Fame & Fortune: Danny DeVito

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Danny DeVito has charmed audiences worldwide since he gained fame as Martini, the smiling mental patient who liked to cheat at cards in the Oscar-winning movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” But he solidified his place in entertainment history as wise-cracking Louie De Palma on television’s hit sitcom “Taxi.” In a 1999 reader’s poll conducted by TV Guide, DeVito’s De Palma was voted No. 1 in “TV’s Fifty Greatest Characters Ever.”

Born in New Jersey, DeVito grew up with a passion for films, especially documentaries.  Generally, he played comic roles in movies such as “Twins,” “Ruthless People” and “Get Shorty.” Later, the diminutive star expanded into dramas such as “L.A. Confidential,” “The Rainmaker” and “Hoffa,” to name a few. Today, DeVito is married to actress Rhea Perlman (“Cheers”), who played his wife in the movie “Matilda,” and they have three children — Lucy, Grace and Jacob.

DeVito has come a long way from his blue-collar roots. Here, he talks with Bankrate about his career and family. 

Bankrate: You come from humble beginnings, is that correct?

Danny DeVito: My mother was a stay-at-home mom and my father owned several businesses around Asbury Park, N.J., where we lived. He had a dry cleaning store, a candy store, a diner-type eatery and (a) pool hall. Whenever I go back to visit family and friends, I still meet the guys at the pool hall. I still have a deep connection with New Jersey. There’s such loyalty back there, and we were a very tight-knit family. I even bought my mother a home near the Jersey shore, but she has since passed and now my sisters live in it. I just wanted to give her something nice since I could afford it then.

Bankrate: You pay homage to your home state with your various companies. You’ve become quite successful since your Asbury Park days.

Danny DeVito: Well, I have very fond memories of growing up there, riding my bike down to the shore, shooting pool. I have a production company, Jersey Films; (and) Jersey Television and Jersey Docs.

Bankrate: How involved are you with these companies? I mean, “Be Cool,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Garden State” were pretty big hits?

Danny DeVito: Very, I’d say. But remember, “Pulp Fiction” and the others started off as small, independent films, which I love to support to this day. I co-founded the production company, and we’ve produced over 20 films. The Jersey Docs is with Morgan Freeman’s company, and I host a documentary channel.

Bankrate: You talk about supporting independent films and filmmakers. Why is that important to you?

Danny DeVito: You know, I’ve done a couple of movies, like I produced “Garden State” and “Pulp Fiction,” but they weren’t truly independent films. The true ones like “Nobel Son,” that I had a small part in recently, is where you have maybe two people who have done everything from soup to nuts. I mean every single thing on their own. Whether it’s booking the talent or writing the script, those projects are done for very little money. They’re done for the love and passion for the project. These are the kind of films that I think we all need to support. And I hope that these films keep on going instead of every film having to be a big studio release.  

Bankrate: With the economy the way it is, has it spilled over into the economic status of your family?

Danny DeVito: Well, everybody is aware of the fact that things are tight. My kids are really well-balanced kids, though, and they understand what’s happening. We’re all shutting lights off and things like that. That’s not only due to the economy. I am very conscious of saving the planet as well. I’m kind of obsessed with the world and what’s going on and all the things happening.

Bankrate: You married Rhea in 1982 when you were on “Taxi” but had lived together for 11 years prior. Why get married?

Danny DeVito: That was the right thing to do. We got married because we wanted to have kids. When you are acting in New York City, which is where we were living, it’s really a crazy life. Then I got very lucky with “Taxi” and started making some dough. I really wasn’t making much at all before that, even doing some theater work in New York.  You get paid peanuts for that, but you really get a sense of accomplishment. Rhea and I were like, “It’s kind of a good thing if we got married,” because we both loved kids and always wanted them. We just weren’t in the spot financially to do it before then. 

Bankrate: And now you have a home in Beverly Hills and Malibu, plus a restaurant?

Danny DeVito: Yeah, I got a great beach here; it’s a south-facing beach which is really nice. But there isn’t anything really like the Jersey shore, and its lifestyle, its energy and its people. Hey, I’m not complaining, you know. I have a very great life in California, but I still like visiting my roots. And the restaurant is in Miami Beach, called DeVito South Beach, and we serve Italian food. The place has been packed. We met a couple when Rhea and I were on vacation a couple of years ago, and the guy lives in Boca Raton. So now we have a beautiful Italian restaurant.

Bankrate: So I assume you’re making the dough now with all the different creative hats you wear?

Danny DeVito: (He laughs and points to his black baseball cap with a “Reno 911!” logo.) My TV company produced “Reno 911!,” you know. Well, I like directing, I like acting, I like writing and I like producing, so I don’t see why I should give up one for another. The first film I directed “Throw Momma From the Train,” I had the movie premiere right in Asbury at the Paramount Theater, just about five blocks from where I used to live. And the restaurant runs itself with a great manager and good people there in Florida.

Bankrate: What would you say brings you the most joy out of life?

Danny DeVito: That would be my family: my wife, my children, my sisters, and also, my friends. Whenever I visit New Jersey, and that’s quite often, I visit with as many people as I can. My two sisters really were like my mother because they are much older than I am. One of them is 16 years older. So it’s family and close friends that give me the most in life.

Bonnie Siegler is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.