Perhaps no Hollywood actor continually stirs up more of a gleeful admixture of feelings in his viewers than Danny DeVito. Singlehandedly portraying characters with mile-long, obnoxious jerk streaks that are nonetheless somehow loveable, DeVito -- with his diminutive stature, balding head, and broad Jersey accent -- made an art form out of playing endearingly loathsome little men.
Born November 17, 1944, in Neptune, NJ, Daniel Michael DeVito Jr. survived a Catholic school upbringing and started his career from the ground up, laboring as a cosmetician in his sister's beauty parlor. Working under the name "Mr. Danny," DeVito decided to enter New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts for the purpose of acquiring additional makeup expertise. However, he soon discovered his true theatrical calling and made his screen debut with a small part in the 1968 drama Dreams of Glass. After a few discouraging experiences within the film industry, DeVito decided to concentrate on stage work. During this time, he met actress Rhea Perlman, whom he later married in 1982.
In 1972, the actor made his way back into films with a role in Lady Liberty, a comedy starring Sophia Loren. His first notable film part came three years later, when he reprised his stage role of Martini, a sweet-natured mental patient, in Milos Forman's screen version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Produced by DeVito's old friend Michael Douglas and co-scripted by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, the film won wide acclaim and nine Oscar nominations, eventually gleaning five statuettes (including Best Picture). Despite the adulation surrounding the film, DeVito's screen career remained lackluster, but he skyrocketed to fame three years later with his role as the obnoxious dispatcher Louie on the long-running television sitcom Taxi.
From there, DeVito's career swung upward and he spent the next decade playing similarly repugnant characters with enormous success. He reunited with Douglas for Romancing the Stone (1984) and its 1985 sequel, Jewel of the Nile, teamed up with co-star Joe Piscopo and director Brian De Palma (as a scam artist on the run) in Wise Guys (1986), and signed with Disney's R-rated offshoot, Touchstone, for two comedies, the 1986 Ruthless People, and the 1987 Barry Levinson-directed Tin Men.
Throw Momma from the Train (1987) marked DeVito's premier directorial outing. A madcap farce directed from a script by Benson and Soap scribe Stu Silver, Momma cast DeVito as Owen, a dim-bulb student living under the thumb of his loudmouthed mother, who is enrolled in a writing course taught by failing novelist Larry Donner (Billy Crystal). Stumbling into a repertory screening of Strangers on a Train one night, Owen has the not-so-bright idea of emulating the film, by bumping off Larry's conniving ex-wife in exchange for having Larry rub out his momma -- without asking Larry first.
Throw Momma from the Train opened during the Christmas season of December 1987 and received mixed reviews. The picture nonetheless became a massive hit, grossing upwards of 57 million dollars, and thus paving the way for future DeVito-directed efforts. The War of the Roses (1989) recast DeVito with his Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile co-stars, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, but could not have been any more different in terms of theme, content, tone, or intended audience. Co-adapted by Warren Adler and Michael Leeson (from Adler's novel), this acerbic, black-as-coal comedy tells the story of Oliver and Barbara Rose, a seemingly happy and well-adjusted married couple whose nuptials descend into a violent hell when Barbara announces that she wants a divorce -- and Oliver refuses to give her one. DeVito plays the cherubic lawyer who relays their story to another client, and famously reflects, "If love is blind, then marriage must be like having a stroke." The picture instantly grossed dollar one, garnered legions of fans, and delighted critics across the board.
Ida Random produced Momma, and DeVito's Taxi collaborator, James L. Brooks, produced War, but by the early '90s, DeVito gained additional autonomy by branching out into production duties himself, with the establishment of his own Jersey Films. Some of Jersey's more successful endeavors were 1994's Pulp Fiction (on which DeVito served as executive producer), Reality Bites (1994), Get Shorty (1995), Gattaca (1997), Out of Sight (1998), and Living Out Loud (1998).
In the meantime, DeVito continued to act in a number of movies throughout the late '80s and '90s, his most notable being Twins (1988, in which he played the "twin" of Arnold Schwarzenegger), the disappointing Jack the Bear (1993), the delightful Other People's Money (1991, for which he took on the role of corporate monster Larry the Liquidator), Barry Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty, the screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda (1996, which he also directed and produced), L.A. Confidential (1997), and Living Out Loud. For the last of these DeVito won particular acclaim, impressing critics with his touching, sympathetic portrayal of a lonely elevator operator. In 1999, he added to his already impressive resumé with a role in Milos Forman's biopic of Taxi co-star Andy Kaufman, Man on the Moon, and a supporting turn in Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides.
Despite solid performances in a series of recent high-profile hits and decades of big-screen success, the millennial turnover found DeVito's star somewhat clouded as such efforts as Screwed (2000), What's the Worst That Could Happen? (2001), Death to Smoochy (2002), and Duplex (2003) failed to live up to box-office potential.
DeVito fared only slightly better as producer of the critically acclaimed 2003 television series Karen Sisco and the ugly Get Shorty sequel, Be Cool. He also acted as executive producer for the acclaimed Zach Braff dramedy Garden State and could be spotted in director Tim Burton's imaginative fable Big Fish. As 2005 rolled around, audiences could spot DeVito in films such as The OH in Ohio, as well as on television as the actor found himself accepting a role in the quirky, taboo-busting series It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
During 2006, DeVito balanced a full plate of work, temporarily retiring from the director's chair, but juggling small roles in no less than three A-list features. These included Brad Silberling's 10 Items or Less, a drama about the unlikely friendship that evolves between a has-been Hollywood star (Morgan Freeman) and a supermarket checkout clerk (Paz Vega); Jake Paltrow's directorial debut, The Good Night, a slice-of-life dramedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Penélope Cruz; and the holiday comedy Deck the Halls. The latter starred DeVito and Matthew Broderick as neighbors who go to "war" with competing decorations at Christmastime to see who can be the first to make his house visible from space. The film co-starred Kristin Davis and Kristin Chenoweth. Meanwhile, Jersey Films geared up to produce the 2007 Freedom Writers, directed by Richard LaGravenese -- a kind of retread of Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds, with Hilary Swank as a teacher determined to break through to her difficult students. Also in 2007, DeVito starred in Randall Miller's violent black comedy Nobel Son, DeVito joined longtime friend and collaborator Michael Douglas with a supporting role in the 2009 Solitary Man, then in 2012 voiced Dr. Seuss's title character in the classic animated fable The Lorax.
DeVito and Perlman have three children. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi