Rodney Dangerfield

Rodney Dangerfield

Born Jacob Cohen in the town of Deer Park, Long Island, NY, he was the son of Jewish parents of Hungarian descent, Dotty Teitelbaum and Philip Cohen, a vaudevillian performer who went by the stage name of Phil Roy. After his parents divorced, the 10-year-old moved with his mother to the Queens neighborhood of Kew Gardens. It was the time of the Great Depression and he helped his mother by working part time while attending grade school at P.S. 99 and, later, Richmond Hill High School. Perhaps influenced by the world inhabited by his estranged father, or possibly as a way of escaping his Dickensian childhood, Jacob found himself embracing humor more and more. He began writing jokes for area stand-up comedians at the age of 15 and started performing his own on stage at small venues two years later. In his early twenties, under the name of Jack Roy, he struggled to make a go of a stand-up comedy with an unimpressive act that included impressions of W.C. Fields and Al Jolson, in addition to a bit of singing. To supplement his meager income, the aspiring comedian also worked for a time as a singing waiter until he decided to throw in the towel after 10 years of trying to make a go of show business. In 1949, he married his first wife, Joyce, and quit a comedy career that was so anemic he later claimed, "I was the only one who knew I quit!"Despite good intentions and a decade-long attempt at "respectability" Dangerfield still yearned for a life on stage. Recently divorced and deeply in debt by 1962, he reignited his career, working at an office during the day and getting on stage at any New York club that would take him in the evenings. Not wanting to embarrass himself should he bomb, he asked the owner of one such club to introduce him as something other than Jack Roy. Allegedly, the owner announced him as Rodney Dangerfield, and thinking it a catchy handle, the reinvigorated stand-up comic took it as his own. The turning point came in 1967 with his first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971), during which he reportedly made the famously taciturn host laugh. From there it was on to a total of 12 more stints on Sullivan's show, as well as dozens of other comedy-variety shows and the stand-up comic's bread and butter - the nationwide comedy circuit. It was during this time that Dangerfield began to hone the crumpled, put-upon, hang-dog persona he later became known for. Intrigued by the concept of "respect" constantly referenced by the Mafia types he saw frequenting the clubs of NYC and New Jersey, Dangerfield gradually made it - or the lack thereof - the central theme of his act.Eventually, life on the road began to wear on Dangerfield, who also wanted to remain close to home for his two children, so in 1969 he opened the now famous Dangerfield's comedy club in downtown Manhattan. With a regular venue all his own, Dangerfield had the freedom to try out new material on a regular basis. It was also on the stage of Dangerfield's that he gave early breaks to such future comic superstars as Tim Allen, Rosanne Barr, Sam Kinison, Jim Carrey and Jerry Seinfeld. Over the years that followed, Dangerfield would lovingly be remembered as a nurturing father figure to scores of successful comedians. Dangerfield made his film debut as a tyrannical theater owner who bedevils a fantasy-prone Chuck McCann in the cult comedy "The Projectionist" (1971). For most of the decade, however, he enjoyed his role at the comedy club, combined with guest appearances on the popular daytime talk and games shows of the day. Additionally, regular stints on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992) and frequent Vegas showroom bookings kept Dangerfield busy and at the top of his game.Dangerfield broadened his fan base considerably - especially amongst young adult males - with the slapstick comedy hit "Caddyshack" (1980). Directed by Harold Ramis and co-starring Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, it featured Dangerfield as obnoxious nouveau riche developer Al Czervik, hilarious foil to the reprehensible country club bigwig Judge Smails (Ted Knight). Originally written as a much smaller character, Dangerfield's adeptness at improvisation led to his expanded role in the film. One year shy of his 60th birthday, Dangerfield was now one of the most popular comic figures in America. A slew of television specials followed, including "It's Not Easy Bein' Me" (ABC, 1982), as well as a long-running TV ad campaign for Miller Lite beer. So pervasive was his persona, that Dangerfield even released a hit novelty song, "Rappin' Rodney" with an accompanying video that performed exceptionally well on the recently launched music channel MTV. At the same time he starred in the first of a series of popular feature comedies which cast him in similar roles to that of Al Czervik; a loud-mouthed, uncouth - usually filthy-rich - fish-out-of-water character. Big screen laughers like "Easy Money" (1983) and the hit "Back to School" (1986) - one of the first comedies to gross over $100 million - secured his spot in the pop culture zeitgeist of the 1980s. As the decade drew to a close, the crass and crude Dangerfield, seen in such uncensored cable specials as "Nothin' Goes Right" (HBO, 1988), gradually began to adopt a more family-friendly veneer in projects like the animated feature "Rover Dangerfield" (1991) and the comedy "Ladybugs" (1992), which saw him coaching a girls' soccer team. That was not to say that Dangerfield was by any means shying away from darker material. Making his dramatic acting debut at the age of 73, the comic portrayed the horribly perverse and abusive father of Juliette Lewis in director Oliver Stone's controversial "Natural Born Killers" (1994). For his scene in the film, a depraved parody of family sitcoms, Dangerfield wrote most of his own dialogue and was free to improvise his character to a large degree. And although his work in the movie was given favorable marks by many critics, Gene Siskel among them, the comedic actor-writer was denied by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences when he applied for membership in 1995. Citing a failure to demonstrate a "mastery of his craft" by then-head of the Academy's Actors Section, Roddy McDowall, the snub elicited an exceptionally vocal outcry from Dangerfield's fans. When the Academy reversed itself and offered him membership, an obviously stung Dangerfield declined in no uncertain terms.While still beloved by his fellow comedians and a now-older demographic, as the millennium drew to a close, it became clear that Dangerfield was no longer the box office draw he once was, with entries like the self-penned "Meet Wally Sparks" (1997) barely registering. Indeed, the bulk of the comic's late-career outings - "The Godson" (1998), "My Five Wives" (2000) - were easily forgotten, straight-to-DVD affairs. More widely seen was his welcome cameo as Lucifer, father of Satan (Harvey Keitel), in Adam Sandler's slapstick comedy "Little Nicky" (2000). Despite his increasingly poor health, Dangerfield soldiered on in two more films, the opera-themed romantic-comedy "The 4th Tenor" (2002) and the prison-comedy "Back by Midnight (2002), which was released on DVD two years later. Having already suffered a heart attack in 2001, Dangerfield underwent arterial brain surgery to improve blood flow in 2003 in preparation for a planned heart valve replacement procedure. In classic Dangerfield candor, when asked about the recuperation time, he quipped, "If things go right, I'll be there about a week. If not, I'll be there about an hour and a half." The heart surgery proceeded as scheduled in August 2004. However, the comedian briefly fell into what was termed a "light coma," for several weeks. After regaining consciousness for a period, he died at the UCLA Medical Center on Oct. 5, 2004. Rodney Dangerfield was 82 years old. Fittingly, his autobiography, It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect, but Plenty of Sex and Drugs was released that same year.By Bryce Coleman