Danny DeVito Has Never Heard the Term “Short King”

A long conversation with the legend about returning to the stage, being in a grandpa chat with Bruce Springsteen, and working with Arnold Schwarzenegger again.

Danny DeVito as Sam in 'I Need That.'

Danny DeVito as Sam in I Need That.Joan Marcus

The phrase “national treasure” gets thrown around a lot. But who deserves it more than Danny DeVito? In his storied 45-year career, he’s entertained generations of audiences, starring in long-running comedy series (Taxi, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), films (Batman Returns, L.A. Confidential, Twins), and directing hits (War of the Roses, Matilda).

Now 78, DeVito is going back to his roots in the theater. In the Roundabout Theater Company production I Need That, written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, he plays Sam, a crotchety old man living alone who’s threatened with eviction because of his hoarding problem. At a recent preview performance, DeVito was a dynamo onstage, making the audience roar and, as the play reached its emotional conclusion, audibly tear up. Even more poignant? His daughter in the play, Amelia, is played by DeVito’s real-life daughter Lucy. (Mom is actor Rhea Perlman.)

Shortly before opening night—the play opened on November 2 and runs until December 30—I visited DeVito in his cozy Broadway dressing room. He was reserved at first, sipping a cup of tea, with far less energy than the zany, wild man performances he’s known for. As we talked, he became more animated, repeatedly making himself laugh (great laugh). DeVito told GQ about being in a grandpa chat with Bruce Springsteen, his thoughts on the SAG-AFTRA strike, his infamous Troll Foot photos, and more.

Ray Anthony Thomas as Foster, Danny DeVito as Sam, and Lucy DeVito as Amelia in I Need That.Joan Marcus

GQ: What’s your working relationship like with your daughter?

Danny DeVito: The family is very Italian, Jewish. It was this really cool mix, Rhea and me. And so that filtered into Lucy and Gracie and Jake, and we all talk about everything and we have a good time with each other.

One of my favorite moments with Lucy was when she was just a baby. I was directing this movie. I was doing one shot over and over again. It was pushing this woman who had a little monologue on a divan. And I’d say, “Cut!” I did it about six or seven times. The last take, Lucy said, “Cut!” It was the cutest thing. Actually, that’s the take that’s in the movie.

You’re great together onstage, too.

We have a good time. She gives me the business.

Do you relate to Sam at all? Are you a hoarder?

I started being much more conscious about it, because I do collect. I’ve only been here for a couple of weeks and there’s a lot of stuff in this room. My apartment in New York, it’s just full of pictures and knickknacks and stuff that I pick up.

What’s your most prized possession?

Oh, gosh. I have so many. So many nice things, and memories of a shirt that I wore in 1960-something. I always take something—shirts, pants, shoes, a hat from a movie I’ve done.

Do you have any opening night rituals?

No. I’m looking forward to it, though. I always come early. I have a trampoline. I don’t know if you can see it, over there.

Is the trampoline for exercise or fun?

I start every night with it to get myself going. I guess you would call it exercise, but it’s like getting ready to go out.

Do you feel like you’re getting back to your roots by doing theater again?

Yeah. I just love it. I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and did all the theater. Even if you’re off-Broadway, the audience is part of the whole mix. You go to California, and it’s quiet on set. You tell a joke, they’re paid to not say anything. I did a couple of movies, like Cuckoo’s Nest. And then I got Taxi in 1978—now, here’s the great thing about that show. First of all, the people, I love them dearly. We’re still friends, all of them. It’s like a family.

Oh, yeah, still?

We are thick as thieves, the whole bunch of us. We Zoom once a month. But, audience-wise, with Taxi, every Friday night, we’d shoot the show and you’d have 300 people in the audience.

You’d have the live reaction.

I don’t know what [Lawrence] Olivier felt when he did Hamlet. But you know there’s an audience out there. You have the energy of the audience, no matter what.

When there’s comedy, you get that thing where you’re surfing along with everybody. You’re hitting, you’re flying, and you feel the bed of existence of humanity with you. That audience is with you, and there’s nothing like it.

You’re from Asbury Park, and you’re longtime friends with Bruce Springsteen. Did you first encounter him back there when you were growing up?

