He Drives TV's Taxi Crew to Distraction, but Danny De Vito Is Really the Apple of Their Eye
Out in Hollywood, where you are what you drive, what can the fast-lane types possibly make of Danny De Vito? His everyday runabout is "Dartagnan," as he calls his $400 1964 Dodge Dart. But that anti-star posture aside, Danny now boasts one of the most respected vehicles in town—ABC's intelligent and at times even poignant sitcom Taxi. As Louie De Palma, the New York cab company's tiny but tyrannical dispatcher, the five-foot, 155-pound De Vito is the worst thing to happen to drivers since Mr. Sludge. He is also unquestionably the key to the series' arrival into the Nielsen Top Ten.
"Louie wasn't a big part in the pilot," notes De Vito, 35. "But he has developed into a major character. People see through his hard side and like him." Every week he sideswipes TV's finest ensemble company—and they love him for it. "It takes a great actor to be so nasty when you're really such a nice guy as Danny," says Andy (Latka) Kaufman. Others obviously agree, and De Vito will appear this week with Mary Martin and Jack Albert-son in ABC's Valentine and early next year in the Ann-Margret special Hollywood Movie Girls. He also co-hosts Mike Douglas, but draws the line at "unchallenging" gigs like game shows and commercials. Characteristically, Danny just turned down a $40,000 offer from a beer company.
That independence is part of becoming a two-income family of sorts. Rhea Perlman, 30, his live-in lady of eight years, is doing guest spots on Taxi as Louie's flame, Zena. Meanwhile, De Vito has finally moved them from a nondescript L.A. duplex "in a neighborhood where no one else spoke English" to a "nice two-bedroom" in the Hollywood, well, foothills. They've also splurged on their first dining room table, but have developed no expensive or bad habits. Danny's powdery Latin American high? "It's great to get all buzzed on coffee—we're really into it," he says. "The beans, the grinder—and sitting around and talking about theater or whatever."
Danny really means it. Taxi's terrible taskmaster made his first stage appearance in the nice-guy role of Saint Francis of Assisi back in school in Jersey at 16. He even remembers his reviews: " 'I recognized your feet before the curtain went up,' said my nephew. My mother said, 'It's a long ride back to Asbury Park.' " Like the famed rocker from that faded resort town, De Vito was born to run, and his parents shipped him off to Catholic boarding school despite the $1,400 tuition. "My old man said, 'I'd rather pay this than bail money.' " Summers he earned money gardening (it's still a passion) and hustling at his dad's pool hall. After high school Danny took what he claims was a 48 academic average to New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts, class of 1966.
Then came a summer stock job that led nowhere. "I walked into agents' offices and it's like talking to stone," Danny remembers. "They'd say, 'You're a dog, man.' " Then, riveted by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, he gambled on a ticket to L.A. to try for the movie, arriving "with a black raincoat on, tennis shoes, one suitcase and maybe $150." Robert (Baretta) Blake beat him out, leaving De Vito with a job in valet parking. Discouraged, he headed back to New York and hit town in a pouring rain, broke. He rode buses all night because he couldn't afford a room. "I didn't want to go back to Jersey and say, 'Hey, I didn't make it.' " With virtually his last dime, he phoned a former teacher, Michael Simone, who was casting two Pirandello one-acters off-Broadway. De Vito has been working ever since.
His cut-through property came from good buddy Michael Douglas. The movie star's son and the Jersey kid make an odd duo, but they've been tight since meeting in summer stock in 1966. When Danny was earning $75 weekly off-Broadway, Douglas' dad, Kirk, cast him in Scalawag, filming in Yugoslavia. "Jeeezzus," De Vito marvels. "I didn't have no agent, you know, but Michael got me and Rhea two round-trip tickets and great money." More significant, Michael later hired him as the constantly grinning schizo, Martini, in his 1975 Oscar-winning film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. That finally opened Hollywood doors—1976's Car Wash, 1978's Goin 'South and TV guest shots. He scored instantly in the audition for Taxi by walking in, flipping his script on the table and bluntly telling the roomful of producers and creators: "First, there's one thing I want to know before we start: Who wrote this shit?" "After a tense pause," he continues, "they burst out laughing. I knew I had the part."
Though once into "vegetarianism, brown rice, yin, yang, combat boots and revolution," Danny now spends his off time reading and movie-scouting. He and Rhea co-produced an award-winning film short and are now writing scripts. An ancient knee injury ended his roller-skating career. "Enough," declared De Vito. "I got mouths to feed. I walk around a track now and then. That's about it." One project he and Rhea are not working on is marriage. "We think about it once in a while," says she. "But it's good this way." And children? The answer could only have come from "Louie." "My mother always said, 'Kids? You're better off raising tomatoes. You can eat 'em.' "
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