“I have been very fortunate in my life. I have had a lot of happiness. I have a great family and I work a lot, and that’s what I like to do.” – Danny DeVito
There’s something distinctive about Danny DeVito. Working in the movies and television for more than five decades now, he has had an extremely successful career both in front, as well as behind the camera. He gained prominence for his portrayal of the taxi dispatcher Louie De Palma in the television series Taxi, which won him a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy Award.
Fast forward his career-defining turn in Taxi, DeVito has played scores of iconic film and television roles – from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and L.A. Confidential, to Hercules and Twins. He has also directed films such as Throw Momma From the Train, The War of the Roses, and Hoffa, while being a hugely successful producer, through his company, Jersey Films, with the likes of Pulp Fiction, Erin Brockovich, Matilda, Garden State and Get Shorty.
In an interview with The Guardian some timeback in 2012, DeVito was asked if he felt like relaxing and taking it easy after working for so long in the industry, he responded by saying: “Oh no, you’re always in the jungle. That’s the way it’s gotta be. It costs them a couple of billion dollars just to open up their doors, just to turn the key. So they have to go for the gold. They invest lots of dough and make these big tempo movies, and then the Pulp Fictions and the Garden States, the smaller movies, can happen.”
He considers himself a lucky man? “Yeah, very fortunate.” Is it about making your own luck? “I don’t think you can really think like that,” he says. “The way I see it, what you’ve got to do is think of now, this moment. If you’re analyzing the past or anticipating too far into the future, you don’t really concentrate on what you’re doing at this moment, and that’s the most important thing. Right now!”
He concluded: “Right now is the most important moment in your entire life. It really is! And it is not because you’re talking to me.”
Celebrating his 76th birthday today, we look back on some of the greatest films the iconic DeVito graced with his bonafide performances.
Danny DeVito’s ten best films:
10. Twins (Ivan Reitman – 1988)
This quintessential goofball comedy of the 1980s has one strange lead pairing: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as unlikely twin brothers. The film on rides Schwarzenegger’s broad-grinned magnetism and DeVito’s self-deprecating incorrigibility for all they are worth, resulting in one memorable, and highly entertaining flick. The core of the film is the contrast between the streetwise Vincent (DeVito) and the intelligent but naive Julius (Schwarzenegger).
The chemistry between the two charming leads worked wonders, and it was an enormous success in the box-office, grossing $216 million worldwide. Interestingly, instead of taking their usual salaries for the film, Schwarzenegger and DeVito both agreed with the studio to take 20% of the film’s box office returns; this resulted in them receiving the biggest paychecks of their film careers.
9. Tin Men (Barry Levinson – 1987)
Barry Levinson’s second feature from the Baltimore Films tetralogy; Tin Men showed how a minor car accident drove two rival aluminium-siding salesmen to the ridiculous extremes of man versus man in 1963 Baltimore. A tale of men behaving badly with a soft-hearted core.
Boasting a terrific cast that also included Barbara Hershey, John Mahoney, and Bruno Kirby, and soundtrack work from the Fine Young Cannibals, Tin Men impressed critics like Luke Y. Thompson of New Times, who called it “Primo Levinson” and wrote, “DeVito’s rarely been more human, and Dreyfuss is at his funniest.”
8. The Rainmaker (Francis Ford Coppola – 1997)
Francis Ford Coppola’s legal-drama starred an ensemble cast of Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Claire Danes, and Jon Voight among others. The Rainmaker followed Rudy Baylor, a young attorney with no clients, goes to work for a seedy ambulance chaser and wants to help the parents of a terminally ill boy in their suit against an insurance company. But to take on corporate America, Rudy and a scrappy paralegal (DeVito) must open their own law firm.
One of the best adaptations ever of any John Grisham’s novels; The Rainmaker has a young Matt Damon shining brightly playing the role of a hotshot young attorney, although it’s DeVito who steals the show every chance he gets. Especially the part where Danny DeVito says “there’s nothing better than taking down an insurance company” with a wide grin. Here, DeVito is at the top of his game.
7. Batman Returns (Tim Burton – 1992)
The cool before Christopher Nolan made The Dark Knight; Tim Burton’s dark take on the masked crusader followed Batman, who must prevent the Penguin (DeVito) from killing all of Gotham City’s firstborn sons while dealing with Catwoman, who seeks vengeance against Max Shreck, a corrupt tycoon who seeks to bring Gotham City under his control.
He made for one fascinating villain, portraying the eccentric criminal mastermind with great conviction and panache. DeVito didn’t have it easy as he transformed into the Penguin. “It was four-and-a-half hours of makeup and getting into the costume. We got it down to three hours by the end of the shoot,” says DeVito. “I had pounds and pounds of face prosthetics and body padding, and the prosthetic hands, which were hard to use. I kept them on about half the time.”
6. Get Shorty (Barry Sonnenfeld – 1995)
DeVito put on the producer’s hat for Get Shorty, an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard’s novel about a loan shark (John Travolta) who dreams of leaving the business and turning his life story into a hit film for a big-time Hollywood star (DeVito). Sharp, funny, and stocked with an impeccable array of talented actors, including Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, and Dennis Farina, Get Shorty was also nominated for a number of awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy and a Screen Actors’ Guild Award.
Had things gone differently in the making of Get Shorty, Danny DeVito would have been the actor playing Chili Palmer, having been involved with the production from the very start. Barry Sonnenfeld was first inspired to make the crime comedy because he read the book on a cruise and immediately imagined DeVito as the protagonist and that in turn led the actor/producer to personally buy the film rights. So when Scott Frank started to pen the script for the adaptation, it was with the DeVito in mind as the lead.
5. Hercules (Ron Clements, John Musker – 1997)
The 35th Disney animated feature film and the eighth animated film produced during the Disney Renaissance, Hercules was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker and was loosely based on the legendary hero Heracles (known in the film by his Roman name, Hercules), the son of Zeus, in Greek mythology.
Crafty and incorrigible, Danny DeVito voiced the character of Philoctetes. Writing the role of Philoctetes, Musker and Clements envisioned Danny DeVito in the role. However, DeVito declined to audition so Ed Asner, Ernest Borgnine, and Dick Latessa were brought in to read for the part. After Red Buttons had auditioned, he left stating “I know what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna give this part to Danny DeVito!” Shortly after, the directors and producer Alice Dewey approached DeVito at a pasta lunch during the filming of Matilda, where DeVito signed on to the role.
4. Matilda(1996 – Danny DeVito)
After enduring years of this abuse, Matilda starts playing pranks on her family. Eventually, she realises that she actually has powers verging on the realm of magical. Children and parents everywhere loved the story of Matilda — it made the point that you can make a difference in your own life, and in others’ lives, no matter how young or old you are. So, in 1996, Danny DeVito adapted the book into a feature film starring nine-year-old Mara Wilson as Matilda.
Produced by DeVito’s Jersey Films and released theatrically in the United States on August 2, 1996, by Sony Pictures Releasing through TriStar Pictures label, critics praised DeVito’s direction and faithfulness to the spirit of the source material. Dahl’s flair for dark storytelling was a perfect fit for DeVito’s sensibilities, who plays the father of our title character. He discourages his young daughter from reading and doing well in school and instead tries to talk her into learning the family business, which is buying and selling used cars and parts illegally.
3. Ruthless People (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker – 1986)
Ruthless People is the story of a couple who kidnap their ex-boss’ wife to get revenge and extort money from him. They soon realise he does not want her back and was planning to kill her himself. Meanwhile, the boss’ mistress plans a blackmail attempt on him which also does not go as planned.
De Vito is at his sneering best throughout Ruthless People. A truly disgusting man, and a truly phenomenally funny one. The film is hilarious and enjoyable, mainly because it manages to hit the right tone and that along with Danny DeVito’s performance. “DeVito is the mainspring of Ruthless People, the engine of murderous intensity right at the centre,” observed Roger Ebert. “His passion is so palpable that it adds weight to all the other performances in the movie.”
2. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson – 1997)
This sprawling neo-noir, based on James Ellroy’s 1990 novel of the same name tells the story of a group of LAPD officers in 1953, and the intersection of police corruption and Hollywood celebrity. The title refers to the 1950s scandal magazine Confidential, portrayed in the film as Hush-Hush. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning two: Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Albeit he did not have significant screen-time here in L.A. Confidential, DeVito’s character, the publishing sleazemonger Sid Hudgens, was extremely crucial to the story, setting in motion some key moments in the storyline and serving as the film’s narrator. And while this might not be the definitive performance in DeVito’s career, it does illustrate his gift for choosing the right script.
1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Miloš Forman – 1975)
In this 1975 classic, DeVito plays Martini, a patient at the mental institution where Jack Nicholson’s character now resides after pleading insanity in a criminal case. One of the greatest films in the history of cinema, it was also one of DeVito’s first films. At the time of this film’s release, Danny DeVito only had about five other credits to his name and none were very recognizable. It’s safe to say that this film didn’t just get Nicholson an Oscar, it put DeVito on the map.
Even though his character only had a few lines during the course of the entire film, DeVito aces his role perfectly to give us one of his greatest performances. He was 30 in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when he played Martini. That was over 45 years ago, in 1975. Today he is 76 and has starred in 112 movies in total, 103 movies since the film was released.