No, no. I moved before his first album. We met in the ’80s and we became friends. I’m a groupie. I love to go to his shows. I went to see him just before he got his bellyache, and I was lucky to see a great show in New Jersey at the MetLife Center. And I’ve seen him in other countries if I’m around and it’s happening. He’s the sweetest guy, and Patti [Scialfa] is great, and they have great kids. And we have a new thing in common besides Asbury Park or our love for the Garden State: we both became grandparents recently.

Congratulations.

My granddaughter is seven months old. Sinclair. I’ll show you a couple of things that’ll make your head spin. Well, first of all, this little thing that they sent me the other day.

[DeVito shows a video of his granddaughter dressed like a Na’vi from Avatar.]

She’s a Na’vi. She’s just off-the-charts adorable. And Bruce sends me pictures of his.

You have a grandpa group chat.

We’re in the grandpa group chat. I just saw him Sunday night at the New Jersey Hall of Fame. He’s the proud grandpa, and I am too.

So today is Halloween. Your granddaughter was dressed as a Na’vi. Do you have an all-time favorite Halloween costume?

Oh, yeah. I went as a Magritte painting. I wore all black, and I had the hat, and I had the apple hanging right in front of my face, a big green apple. I swear to God, it was a really cool outfit. My friends might’ve been giving me the business.

That’s good. That’s high concept.

It’s hard for me to hide myself. I went trick-or-treating with the kids one night. I used to take them all the time. I’d get a sheet, stick a couple of holes in it. And I’m under a sheet with a lantern in my hand, totally covered. A bunch of kids came by that weren’t in my pack. And they said, “Hello, Mr. DeVito.” I learned early on that there’s no way I can disguise myself.

When you do get recognized and stopped on the street, what roles do people want to talk to you about?

The younger kids will talk to me about Mr. Wormwood [from Matilda]. There’s a lot of Batman, the Penguin. When Taxi was on before all that stuff, it was Louie, and now there’s a lot of Frank [from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia]. A guy was here the other night, so he showed me his tattoo on his arm of me as the Trash Man. And I go, “That’s so cool, man.” It’s great to be in this…this zeitgeist.

I love doing Sunny. We’ve done 16 years. We’re probably going to do more.

Still more, you think?

Oh, yeah. I don’t know for sure, because it’s Charlie and Rob and Glenn. If they feel like sitting their butts down in a room and writing eight episodes, let’s go. It’s a blast out there when we go to work. Sometimes we’ll take a year off and we go back to work and it’s like we just saw each other four minutes ago, that kind of thing.

You’ve been working long enough that you’ve seen so many things you’ve done come back again. Colin Farrell plays the Penguin in The Batman and in an upcoming series. Did you—

We’re good buddies. When I was running Jersey Films, Colin and I were inches away from doing something. He was a young bad boy in the early days, now he’s an old good guy. But when he was a young bad boy, I was all over Colin trying to find something to do together. I thought he’s such a good actor, and I think he’s great as the Penguin. I love him.

Did you give him any advice or anything on the role?

No, no. You can’t. It’s like apples and pears. Our plot was an opera, basically. This is totally different.

Then you directed Hoffa in ’92, and The Irishman came out a few years back. Did you ever talk to Martin Scorsese about this?

No. Not to Marty. But the whole thing about Hoffa is that it’s so rich in that era, the labor movement.

This guy who is now the [United Auto Workers president], Shawn Fain, he’s doing such a great job. I look up to a guy like that who’s thinking about fairness for the workforce. It just seems like it’s so out of balance. So far it looks like he’s done a great job.

And, of course, there’s the actors’ strike too.

I’m just hoping that our actor strike is over because there are a lot of projects that we’re just kind of at a standstill. As soon as they dot those i’s and crossed those t’s—or however you spell contract—I was going to do Matilda Live.

The last actors’ strike was in 1980. What are your memories of that one?

It was horrible. We started Taxi in ’78-’79. We had a hit show. And all of a sudden, we’re out of work. We were on strike for a really long time, and everybody’s running out of money. This is really bad news. You got to get the contract.

You’ve been in the industry for 45 or so years now. How have you seen it get worse?

The business model is so different. You would have a show like, say, Taxi or Cheers. You do the show and then you’d get residuals. Whenever they sold that show in any country in the world and dubbed you, there was a whole new residual cycle. Writer, actors, directors, people in the industry fed their families that way. If you take that away, okay, so what is it, one job? You get the job and then you don’t participate at all?

