The beloved actor spoke with the Archive of American Television about growing up in New Jersey, becoming despotic dispatcher Louie De Palma in breakout TV comedy Taxi and more.
As a kid, Daniel Michael DeVito, Jr., the youngest of five, was a bit bashful, short for his age and — no surprise — a target for the toughs in his New Jersey neighborhood.
“I took a lot of lumps,” hea says ruefully. Later, as a struggling young actor, DeVito was determined to meet the casting directors of Hollywood. “One guy pushed my picture back at me and said nobody wanted a five-foot character actor.” So he returned to New York and began acting in theater.
There he met his future wife, actress Rhea Perlman, and became friends with such up-and-coming stars as Michael Douglas and Jack Nicholson. He impressed in the role of a hallucinating inmate in an off-Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Four years later, when Douglas was set to produce the film version, he asked DeVito to reprise the role of Anthony Martini. It was a lucky break and one that would bring him attention in Hollywood. But not necessarily for the dramatic stories being told in feature films. Instead, it was TV’s esteemed comedy writer-producer-directors Ed. Weinberger, Jim Brooks, Stan Daniels and David Davis who would set his career on its next course.
They were casting a new sitcom, Taxi, and were looking for actors with comedic chops. While his feature film buddies warned him against committing to a TV series, DeVito ignored their advice.
“I thought the script was great,” he later recalled. So he went in and wowed the producers with an unforgettable audition as the loutish dispatcher Louie DePalma.
The show would run from 1978 to 1983, and DeVito’s role would bring him the Primetime Emmy Award in 1981, along with three other nominations. Since his Taxi days, DeVito has had a long and distinguished career as an actor, producer and director in both films and television.
He was Emmy-nominated again in 2004 for a guest role on Friends, and in 2006 he returned to regular series work, as a star of the comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, now moving from FX to the new FXX channel.
The Archive of American Television filmed an extensive interview with DeVito in July 2011, which may be seen in full here at EmmyTVLegends.org. The following is an edited excerpt of DeVito's conversation with Amy Harrington.
Q: Were you interested in theater in high school?
A: Not at all. A teacher asked me to be in the senior play. I was a junior, and I’d never done anything like that before. I had no interest, but he said it would help my grades — I wasn’t doing very well.
It was called The Million Dollar Saint, and it was about St. Francis of Assisi coming to a Catholic school that needed money. I fit the part of St. Francis because I was small and dark, and everybody else was tall and white.
The opening was a tableau, where everybody is standing, looking at St. Francis. My mother came to see the play. The place was packed. I’d never been on stage before, and the curtain didn’t quite make it to the apron of the stage. There I was, in a robe with no shoes and socks. The lights came up and just before the curtain opened, I heard my mother say, “Those are his feet!”
I think that influenced me in my life, in my career, in my comedy. Comedy is timing. It’s taking something and flipping it into something that is kind of absurd or weird. She laid that line out as clear as a bell. It’s a story that I love telling because it brings back so many memories of her.
Q: Speaking of your family, didn’t your career in entertainment start with your sister?
A: My sister Angie is the direct conduit to where I am now. I had graduated from high school, and I wasn’t going to go to college because I didn’t have the grades. My sister had Angie’s Beauty Parlor, a nice little establishment. She said, “Why don’t you work for me? But you have to go to beauty school.” This did not sit well with me.
Then she said, “I’ll pay your way through beauty school.”
I started thinking about it, and my mother and my aunts all started working on me. They wanted Danny Boy to have a career. So I spent four months in school before I had to take my test to get my state cosmetology license. I passed and went to work for my sister. I was in the beauty parlor for two years, doing all kinds of fancy hairdos.
I then went to school at Charles of the Ritz and worked there for a little while in New York, on Madison Avenue.Then my sister said, “I want to create a makeup station where people can get a really professional makeup job.” She wanted me to go to New York and learn how to do makeup. The obedient young brother that I am, I found a place called Queen Helene Beauty Supplies. I walked in and said I wanted to learn how to do makeup.
