Danny DeVito is many things to many people -- the mentally unbalanced patriarch of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," an abusive cab dispatcher on the Emmy-winning sitcom "Taxi," Arnold Schwarzenegger's diminutive twin brother and The Penguin in Tim Burton's "Batman Returns." He's filled four decades with some very big -- albeit physically small -- characters.
But with the re-release of "The War of the Roses" and "Hoffa," as part of his Filmmaker Signature Series, we remember one of DeVito's best roles: director.
We spoke to DeVito about directing the ugliest divorce on the silver screen, what it's like to hang out with Puffy -- yes, Danny DeVito hangs out with Puffy -- and who the third brother might be in his "Twins" spin-off.
As a director, your movies have a connective thread -- whether drama or comedy, they're all pretty dark. As an actor, you take a lot of light roles, some of them pretty absurd. Does one better reflect your taste?
Every year, I have the same feeling that it can’t get more absurd, but it does. It’s going wild this year. I have a sense of humor; Growing up in New Jersey, it’s by nature kind of ... always breaking chops, looking at the bright side, whatever.
My dad had a candy store, my mom was a housewife, I have two sisters that really raised me. My entrance into the world, you know, my mother was somewhere in her forties and she was told by the family doctor, "Oh, Mrs. DeVito, you either have a tumor or you are pregnant, come back the next day or whatever and we will tell you." She came back, and the doctor says, "You're pregnant, Mrs. DeVito," and she says, "Oh no."
That can't be true, it's like a perfect Vaudeville routine.
[Laughs] It’s true. So it’s like, that’s where you’re from, and then you get a chance to make movies and stuff. So you are always looking for ... let me take Anne Ramsey and cut her toe nails in the scene, that kind of thing. You try to do it with some kind of humor or some bizarre kind of twist. That’s fun, and I always like movies that are like that.
"The War of the Roses" is a very funny, very mean-spirited movie. How do you direct a story like that from the vantage point of your happy, long-lasting marriage?
The thing is, everybody goes through painful experiences in their life. At the time, I remember doing research where we were in the middle of a book store with a pile of books that were all about defending yourself and doing your own divorce -- the books were all about what you should wear, how you should deal with the screwing up. I was standing in line and I had already been on "Taxi," of course, and once you've been on television, everybody knows you. That’s cool, but the woman turned to me and said,"I'm so sorry to hear about you and Rhea." I said, "No no no, I am doing this really crazy movie."
Also check out: BREAKING NEWS - Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman Divorcing
I thought "War of the Roses" was just the greatest, darkest, sickest [story] -- they’re at each other’s throats. And I just like that kind of stuff. I wanted it to be extreme and beautiful and realize that what happens in life is sometimes really surprising and the things that you bury, at the drop of a hat, can be realized. And we all experience it one way or another. I’m sure people in the world have experiences like the Roses did.
And I was really fortunate to work with those people. They were really top notch writers and great producers and we had a great time. And Michael [Douglas] and Kathleen [Turner], I’d worked with twice already in "Romancing the Stone" and "Jewel of the Nile. " I must’ve thought to myself, "Fritz Lang does it, why can’t you do it?"
Are you ever going to get the gang back together?
You know, Hollywood is like the wackiest place in the world.You’re at the whim of the studio executives. Work with Michael and Kathleen again? Oh absolutely, oh yeah, if we could find something to do, I’d love that.
It's been a long time since these movies were initially released. Do you watch now, from a distance, and consider the choices you'd make differently?
I’ve thought about this a lot. I did it with Laser Discs back then and I did it again when it went to DVDs. You always want to pay attention to everything. I worked with this woman, Linzee Klingman, who’s an editor. And she’s done all of the movies that I’ve done. She edited "Cuckoo’s Nest" and I was just acting in the movie, but we got along really well. The way we work is we do everything ... even if it’s working, I try it another way, I take the movie apart and look at it this way and try that shot and try this angle, and maybe focus on this part … and she does that with ease. I mean, great painstaking detail, but she’s very very good at showing it to me from different points of view. You’re going to see [these movies] over and over again if you really want to. And I do, so you’re going to want to know you’ve been down a lot of different avenues with the way it’s presented.
You're filming "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" right now, yes? Anything exciting going on?
In a couple of hours, I’m going back to work ... We have Sean Combs in our midst. Puffy is terrific. He’s so great, he did such a great job. And we did a behind-the-scenes, it’s not in the script, but we did a improv for one of [my character] Frank’s businesses that were promoting. And he did a really terrific thing and we’ll put that on the disc when we release the season.
When you’re talking to him, do you call him Puffy or Sean?
No, Sean. We’ve worked together before. He’s a really regular guy. The first time we met was, I think, at the Grammys. We presented an award, which was really fun. And then he called me later; I’m actually in one of his videos, one of his rap videos. I go in a helicopter. And I got to stay up all night with the rap video guys.
You were in Tim Burton's Batman series -- were you relieved that Christopher Nolan didn't bring The Penguin back in his trilogy?
I’m very happy they didn’t bring The Penguin back in another incarnation. But I loved the new Batman as well.
I’m a big fan of Tim. Tim and I are joined at the hip. I think he is fantastic ... And I've worked with Jack Nicholson and Michael Douglas. These are the guys that give you so much. They’re just so generous, not just only with the way they are but also in their work, they’re giving and sharing. I’ve had a tremendous amount of good fortune to work with all these folks.
Finally, can we discuss the "Twins" spin-off? Is it going to happen?
We’re absolutely talking about "Triplets." I went away and did a play, I did "The Sunshine Boys" at the West End for six months. Before I left, we were talking about the other brother. We don’t have the story. We have the impulse to do it and the desire to do it, because I think that would be really great if we got together again. But that’s as far as it is.
Do you have a brother in mind?
We did have dinner with Eddie Murphy.
Oh, he looks just like you. That’s uncanny.
I know. Sometimes I walk down the street and people go, "Hey, Eddie, we remember you on 'Saturday Night Live.'" And I go, "Hey, babe."