Danny DeVito: Following his bliss

Danny DeVito never wanted to be a stage star. He took acting classes in 1960s New York on a lark while studying to be a makeup artist and then used Off Broadway plays like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a stepping stone to Hollywood. He wanted to be famous in the movies, and he also suspected that his looks — five feet tall and fleshy, a New Jersey Italian in a fun-house mirror — would be most memorable there.

Danny DeVito is currently taking the stage by storm. Photo by Andrew Testa/NYTBut this time around, DeVito is deploying his body mass to buzz-worthy advantage in a revival of The Sunshine Boys, Neil Simon’s 1972 comedy, and on the turf of classically trained actors no less. The 67-year-old DeVito, best known for portraying coarse connivers on television shows like Taxi and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, has become a darling of critics and audiences in the West End as Willie Clark, a sharp-tongued curmudgeon who has a bittersweet reunion with his former vaudeville partner, Al Lewis.

The play’s popularity has producers considering a move to New York, which would be DeVito’s Broadway debut but only the latest in a life of intriguing career turns. After shifting in the 1990s more to directing and producing, DeVito veered back to full-time acting in 2006 with Sunny. He has developed a rabid following among younger fans as the outrageously amoral Frank Reynolds on the FX series, a black comedy about a barroom gang of five scheming narcissists.

Both Sunny and The Sunshine Boys were hardly safe bets for his reputation; the television show had low ratings when he joined, and he hadn’t acted in a play in nearly 40 years. But DeVito quickly said yes to each role for the same reason, he recalled: They are the kind of darkly comic characters that “allow me to follow my bliss.”

“I’ve always tried to pick roles — big roles, very small roles — where the characters have an edgy view of the world, are full of life, give off a so-crazy-I-can’t-believe-it vibe,” DeVito said as he leaned back in an easy chair in his dressing room, which he has adorned with posters of Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Marley.

“Some of my friends couldn’t believe I was going back to television on an FX show — a blip on the radar, they said — and then they really couldn’t believe that I was going back to theatre,” he added. “But at this point in my life I don’t want to overthink things. I know when a role is a good fit for me.”

That fit seems particularly snug in The Sunshine Boys, which starred Jack Albertson as Willie Clark in its original 16-month run on Broadway; Walter Matthau was nominated for a best actor Academy Award as Clark in the 1975 film adaptation, while George Burns won a supporting Oscar as Lewis. Along with Simon’s irascible dialogue, the play is also a physical comedian’s dream. DeVito draws laughs even when he is simply fidgeting in a chair onstage, albeit in Willie’s red-and-white striped pajamas and thick eyeglasses.

The production offers a variation on the unlikely visuals that made a success of DeVito’s 1988 movie Twins, in which he and Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared as brothers. In The Sunshine Boys, DeVito’s head reaches the chin of Griffiths (who is five foot nine), and their respective bellies are often like a moon and a planet in uncomfortably close orbit.

Griffiths, a veteran British actor, said he didn’t know what to expect from his co-star when rehearsals began, noting that DeVito “exudes casually perfect technique on screen that could come across as a little safe, a little wrong in theatre.” Instead, he created a persona for Willie that reminded Griffiths of the film version of Cuckoo’s Nest, in which DeVito played the mostly silent, gently infantile patient in a mental ward. (He played the same role, Mr Martini, Off Broadway in the early 1970s.)

“Danny created a whole world of life for Mr Martini that had nothing to do with words, and that’s what he’s done as Willie,” Griffiths said. “He’s crackling even when he stands still, and he’s so comfortable improvising lovely little gestures at any moment.”

Several theatre critics have praised DeVito’s spirited performance, including Ben Brantley of The New York Times, who wrote last month that DeVito’s “fire and fury” reminded him of the Tasmanian devil of Looney Tunes fame. “Even immobile, he seems to be spinning and shooting off sparks,” Brantley wrote.

DeVito was offered the role without an audition after Sonia Friedman, the London theatre producer, and Griffiths, began discussing the project. Friedman had met DeVito years earlier when his wife, Rhea Perlman (Cheers), was acting in London and remembered thinking, “It would be wonderful to get Danny’s energy onstage.”

“While the mental picture of Danny and Richard facing off was irresistible,” she said, “it was Danny’s willingness to do anything in shows like Sunny in Philadelphia that made me really curious.”

DeVito’s lack of vanity reached a high point in the Christmas episode of Sunny in 2010, when his character hid inside a leather couch to overhear others talking about him. Overheated, he stripped naked and finally burst out and rolled onto the floor grunting in a sustained camera shot.

“We push the boundaries of good taste, but I never thought Danny would go for it,” said Rob McElhenney, the show’s creator and co-star. “But he said instantly, ‘I want to do that.’ He just wants to show up and have the most fun possible.”

Rehearsals for The Sunshine Boys were a bit more subdued. DeVito said he mostly avoided socialising in London, preferring to stay inside his apartment and inhabit the world of a shut-in like Willie. He purposely discouraged his family from visiting; while he felt lonely — even choking up about it in the interview — he said the isolation shaped Willie’s passive-aggressive responses when other characters appear onstage.

“I was nervous about not having been onstage since the ‘70s and came here wanting to be totally in my own space, for total concentration,” he said. “Sitting alone in my apartment helped me see how desperate Willie is, which is what I wanted to find, because I thought the play was both very funny and very sad. The downside was, I became a little sad myself.”

With Sunny scheduled to film new episodes from August to November, any New York transfer of The Sunshine Boys wouldn’t happen until at least later this year, Friedman said. DeVito said he was eager to play Broadway, feeling as if he has a role that makes sense for him there.

“I wouldn’t want to come to New York in something frivolous, just doing shtick,” he said. “There’s a sadness in the relationship between these two men that really got to me, and I think it’d surprise American audiences who might have a certain expectation about a Neil Simon comedy — and about me.”

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