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Strange, unhappy life of Rodney Dangerfield


Dangerfield
 (The Spokesman-Review)
Dangerfield (The Spokesman-Review)
Jeff Pearlman Newsday

There are some sights no human being should ever be subjected to, sights so unbearably ghastly that even John Ashcroft would label them cruel and unusual punishment.

It’s bad enough that many must witness death, famine, plague. But this … this is too much. Head for the hills. Pack your stuff. Board up the windows. To arms! To arms!

Rodney Dangerfield is naked.

Actually, Rodney Dangerfield is always naked: In bed. In front of the TV. Eating a hoagie. Thinking up a joke. Digging through a drawer in search of a bag of marijuana and his lighter.

Unless he’s planning on hitting the town, Dangerfield’s wardrobe is simply a robe, wide open. “Comfort,” he says. “I’m all about comfort.”

Last year, when David Hirshey, an editor at Harper Collins, spent three days at Dangerfield’s Los Angeles pad working on the comedian’s new autobiography, “It’s Not Easy Being Me” (HarperEntertainment, 288 pages, $25.95), he focused nonstop on keeping his eyes straight ahead.

“Can’t look down with Rodney,” says Hirshey. “It’s always … there.”

Tonight, it’s … there. Dangerfield is sitting on a chair in a penthouse suite of Manhattan’s Omni Berkshire Place, his home away from home while promoting the book. His gut is large and his skin is wrinkly, and the fact that federal law prohibits fleshy, 82-year-old men from exposing themselves to strangers seems lost on him.

“When you reach a certain age,” Dangerfield says, “you throw a lot of things out the window. What do I care what people think? I’m just trying to be me. To be myself.”

It is an illuminating statement, because the Rodney Dangerfield the public knows is not real. Onstage or in front of a camera, Dangerfield sparkles. He is, even at his advanced age, a bolt of electricity, a continuous stream of caustic one-liners that whoosh past your head at 500 mph:

WHOOSH! “With my wife, I got no sex life. She cut me down to once a month. Hey, I’m lucky — two guys I know she cut completely out.”

WHOOSH! “What a childhood I had. My parents sent me to a child psychiatrist. The kid didn’t help me at all.”

WHOOSH! “I was an ugly kid. When I was born, after the doctor cut the cord, he hung himself.”

As the laughter grows louder and louder, the familiar Dangerfield emerges, tugging on his tie, nodding his head, running his hand through his gray hair. Beads of sweat — good, comfortable sweat, the motor oil of the stand-up comedian — form across his brow.

He is on a roll. It’s what he lives for. “I tell ya, I get no respect … “

Poof!

The true Rodney Dangerfield is not there on the stage. It is only his oasis, a temporary reprieve from gloom. He is here, in the Omni, nude, raspy-voiced, soldiering on.

Running up and down Dangerfield’s chest is a long zipper scar, the result of open-heart surgery that saved his life four years ago. He also has recovered from two aneurysm operations and brain surgery. Yet those, he will tell you, are not his biggest problems. Not even close.

Despite regular sessions with a psychiatrist and mountains of medication (he takes 137 pills daily, explained by a color-coded chart hanging in the kitchen), Dangerfield is a somber man. He has been for decades, beginning with his youth in New York and extending through his “Caddyshack”/”Easy Money”/”Back To School” cinematic heyday of the early 1980s.

Dangerfield was diagnosed as clinically depressed several years ago, but he traces it back to his boyhood. He was born Jacob Cohen, was abandoned by his father (a vaudeville comedian), and was raised, along with his sister, Marion, by a cold mother whose cruel remarks made him feel worthless.

“Have you seen the picture in my book of me as a child?” he says, referring to young Rodney sitting on a pony, expressionless. “That’s me. That’s how I’ve always been. Sad. Just look at me.”

Unathletic, unattractive and unloved, he found an outlet in writing jokes, and even remembers the first one. At age 4, Dangerfield finished dinner and whined, “I’m still hungry.”

“You’ve had sufficient,” replied his mom.

“But,” said Rodney, “I didn’t even have any fish.”

Hello? Is this thing on?