I had a very good friend of mine who wrote a pilot for a famous show. I won’t tell you what it is and who it was, but there was a big to-do at one point. And something happened with the show, it just went flat. But he put his kids through school with that money.

Is there anything you want to revisit in your career?

Billy [Crystal] and I want to work together again. We were looking at possibly doing Throw Papa From the Train. And then Arnold [Schwarzenegger] and I want to work together. We missed Twins 2, because he became governor—which, he should have done Twins 2 instead of becoming governor. Now we have a little thing going, a little project that we’ve been chatting about.

Is it related to Twins at all?

No, it’s just two friends, two guys, because we have a good time together. We complement each other in a lot of ways. I am way stronger than he is.

Is there an era of Hollywood you’ve worked through that you feel more nostalgic about?

You always feel like you just missed the cool stuff, but you didn’t. You were in it. Being a film buff, I would say, “What was it like when they were making The Lady Eve?” It was always a fascinating world for me when I moved out to California in ’74. I had already been out there in ’68, checking it out, but I was still studying here.

You were also roommates with Michael Douglas in New York in the ’60s, right?

Yeah, ’66-ish.

Who was the better roommate?

Well, I’m not the better roommate. It was like a dorm room, basically. We lived on 89th Street between West End and Riverside. It was $150 a month, and we split it.

Then he got The Streets of San Francisco, and he went out to California. And all during that time when he was in California, he still paid the $75 rent. It was a beautiful one-room apartment between West End and Riverside, right across the street from [world-famous violinist] Itzhak Perlman.

Then Rhea and I moved in together. She moved into my apartment there. She was living in Brooklyn.

You kicked Michael Douglas out?

Oh, he was gone. He was in California. I used to sit on this little windowsill, and I’d see Itzhak Perlman [get home across the street]. And I’d say to Rhea, “I see your cousin’s home.” This is a joke because her name is also Perlman. Cut to many years later, we’re at the Emmys and he’s three rows ahead of me on the aisle. I go up to him and I tell him, “Hey, man, we lived right across the street from you.” And I told him this story about how I used to always say that to Rhea.

He did a number onstage, and I was talking to the press. He comes back to his seat, I go back to my seat. After about 10 or 15 minutes, I went up to Itzhak and I said to him, “Hey, man, I didn’t know you could play the violin!”

Ha! How’d he take it?

He got a kick out of it.

Rhea has talked about how, even though you two have split up, you still have a great friendship and relationship. What’s your secret to that?

She’s on a plane right now, she’s coming to opening night. It’s no secret. We just love each other. If you can live together, you live together. If you can’t, at some point you decide you have to be upfront about it. Anyway, we separated and we still see each other quite a bit. And now, we share this Sinclair, our wonderful granddaughter, and our kids are all tight. It’s all the same. I just have my own house.

I have to ask about Troll Foot.

[DeVito kicks up his right leg and waves his foot, which is inside his shoe, around.]

The last one you posted was in July.

Yeah, I know. I got a new one. But I’m not posting it.

How do you decide when’s the right time?

Well, it’s like, whenever the foot picture needs to be taken, I take the picture. I did it the other day. It needed to be taken. I’m very reluctant to show you this picture. I won’t, probably.

Why don’t you describe the scene?

Well, I was at home. I was working and the sunlight was perfect. I just looked down and there was Troll Foot. He’s always with me. I took the picture. And man, I’m telling you, Kaitlin from Sunny used to break my chops all the time: “You can’t put that picture up.” Because sometimes he’s in great shape, sometimes he’s in real bad shape. It depends on how much filing and soaking—you know what you do with your feet. You wash them and everything, that’s good. But if you don’t take care of them.… I never lotion Troll Foot.

How often are you taking photos of your feet?

Only when it strikes me as: “Wow, this is a really beautiful day.” There are places where I’ll be sitting at the beach or something like that, and it’s just a day that you can’t not stick your foot up in front of your camera. And I hope there are many more to come. I haven’t done a theater one yet. A curtain call would be good, right?

Oh, yeah, in front of the whole audience. I’m curious, do you know about short kings?

No.

Well, you’ve been called “the king of short kings.” We’re celebrating short guys now, especially short guys who have confidence.

I like it! I haven’t heard the term, but it gives me joy. It lifts me up. Thank you.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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