The 'Burbs' Big Guy, Rick Ducommun, Is Half the Man He Used to Be

updated 04/03/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/03/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Rick Ducommun has always been a free-form kind of guy. He never took an acting class, for example—not even for his starring role with Tom Hanks in The 'Burbs, the campy comedy that set a box office record when it opened in February. Fact is, comedian Ducommun (pronounced duke-a-mun) didn't have to dig too deep for the character of The 'Burbs' Art Weingartner, a kinetic prankster with the maturity of a kindergartner. There are aspects of Art that imitate Ducommun's life—although offscreen the actor is not given to a uniform of plaid shorts and sharp-collared camp shirts. Take his breakfast visit to the Petersons (played by pajama-clad Carrie Fisher and Hanks). Unbidden and without breaking conversational stride, good neighbor Art polishes off a plate of syrup-soaked French toast and sausage, systematically devours a rack of ribs and, as Hanks gets up from the table, starts in on his plate as he grins winningly, oblivious to the toast points protruding from his nonstop mouth.

Not long ago, Ducommun, 34, might have acted out a similar scene (minus the etiquette lapses) without benefit of a script. "I was a fat slob," he says of his former 426-lb. self. No more. Ducommun, who stopped smoking, drinking and doing drugs four years ago, recently faced a new form of self-denial. In the past year and a half he has lost 216 lbs. Today, at 6'2", 210 lbs. and falling, his still-prominent paunch has shrunk into the realm of cuteness.

Ducommun, who was featured in Comic Relief III two weeks ago and is a favorite on the late-night TV chat circuit, decided to lose the weight for professional reasons. After bit film parts in A Fine Mess (1986), Spaceballs (1987) and Die Hard (1988), he found himself getting "a lot of B scripts. I didn't want to become some novelty act," he says. "I was too damned fat. I had to lose weight to do the kind of work I wanted."

Slouched in a kitchen chair in his Hollywood Hills home, dangling his delighted 9-month-old-daughter, Nash, upside down by her ankles, Ducommun has a pointer he'd like to offer the diet-conscious public. "Stop eating, you fat slobs!" A practical sort. Forget Oprah's liquid diets, Tyson's carbo loading and Weight Watchers' munchies. "They're the worst," he says. "I see these low-calorie chocolate eclairs. That's insanity. The point is, you can't eat chocolate eclairs anymore." Ducommun took his own basic approach. First, he and his common-law wife, Susan Diamond, who have lived together for almost 17 years, left L.A. "People here want to be part of your success, but they also want to see you fail," he says. "They'd go, 'Oooh, Rick, look! Pie!' " During a road tour, Ducommun and Diamond spent some time in New York. "I'd get in a cab and say to the driver, 'Here's $10. Take me as far as you can,' " Rick remembers. "I'd walk back." He drank a lot of water, chewed a lot of gum and cut out dual pizza snacks, chocolate bars and Cokes. "I quit eating almost everything," he says.

Ducommun traces his lust for foodstuffs back to the three years he spent hitchhiking around the U.S. as a teenager. "I was hungry a lot, but I couldn't afford to eat," he says. "When I started making money, I made up for all those years."

Even before the lean days on the road, Ducommun was a pro at putting his mouth to use. Born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the eldest of four children, he earned a reputation as a wisecracking troublemaker. He had brushes with the law. "When you're young you don't have any tact," he says. "The cops are putting the cuffs on you, and you're doing jokes about their mustache. So they beat you up." Ducommun, whose mother, June, was a housewife, never got along with his father, Ross, a farming and real estate entrepreneur. The person he felt closest to—because they shared the same sense of humor—was his maternal grandfather. When Elmer Paterson died in 1968, Rick was heartbroken. The next year, at age 14, he ran away and began his hitchhiking odyssey. "I'd be picked up by someone who'd say, 'Hey dude, we're going to a commune. Wanna come?' Then I'd spend time there building a dam for the swimming hole or a fence for the goats or something. You couldn't do it today."

At 17, Ducommun moved back to Canada, settled in Vancouver and met Susan at a beach party he threw. While he grilled the salmon, she, a stockbroker-in-training at the time, was deployed to collect cash to pay for the food and a truck-load of wine. "He was sort of the head hippie in Vancouver," Susan, now 36, remembers. "And I just loved the way he made me laugh."

The couple moved in together and started a series of businesses. Ducommun built minihouses on the backs of old pickup trucks, and they sold them as Back to Nature Hippy Camperettes. They sold firewood, T-shirts and mahogany skateboards. Before long they had a sporting goods store and a 20,000-square-foot skateboard park frequented by the young Michael J. Fox. They still have three stores in Vancouver—and a skate-and snow-board outlet in Van Nuys, Calif.

It was Susan who urged Ducommun to take a shot at stand-up. After he did a few gigs at a local bar, she arranged a tryout for a children's TV show. Auditioning in his store, Rick persuaded a 10-year-old to charge $5,000 worth of roller skates on the kid's mother's charge card. (He didn't have to pay.) Rick got the job.

In 1984 the couple moved to Los Angeles, and Ducommun took the standard stairway to comedy heaven, climbing from the Improv to The Tonight Show and David Letterman with his self-described "absurd and sick" jokes. One is addressed to the airlines: "You think you could keep the plane intact in the air? Forget the food thing. In fact, take all the people who make food and have them check rivets, okay? We'll pack a lunch."

Despite his small film roles and guest spots on Max Headroom, Moonlighting and Thicke of the Night, Ducommun wanted more. And less. So he embarked on his dieting trip, shed half his weight and won the role in The 'Burbs. "Rick's a great improviser," says director Joe Dante. "He made a lot of these scenes go."

Like that breakfast scene, for example, which was done under some duress: Susan was in labor while it was being shot. "I was a nervous wreck," says Ducommun, "so I told them to put food in the fridge, too, so I could move around a lot. Between takes I'd run to the phone, come back and say, 'Okay, everybody, we've got 15 minutes.' Even Tom [Hanks] was running around with props to help. The place was a zoo. I finished, got in the car, took Susan to the hospital, and Nash was born the next morning."

Although there's now a child in the house, her parents still reject the idea of marriage. "We feel that love is the most important thing," says Ducommun. "It's kind of hypocritical for other people to tell us we ought to be married and then six months later those same people are getting divorced. We've been together for 17 years. That says it all to me." Fat or thin, Susan's a goner. "I've always found Rick sexy, no matter how heavy he was," says Susan. "He's such a cherubic person, it's hard to think of him as fat."

—Margot Dougherty, Rick Holmstrom in Los Angeles

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