Sadly, humor is only so potent an elixir. Throughout a phenomenal career, Dangerfield has always struggled with depression. He began performing in his late teens and early 20s under his legal name, Jack Roy, but found little success and spent nearly a decade installing aluminum siding in New Jersey.

He returned to the stage in the early 1960s, this time under the moniker Rodney Dangerfield, and his “No respect” shtick caught the attention of industry bigwigs. Dangerfield appeared on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” more than 70 times, but truly broke through in 1980, when he starred as the goofy Al Czervik in the golf classic “Caddyshack.”

The decades passed and he landed more and more roles in feature films and comedy concert specials, but his internal state remained the same. Dangerfield often stayed in bed under the covers, unable to face the world.

Hirshey’s three days with Dangerfield were memorable for their wild swings. “One day he was all amped up and full of stories,” says Hirshey. “The next day he couldn’t remember anything and didn’t make an effort.”

On the third and final day, Hirshey recalls with wide-eyed detail, Dangerfield sat gloomily at the kitchen table, hovering over a pile of pills.

It is a strange combination — the man who makes millions of people cackle, cowering in misery — but it’s logical, too.

“If a really good comedian isn’t depressed, something’s wrong,” says stand-up veteran Bob Saget, who was discovered by Dangerfield at the famed Comedy Store in Hollywood.

“When you’re a comedian,” says Saget, “you’re looking at the world from the outside in. You’re trying to be funny, but at the same time you’re really asking, ‘What’s it all mean?’ Rodney has always talked about the heaviness — about how heavy everything is. It’s funny when he says it, but the meaning behind it isn’t. The weight is on his shoulders. He feels it, and it’s torturous.”

As a result, Dangerfield’s life has been an ode to pain alleviation. He first tried marijuana as a 21-year-old in 1942, and has lit up a joint at least once every day for 60 straight years (he even got high in the White House during a visit with Ronald Reagan in 1983). The original title for his autobiography was “My Love Affair With Marijuana.”

He’s used most of the other drugs out there, has slept with his share of prostitutes and has combined every conceivable genre of fattening food into one big sandwich.

Even “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me” (subtitle: “A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs”) is an attempt at inner soothing.

Dangerfield initially considered writing a book seven years ago, shortly after he first came public about his bouts with depression in an interview with Parade magazine.

“I started getting thousands of e-mails from people who felt like I did,” he says. “It gave me an idea.”

He wanted to compile a book of 1,000 letters from depressed people; a reminder to those suffering that they were not alone in the world. When no publishing houses expressed an interest, Dangerfield switched his focus: He decided to write his own life story, with an emphasis on low feelings and the pot that lifts him.

“Truly, I don’t want people to feel as bad as I have in life,” Dangerfield says. “If this book helps anyone improve their outlook, that’d be great.”

Though he still broods, Dangerfield’s outlook actually upgraded 11 years ago when he married Joan Child, a (of all things) clean-living Mormon flower shop owner he initially met in the late ‘70s.

Child, his second wife (he has two grown children from his first marriage), is 30 years younger than her husband but looks to be in her early 40s. She has sandy-blond hair and a glowing smile, and comparisons to Kim Basinger (the “Batman” years) are not a stretch.

She still remembers the first time she saw Dangerfield, as he approached her flower shop in the Santa Monica Place mall and asked casually, “What kind of drugs do you like?”

Instead of being offended, she was confused. “Antibiotics, I guess,” she said.

The innocent reply was endearing to Dangerfield, who stopped by repeatedly and eventually asked her out on an official dinner date. They courted off and on through the years, until Dec. 26, 1993, when the two whisked off to Las Vegas and tied the knot in the first wedding chapel they could find.

“He started smoking marijuana in the limo, and I wasn’t sure how serious he was,” she says. “But he went through with it, thank goodness.”

Nowadays, the two are inseparable. Although he only performs stand-up a couple of times a year (his health prevents him from touring on a regular basis) and is no longer interested in pursuing movie roles, Dangerfield continues to write jokes, then test them out on his wife. Funny or not, she chuckles every time.

“Laughter,” she says, “is something Rodney still responds to. It makes him feel happy.”

Laughter, after all, has been Rodney Dangerfield’s life.

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