I was told there was a woman who gave private lessons, but that she worked at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I called her and she said, “If you enroll in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, I can teach you at night.” That’s how I became an actor.
Q: Your breakout role was in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Is that what brought you to L.A.?
A: I was out here in ’68 for a year and I couldn’t get an agent. I tried desperately. I was parking cars to keep myself going. Then I went back to New York to study more and did things off-Broadway and off-off Broadway. I got a role in Cuckoo’s Nest off-Broadway. I think that’s how I got the film. [Director] Milos [Forman] saw that production — I was also friends with Michael Douglas, which didn’t hurt.
Q: How did you first hear about Taxi?
A: Joel Thurm was a casting director in town and he was very good to me. One day he called and said, “I got this thing you got to look at.”
I was in the spot where a lot of people — my big-shot friends — were telling me not to do television. They said it uses you up. But they were already rich and big movie stars, so they could say whatever they wanted — it didn’t matter to me. I was a television addict. I would watch Columbo until the cows came home. Joel gave me the script for Taxi. I read it and loved it. He said, ”These guys are from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” I’d never seen it.
Q: You had an amazing audition for the role of Louie DePalma.
A: I went into this beautiful office to read for the part, and the show’s creators were there. Ed. Weinberger was there with his sleeves rolled up. Jim Brooks, Stan Daniels, Dave Davis, a couple of assistants — they were all sitting around.
I walked in and Joel Thurm said, “Everybody, I’d like you to meet Danny DeVito.” They didn’t know me from Adam.
I walked in, threw the script on the coffee table in front of them and said, “One thing I want to know before we start: who wrote this shit?” We were kind of in limbo at that moment. Then they just went crazy laughing. It was like Louie had walked into their lives.
That’s why I say to actors: just go in there and don’t be nervous about it. Knock their socks off, because they want it to happen. They want it so bad.
Q: Describe Louie’s character….
A: He was an amazing character, written really well and a lot of fun to do. He was a tough guy, a Napoleonic figure. If he had seniority of any kind, you were dog shit. And he’d let you know right away and put you in your place.
Q: What were his redeeming qualities?
A: I think Louie really loved Latka [Andy Kaufman]. I think he really dug all the people in the garage. He had no family. He had no friends. I felt sorry for him a little bit. The best thing that ever happened to him was his girlfriend, Zena [Rhea Perlman].
Q: How did you prepare for the role?
A: I was able to go to New York and spend time with the actual dispatcher on 11th Avenue and 57th — he was very feisty and really cool. I got to ride in cabs. I called people up and said, “Listen, I’m doing this show. Would you let me hang around a little bit, so I can see what’s going on?” The fact that they gave me my own cage was wonderful.
In the second season, I got a little bit more real estate on the stage. I decorated it with all of my stuff. I sent a picture to Robert DeNiro, to get him to sign it, and I put it in there because of Taxi Driver.
Q: What was production like on Taxi?
A: The show was blocked in front of a live audience. It was great because I had the experience of being in the theater. You’re playing off the audience, playing off each other. We’d go to work on Monday and read through the script. On Tuesday, after some changes were made, we’d do a run-through. The writers and producers would then stay all night, writing.
We’d come to work on Wednesday, and it was like a picnic. You’re doing something you love and you’re charging up for Friday night, when you’re going to have 300 people in the live audience right in the palm of your hand — because the writers never let you down.
If something wasn’t working, Brooks, Weinberg, Stan Daniels, the Charles brothers — they would work on it, and they never let the actors down. There’s a security to that. I feel the same way now that I’ve been doing It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for six years.
Q: Taxi moved from ABC to NBC for its final season….
A: After four years, ABC canceled us. It was the year that we all won Emmys. Thank goodness, Brandon Tartikoff, may his soul rest in peace, was a major fan of the show. He had taken over from Fred Silverman at NBC. So NBC picked the show up for one year, which was a glorious thing.
