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Sweating for love and respect: Remembering Rodney Dangerfield

Rodney Dangerfield, who died on Tuesday at 82, had many reincarnations as a comedian, not hitting his stride until his 40s. In 1983, Ebert visited the set of his movie "Easy Money" (1983).

This article was originally published September 14, 1983

* * * *

Hey, folks! Folks! There's a guy up here tellin' jokes!

I will not soon forget my first sight of Rodney Dangerfield. He was standing on a table in his undershorts, shouting, "Don't worry! They sewed them shut!" Sweat was pouring off his face and neck. As fast as an assistant could throw him towels, he was mopping his brow. His hair was the color of old dishwater, his knees knocked, his eyes bulged out of his face, his hands and his elbows shook in different rhythms. And he was wearing black wing-tip dress shoes and socks held up with a garter belt.

When I was a kid, I was so ugly, you'll never believe how ugly I was. I was so ugly, they wanted me to be the Poster Child for birth control. 

All right now, everybody, quiet down, please," said Jim Signorelli, who was directing Dangerfield's new movie. "Are you ready, Rodney?" "Ready? I'm dyin' up here. This is the weirest thing I ever heard of. I'm about to start bein' funny and so you tell everybody to shut up. No laughs, everybody -- he's being funny now! I'll tell you what it is. It's a comic's nightmare, that's what it is!" "Right," said Signorelli. "Action!" Dangerfield, standing on the table top in his underwear and wing tips, began to vibrate. His elbows knocked against his rib cage, his hands were palsied, his neck jerked back and forth. A platoon of three tailors descended on him, measuring everything at once: His arms, legs, biceps, hat size, wrists, ankles and other parts not often measured by even the most meticulous tailors. "Cut! Print! said Signorelli. Dangerfield's vibration slowed somewhat. "Mr. Dangerfield?" a photographer said. "Could you turn this way, please?" "Hey, take it easy, honey, will ya? I ain't got no good side!"

I'm so ugly, when I was a kid, my father bought a new billfold, and instead of my picture, he carried the picture of the kid who came with the wallet.

This was in the old Astoria movie studio up in Harlem, where movies were made in the early days and are now being made again. The name of the movie is "Easy Money," and it will star Rodney Dangerfield in a screenplay by Dangerfield and others, including National Lampoon's P.J. O'Rourke. Dangerfield plays a Rodneyesque character in the movie, an Italian-American family man who is given a chance to inherit the family firm if only he will only swear off drinking, smoking, gambling and all other vices for one year.

Dangerfield clambered down from the table and pulled a dressing gown around his shoulders. He was still dripping sweat. "I like it cold," he said. "You know: Semi-warm." His longtime agent and personal manger, Estelie Endler, a dark-haired woman with a great smile, ushered him off the set and into a dressing room. I crowded in after him, and we were joined by his nephew's wife and children, who sat somewhat solemnly through our interview and seemed just a little unsure of exactly what the public role of a Rodney Dangerfield relative ought to be.

"This movie, it's killin' me," Dangerfield said. "I'm a nightclub comic. I can't go to sleep until 3:30 in the morning. On this picture, they get me up at 4:30. I'm dying. It's supposed to be flattering to be the star. I don't want to be the star no more. I want to maybe write a movie and appear in a few of the scenes. You know, just enough scenes so I'm in the goddamn thing, but not enough so I'm busting my ass every day."

"But when you're a star," I said, "the people love you. They want to see you in every scene."

Dangerfield thought about that. "You got the wrong guy," he said. "I'm not a true artist. I'm a comic. I know nightclubs. That's where I grew up. A true artist, he wants to give of himself for his public. He makes sacrifices for the image. It's all very flattering, but you can kill yourself. We all need love. Don't get me wrong. What the world needs now is love. But not to put your life in jeopardy. What good would it do me, If I got so much love I killed myself?"

He mopped his sweating neck with a towel.

"Plus," he said, "I quit smoking eight days ago."

"And in this movie you give up everything?"

"Almost everything. Smoking, drinking, gambling. It is coincidental that I gave up smoking for real while I am playing a man who gave up smoking. I gave up smoking because of my voice. My voice was getting hoarse. I needed it for the opera scene. I may never smoke again. I'm serious about this. There are still other vices you can do. I tried marijuana once. Once was enough. I play the slot machines occasionally. I like a couple of cocktails before dinner. Nice dinner, a couple of drinks."

