Danny DeVito is a legend. He’s played TV icons like Taxi’s Louis DePalma, been the most normal guy in swashbucklers like Romancing the Stone; executive produced Reno 911!, Karen Sisco [the second best Elmore Leonard-based TV series after Justified], and directed hit movies The War of the Roses and Matilda. He is, to put it mildly, a Renaissance man.
And now, he’s playing the reprehensible Frank Reynolds on the FX cult hit It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia [Thursdays, 10/9C] which in the middle of its seventh [!] season.
He’s also personable and a lot of fun to chat with, so when I had an opportunity to take part in a teleconference Q&A session with him, I jumped at the chance. So let’s just get to it.
I have two short questions. The first one is, I know a lot people wouldn’t fit into the show because of the crude humor and the dynamics of the group, but who would you feel would be your dream guest star, if you could pick anybody to fit in with you guys on it?
Danny DeVito: I think that deep down inside all my friends that I have, whether they’re people that I have worked with over the years—if they had time and if we had parts for them, they’d all jump in, just for a guest spot. We’ve come close to Edward Norton and we’ve come close to—it’s just a matter of timing and things like—everybody, like all my buds and people who watch the show, I think they would all have the sensibility to jump down into the gutter with us.
Okay. The other question is, what attracted you to the role of Frank?
DeVito: The fact that they wrote it so well, first of all. There wasn’t a role of Frank six seasons ago, and then they said they would like me to come onto the show and I said if it’s organic to the piece, and this was—I was the dad of Sweet Dee and Dennis. And if it was a character that I’d feel like I could really let my hair down, no pun intended, and allow myself to explore other avenues that were as raunchy or as ribald as I’ve done in the past, but with an FX kind of sensibility.
They delivered on every front. And not only that, they became my good buddies and now we’re sailing along having a great time.
How do you think this show manages to not offend people even though it deals with so many un-PC topics? What is it about the writing?
DeVito: Right. Right. I think that every once in a while there is a barb that gets close to the line. I think we try to stay as close to the nerve as possible, but I got a feeling it’s where it’s coming from, might be one of the things. It might be that the way these characters, with the way Dennis and Dee and Mac, Charlie, and Frank operate in their daily lives. I think that takes a little bit of the onus off it, so you can get objective, you get behind it.
You can understand somebody in that situation, those guys having not the brightest reaction to when they find a baby in the dumpster. They have the second brightest—they’re going to be nice to the baby, they’re not going to hurt it, but they skip the good part where they should be really trying to make sure they get really good care for the baby. They believe they can do it. They pretty much believe they can do anything, and they try to protect the baby as best they can. The baby becomes part of them and then the next thing you know, he’s being painted with shoe polish and trying to get the parts on television because they’re only hiring Hispanics and African Americans.
I always feel like, no matter what we do—and in the sexual department, it’s usually reciprocal with Artemis and I. We both love banging in the dumpster and she more than I. It’s not like a bad thing if you’ve ever—it’s one of those things that falls under ‘don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.’
Excellent advice. Thank you. How do you compare your experience working on Sunny to your time on Taxi?
DeVito: Oh. It’s like—have you ever watched Fringe?
DeVito: It’s like another universe. It’s the same thing, in a way, because we don’t have the live audience, but we do have really good writing. And we had great writing on Taxi. And this is from an actor’s point of view, we had a great cast on Taxi and we have a great cast on Sunny. We have people who really care about each other, but it’s just an alternate universe. It’s a different milieu. It’s a different whole zeitgeist of what goes on there.
And it’s a different time. I remember doing Taxi and falling in love with the candy girl who was Rhea, and she was the nice girl, and everybody didn’t know why she was going out with me. I asked her and she said, ‘Everybody tells me not to go out with you. The doorman tells me not to go out with you.’ And I said, ‘Well, why do you?’ And she said, ‘Louie, you touch me.’ And I say, ‘Holy crap!’ And the standards and practices wouldn’t let us say, ‘Holy crap.’ We had a fight—she had to say, ‘Holy’ and ‘crap’ in the same sentence. We wound up doing it, but times have changed also.
I’m going to be blunt here. Frank makes Louie DePalma look like Mother Teresa.