At the time there were only three networks — you had to have at least 100 shows to make syndication work. Brandon picked it up for another season, and we did another twenty shows or something. That brought us to 115.
Q: In May 1982, when you hosted Saturday Night Live, you told the audience that Taxi had been canceled. Did you know then that NBC was going to pick it up?
A: I went on the show and said, “I want to show you the Emmys that we won this year.” I brought everybody on stage, the whole cast. It was easy to coordinate because we were a family affair — everybody loved what we were doing. All the producers and the writers were there that night. Everybody came in. But, no, I didn’t know about NBC’s plan. We were canceled. We were gone. Then Jim Brooks said that NBC was going to take us for a year. It was like a rebirth. We were so excited, but we also knew that it was going to be just one year.
Q: Why did you return to series television?
A: I met FX president John Landgraf when I had my production company [Jersey Films], and we became close. He sent me a few shows of this thing he’d bought called It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and asked, “What do you think?” I said, “Rhea and I and the kids all love it. We love everybody on it. We love the sense of humor.”
Six months later, out of the blue, they wanted to add a character. Now, if people were telling me back in ’78 not to go on television, at this point they’re telling me, “Why do you want to do this? It’s cable.” I thought the total opposite. If they write a character that’s organic, that’s fun and gives me the license to do anything I want — basically, the character of Frank Reynolds — why not?
Frank is fifty-six years old, and all of a sudden he gets a chance to hang around with people half his age and do all kinds of crazy stuff. He doesn’t have to work another day in his life. But he wants to be in the middle of the fray, in the nitty-gritty. I’m in my late fifties, and I jumped at the chance. It’s been like gangbusters. Every single day I get up to go to work and I can’t wait to get there.
Q: What’s it like working with Charlie Day, who is one of the executive producers and plays Charlie Kelly on Philadelphia? The two of you are becoming one of those classic TV duos.
A: We do have a good time working together. Charlie is one of the funniest people on television, and he’s one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. We like doing a lot of physical stuff together. I love his energy.
Q: Obviously, you’re reaching a whole new audience with this show….
A: It is a generational thing. All the young kids who are into Philadelphia, they remember Taxi vaguely. Sensibilities change over the years. I love the fact that only on television could you reach so many different generations. I’m really fortunate that I was able to be in both of these wonderful shows.
Q: Why do you think Philadelphia has thrived?
A: Charlie and Glenn [Howerton] and Rob [McElhenney] and the staff of writers are really funny. They have their finger on the pulse of what this generation, fifteen- to thirty-year-olds, is looking for. They like a little irreverence, a little craziness and an inside curve.
Q: How do you choose your film projects?
A: In a film, you want to have five good moments. And there’ve got to be characters that want something — like in Ruthless People, I wanted to kill my wife. Nobody wants her, she’s kidnapped and I don’t want her back. That’s funny.
War of the Roses? Two obsessive people like that? Couldn’t pass that one up. Throw Momma from the Train? They wanted me to only star, but I said I wouldn’t do it unless I could direct, too. Billy [Crystal] was into it, and we had a great time. Twins, it’s obvious why you’d do that movie — that’s a home run, a slam dunk. Matilda, my kids brought me that book — I had never heard of it. I had so much fun making Matilda. That was just a joy.
Q: How would you describe your directing style?
A: It’s dark. I’d rather see comedy in a twisted, skewed light. I see everything from that point of view, and the projects I’ve chosen have always had an edge to them.
I remember once hiding in the back of a focus group and some woman said, “Oh, him? He’s the Prince of Darkness!” I like that.
Q: What advice would you give an aspiring actor?
A: An actor acts, so get out there and do it! You’ve got to study and work. If you can’t afford school, try to get into a theater company.
The best way to learn is to go do it on the stage. And it’s not the easiest thing to learn, but throwing yourself in front of the camera is part of the craft of acting. You just have to want it really bad. •