My wife and I, we have a perfect plan to save our marriage. A nice little French restaurant, candlelight, a nice bottle of wine. I go on Tuesday, she goes on Thursday.

Dangerfield will be 60 this year. He is at the top of his game. He recently made his 68th appearance on the "Tonight" show. His last album, "No Respect," won a Grammy. His cameo appearance in the 1980 movie "Caddyshack" was credited in the industry with helping to boost that movie's record at the box office. He runs Dangerfield's nightclub in New York and appears there occasionally. He is booked solid on the road, and will appear in Chicago Saturday night at the Auditorium Theater. It was necessary to schedule two performances, at 7 and 10 p.m. (the first show has been sold out). "Easy Money" the first movie top-lining Dangerfield, will be released this summer. He has another album in the works.

It is not so much that he is peaking late, but that he started late. The Rodney Dangerfield story is an inspiration for anyone who ever wondered if it would be possible, at the age of 44, to leave a career as a salesman and become a standup nightclub comedian. That's what Dangerfield did. In his youth, between the ages of 18 and 30, he had his first career, as a comedian named Jack Roy. Then he married, left show business, and settled down. Fourteen years later, still yearning for audiences, he made a second stab at a career, and when he was hired for the Ed Sullivan Show after a blind audition, he was reborn as Rodney Dangerfield.

Life on the road was murder. I played one date, it was so far out in the sticks, I was reviewed by Field and Stream.

Somewhere in the distant past of this strange and complicated man, there is even a real name. I was thinking that the nephew from Miami would probaby be in a position to supply me with it, but I never got a chance to ask him. "Now they want me to make another movie," Dangerfield was saying. "They want me to do a remake of 'My Little Chickadee,' with W. C. Fields and Mae West."

"Who are you getting," I said, "to play the W. C. Fields role?"

"That's one," he said. "I'm counting."

"We'll make the movie this summer," Estelle Endler said.

"That's what she says," Dangerfield says. "I don't want to work this hard. Who needs it? I hear about movies. I never get a chance to see them. Everybody talks about 'My Favorite Year.' The movie starts at 8 o'clock. I get off here at 7. By the time I get the makeup off and wash this gray dye outta my hair, already I'm late for the movie."

"You've got to be the first person in history," I said, "to dye your hair to make it that color."

"That's two."

"Tell about the character you play," Endler said.

"This guy?" said Rodney. "He's an Italian from Staten Island. That's a borough of Manhattan. I know you got Italians in Chicago. Maybe not from Staten Island. I know this guy that I play because I grew up with guys like this guy. In a way he's like me. In another way, he's a character. No matter who I play, in some ways I'm playing myself, only a little off, you know? This guy is a nicer guy than the guy in 'Caddyshack.' He's a wise-cracking guy, only more humble."

"In a way," I said, "that's like you. You play a guy who's loud and yet somehow humble...."

"Yeah," said Dangerfield. "I don't get no respect. Not to be too modest, but when I met Jack Benny for the first time, he told me his gimmick was, he was 39 and a cheapskate. But my gimmick was, I don't get no respect -- which he said everybody could identify with."

"What makes you so popular? I asked. "You're a hero on college campuses. You were asked to be the speaker at Class Day at Harvard. Why do kids 40 years younger than you identify with you? You've to to be the only 60-year-old standup comic who's a hero on the campus."

"Because I never grew up," said Dangerfield. "And, plus, it's a combination of things." He counted them off on his fingers. "One, I don't get no respect.

"Everyone thinks they're a loser in life, particularly some kid in college. Two, I got a young head, because I never grew up, or else I wouldn't be in this business, killin' myself. Third, I work quite hard at making everything I do funny. When I go on Carson, I always got all new stuff. Number four, which is, maybe I'm funny."

My wife likes to talk while she's making love. Last night, she called me up from the Holiday Inn.

"Work and sleep," he said. "That's all that's in the cards for me. I'm killing myself. I need love, but this is ridiculous."

An assistant director poked his head into the dressing room to inform us that Mr. Dangerfield was required for the next scene. He got up, toweled himself, and left the dressing room. Then he stuck his head back in the door.

"Excuse me, I gotta go a make a small fortune," he said.

He left. Then he came back. "Don't put that in about the small fortune," he said. "It might sound bad."

He left. Then he returned again. "Plus, another reason why I'm so popular," he said, "is that I'm just too much."

Guy goes into a bar with a duck under his arm. Bartender says, "Where'd you get the pig? Guy says, "This is a duck." Bartender says, "I was talking to the duck."

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