys and I love this job and the pay’s not bad either.”
When he’s not shooting Philadelphia, which just kicked off its sixth season, DeVito devotes his time to running the Blood Factory, a production house that makes gruesome horror shorts that run for free on thebloodfactory.com. “If you go to the website, you may not call me ever again,” he jokes. “They’re all grand guignol with a little bit tongue-in-cheek. Right now, I’m sitting in my screening room. I’ve got a green screen up; we’re editing some of the material. We shoot it whenever we have a chance. It’s very soothing…it’s like knitting.”
Most likely it was his other creative endeavors that led to his induction—by Springsteen—into the New Jersey Hall of Fame this year. It’s a distinction that resonated deeply with him. (DeVito had inducted Springsteen two years earlier.) “It was a great honor. When I inducted Bruce, I thought, ‘Bruce has a lot of awards.’ He had an Academy Award and this and that and another thing,” he says. “It dawned on me you can win another Academy Award and you can win another Grammy and Emmy, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Melinda Newman is a Hollywood-based freelance writer.Click here to leave a comment