PERFORMERS: RODNEY DANGERFIELD

BORN: November 22 1921
DIED: October 5 2004 

by PETER TATCHELL (copyright 2010)

For decades Rodney Dangerfield was king of the self-depreciating one-liner. His worried face and nervous bulbous eyes conveyed the supreme pessimism of a guy who had no doubt he was one of life’s perpetual losers. Nothing ever went right and the world was always ganging up on him.

About the only time he wasn’t the butt of the joke was when he was hurling a putdown at a heckler who’d committed the cardinal sin of showing him no respect. Centre stage at a nightclub in Las Vegas or his own Dangerfield’s in New York, Rodney was in his element.

It had taken the better part of fifty years to make it to the top of the show business ladder and for a time he’d actually given up entirely.

Born Jacob Cohen in Long Island, New York at the start of the roaring twenties, his father was a vaudevillian who used the stage name Phil Roy. At age 19, Jacob started calling himself “Jack Roy” and graduated from writing jokes for comics, to performing them himself. He struggled for success throughout the 1940s but by the end of the decade (with a wife and two kids to support) he quit performing and took a regular day job selling aluminium siding.

By the 1960s the world of standup comedy was enjoying a resurgence and a new generation of comedians had emerged … Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart, Phyllis Diller, Jonathan Winters, Woody Allen and double acts like Rowan & Martin and Allen & Rossi.

Jack Roy thought it would be a good time to reinvent himself and get back in the action, this time with a particular persona to help him stand out from the crowd, inspired by his comic heroes like W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, each of whom had larger than life characters. And to go with the makeover, came a colourful new name … Rodney Dangerfield.

According to his autobiography, it was thought up by a nightclub owner when he asked to be introduced as someone other than Jack Roy (it turns out to be a name featured in a classic Jack Benny radio program of twenty years before).

Again the going was tough but as the sixties progressed Rodney was able to incorporate the more liberated sexual attitude of the time into his more traditional material about tough neighbourhoods, cheap airlines, unreliable cars, et al. And he found audiences quickly warmed to his downtrodden style.

His breakthrough came when he was a last minute substitution on the hugely popular Ed Sullivan Show and his success led to many follow-up appearances. He soon became a favourite of Johnny Carson and over the years made dozens of visits to The Tonight Show

In 1969, Rodney and a partner started a Manhattan nightclub called Dangerfield’s, so he’d have a place to perform on a regular basis and not have to tour the country away from his children. Soon after, Decca Records signed Rodney for his first LP The Loser and he also appeared in a supporting role in the 1971 movie The Projectionist

By the 1980s Rodney Dangerfield was into his sixties and had become a show business phenomenon. His LP No Respect won a Grammy Award for the best comedy album of the year and he was profiled on a This is Your Life 30th Anniversary Special. As the decade progressed, he starred in a string of TV specials (first on the major networks, then on cable where language constraints weren’t a problem). Invariably the format saw him take time to introduce many (then largely unknown) friends from the comedy circuit … Sam Kinison, Roseanne Barr, Jim Carrey, Tim Allen and many others.

And he was back on the big screen, first with a major part in the comedy Caddyshack, then as the lead in Easy Money. Three years later Rodney starred in the hugely-popular Back to School, a successful mix of good story, sympathetic character and lots of his clever one-liners. They paved the way for many other movies including the voice for the title character in the animated Rover Dangerfield and a dramatic role in Natural Born Killers.    

As the new century arrived, Rodney Dangerfield (now in his 80s) was still active but his health was becoming a problem. In early 2003 he underwent surgery to improve the blood flow in his brain and a year later was admitted to U.C.L.A. Medical Center for the replacement of a heart valve. Complications developed and he lapsed into a coma and died a month later, mourned by an army of fellow comedians and millions of fans around the world.

He was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery where his tombstone reads “there goes the neighbourhood”.

 

Films

The Projectionist (1971)

Caddyshack (1980)

Easy Money (1983)

Back To School (1986)

Moving (1988)

Rover Dangerfield (voice only, 1991)

Ladybugs (1992)

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Meet Wally Sparks (1997)

The Godson (1998)

My 5 Wives (2000)

Little Nicky (2000)

Back By Midnight (2002)

The Fourth Tenor (2002)

Angels with Angles (2005)

 

Television

This is Your Life (NBC February 26 1981)

It’s Not Easy Being Me (1981)

I Can’t Take It No More (1983)

Exposed (1984)

It’s Not Easy Being Me (1986)

Nothin’ Goes Right (1987

Opening Night at Rodney’s Place (1989)

Where’s Rodney? (unsold pilot, c.1990)

The Really Big Show (1991)

It’s Lonely at the Top (1992)

75th Birthday Toast (1996)

A & E Biography (1998)

 

Recordings

The Loser
Decca LP DL (7)4798, Rhino LP RNLP 012,
reissued as M.C.A. CD What’s in a Name MCAD 22026
What’s in a Name?
Someone’s Gonna Get Hurt
Get a Horse
Lost
Flying Southern Comfort
The Gourmet
Home Sweet Home
My Neighborhood
The Hold-Up
Unhandy Husbands
That’s Show Biz

I Don’t Get No Respect
Bell/Arista LP ABM 4281, BMG/Arista CD 75517457262 (1980)
tracks not itemised

No Respect
Casablanca LP NBLP 7229,
Mercury/Universal Special Products CD 012 157 191-2 (1980)
No Respect
Son of No Respect
 

Rappin’ Rodney
R.C.A. LP AYL1-7188 (1983)
Rodney Rappin’
Rappin’ Rodney
Rodney Continues Rappin’
 

Back to School
MCA LP 6175-1 (1986)
includes a Rodney Dangerfield vocal:
Twist and Shout

La Contessa
Dove CD 0-7871-0594-5 (1995)
La Contessa
It’s Lonely at the Top (When There’s No One on the Bottom)
 

Buddy Lester’s Their Favorite Joke
Laugh.com CD LGH 1099 (2001)
features a contribution by Rodney

 

Videos 

It’s Not Easy Being Me

Nothing Goes Right

Muscle Rock Madness

A Guide to Gold Style and Etiquette

 

DVDs

No Respect
R2 Entertainment 3DVD set (2004)
includes the TV specials:
It’s Not Easy Being Me (1981)
I Can’t Take It No More (1983)
Exposed (1984)
It’s Not Easy Being Me (1986)
Nothin’ Goes Right (1987)
The Really Big Show (1991)
Opening Night at Rodney’s Place (1989)
This is Your Life (1986)

plus an appearance on the Tonight Show
and a 1988 recording of Rodney’s act at Bally’s in Las Vegas

The Tonight Show – Timeless Moments
R2 Entertainment 6DVD set
features a Rodney Dangerfield appearance

 

Books

I DON’T GET NO RESPECT
jokes by Rodney Dangerfield (Price, Stern & Sloan, paperback, Los Angeles. 1982)

NO RESPECT
jokes by Rodney Dangerfield (Harper Collins paperback, New York. 1995)

IT’S NOT EASY BEING ME
by Rodney Dangerfield (Harper/Collins, 2004. expanded paperback edition 2005)

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