What a strange career Rodney Dangerfield had: vitrually unknown into his 40s, he offered up an endless line of bug-eyed, frenetic, self-deprecating one-liners, tugging at his tie like it was a malevolent noose. After rising to the top of the standup heap, he broke into movies as a dissolute but principled and unexpectedly poignant figure, best exemplified in Back to School. Proving his mettle as an actor, Dangerfield was deadly serious and powerful as an abusive father in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.
Dangerfield died yesterday at 82 of complications from August heart surgery. In a 1986 interview, he explained the origin of his “respect” trademark:
- “I had this joke: `I played hide and seek; they wouldn’t even look for me.’ To make it work better, you look for something to put in front of it: I was so poor, I was so dumb, so this, so that. I thought, `Now what fits that joke?’ Well, `No one liked me’ was all right. But then I thought, a more profound thing would be, `I get no respect.'”
He tried it at a New York club, and the joke drew a bigger response than ever. He kept the phrase in the act, and it seemed to establish a bond with his audience. After hearing him perform years later, Jack Benny remarked: “Me, I get laughs because I’m cheap and 39. Your image goes into the soul of everyone.” [AP]
He was born Jacob Cohen on Nov. 22, 1921, on Long Island.
- Growing up in the borough of Queens, his mother was uncaring and his father was absent. As Philip Roy, the father and his brother toured in vaudeville as a pantomime comedy-juggling act, Roy and Arthur. Young Jacob’s parents divorced, and the mother struggled to support her daughter and son.
The boy helped bring in money by selling ice cream at the beach and working for a grocery store. “I found myself going to school with kids and then in the afternoon I’d be delivering groceries to their back door,” he recalled. “I ended up feeling inferior to everybody.”
He ingratiated himself to his schoolmates by being funny; at 15 he was writing down jokes and storing them in a duffel bag. When he was 19, he adopted the name Jack Roy and tried out the jokes at a resort in the Catskills, training ground for Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Red Button, Sid Caesar and other comedians. The job paid $12 a week plus room and meals.
In New York, he drove a laundry and fish truck, taking time off to hunt for work as a comedian. The jobs came slowly, but in time he was averaging $300 a week.
He married Joyce Indig, a singer he met at a New York club. Both had wearied of the uncertainty of a performer’s life.
“We wanted to lead a normal life,” he remarked in a 1986 interview. “I wanted a house and a picket fence and kids, and the heck with show business. Love is more important, you see. When the show is over, you’re alone.”
The couple settled in Englewood, N.J., had two children, Brian and Melanie, and he worked selling paint and siding. But the idyllic suburban life soured as the pair battled. The couple divorced in 1962, remarried a year later and again divorced.
In 1993, Dangerfield married Joan Child, a flower importer.
His big break came in ’67 when he got a spot on the Ed Sullivan Show:
- Introducing a stream of lugubrious one-liners with his loser’s prologue – “Nothing goes right for me” – he became a favorite guest on shows whose hosts included Steve Allen, Joey Bishop, Joan Rivers, Dean Martin, Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin.
….for his audiences, it was one laugh after another, from gag lines like these:
“I was an ugly child. I got lost on the beach. I asked a cop if he could find my parents. He said, ‘I don’t know. There’s lots of places for them to hide.’ ”
Or: “My fan club broke up. The guy died.”
Or: “Last week my house was on fire. My wife told the kids, ‘Be quiet, you’ll wake up Daddy.’ ”
Or: “I was ugly, very ugly. When I was born, the doctor smacked my mother.”
His popularity grew steadily, and in 1969 he opened his own comedy club in New York. With its namesake owner as a regular headliner, Dangerfield’s, at First Avenue and 61st Street, soon became one of the city’s hottest comedy showcases.
….Mr. Dangerfield’s first comedy album, “No Respect,” won a Grammy Award in 1981. In 1984 his song “Rappin’ Rodney,” one of his most popular recordings, included these lyrics: “I’m gettin’ old, it’s hard to face. During sex I lose my place. Steak and sex, my favorite pair. I have ’em both the same way – very rare.”
He starred in more than a half-dozen HBO comedy specials and appeared on NBC’s “Tonight Show” more than 70 times. [NY Times]
A collection of Dangerfield’s jokes are here, and there are clips, jokes, songs and more on Rodney’s own site here. A Dangerfield radio interview from July with Terry Gross is here – for the first time he sounds old.
RIP, Rodney, you are greatly respected and will be missed.