DeVito: It’s true.
And since no one sees himself as the villain in his own story, what is your ‘in’ for playing Frank? What do you use to play this character season after season, and is there an ongoing catharsis for doing that?
DeVito: Yes. I agree with you on every front. I think that Louie DePalma is, like you said, the Mother Teresa—except for the fact that Mother Teresa would not put her mother in a home, just so he could have a party at her house, like Louie did. Louie’s getting a pass by being called Mother Teresa, but he had a nugget of brass for a heart. He had something in there. There were some sensibilities in there of Louie.
Frank has it also, but he has a tenderness inside. But because of the parameters he set up, Frank has set up for himself, where he wants to live in squalor and filth and he wants to experience everything that he never got a chance to do, that he always criticized possibly in the past. But always deep down, really wanted to do that thing where he just put on the Mardi Gras beads and go out and party all night and find somebody who he could buy to have sex with. He just never did it before. He was a business man, his nose to the grindstone. He needed that liberation. He needed that freedom and it is cathartic. It’s cathartic for Frank.
Louie got off on making their lives miserable from the cage, but he did actually care about the characters. I think he felt Tony Danza was this poor palooka who could never take a punch or throw one. Marilu was never going to get—he didn’t have high hopes for those characters. He knew Judd was always going to be a cab driver, never get out of there. Louie was, on the one hand, having a good time making their lives a little interesting.
These guys are more like Lucy and Ethel, where they always have some scheme that—Rob comes in with some scheme and this one’s got a plan and that one’s got a plan. It’s a breath of fresh air because Frank is—they’re half his age and he gets a chance to put his foot on the running board of a wild racecar that he probably couldn’t drive on his own.
Do you find that there is a personal catharsis in playing a character who is so free.
DeVito: Yes. Yes. Since I’ve taken this leap into this wonderful arena with Glenn and Charlie and Rob and Kaitlin, I always live pretty much free and always have a lot of fun, but this is really relaxing. And no matter how much work there is and how much you’re doing in a short amount of time—we only shoot for a certain amount of time, we have 13 episodes concentrated—it’s wonderful getting up out of bed in the morning, going down there, and having a ball.
It’s also affected me a little bit. I did the thing where I grew my hair for a year or more. My family thought I was little crazy. I was braiding it at the table and putting it in a bun when we’d go out. And now it’s all gone. I’ve taken it all off and I’m a blonde.
It does open up channels. Thank you.
When do you feel like you’re at your funniest and what, as an actor, helps get you to that place?
DeVito: I think it’s the freedom to allow yourself to go. We have a script that is written every week. Let’s talk about Sunny for a second. We have a script that is really well-written. They all put it all together. And then we’re allowed to venture off a little bit. It’s kind of like an improv, but it’s not. You don’t call it that. We just get into the situation and then everybody parries with each other.
Sometimes some of the funniest things come out of—one day, it was the last show that was on, we were fighting over lines and Rob looked at me, and he was so mad. He said, “I ought to put my finger through your eye, you little …,” something like that. It was out of the blue and I just couldn’t—of course I laughed my … off, but it’s out of those come the funniest situations, where they’re spontaneous. But they do write some really great stuff, so it leads you in the path of hilarity.
What does your family think of the show?
DeVito: My family loves the show. In fact, I found the show because John Landgraf sent the first few episodes, when they did them seven years ago, to Rhea. He wanted to get the take on it from our family. They were all sitting watching the show religiously, and I came in and I sat down and I got hooked on it the first season with the dead guy in the hospital—there were so many things. There were racial things in the bar. They were just done in a way that was fresh and I thought each one of the characters was funnier than the next.
And then later on, Landgraf sent me the note, or the email, that they were interested in talking to me about being on the show. My kids love the show now; although once in a while I do embarrass everybody by coming out of the couch naked. But it’s all in fun and they put the little Christmas wreath by my tushy.
When you first came in you were probably the most laurel character in the show.
You evolved probably to the most depraved.
DeVito: I know.
I asked Glenn this; I’d like to ask you, what gets Frank Reynolds up out of bed in the morning?
DeVito: What was that?
What gets Frank Reynolds out of bed in the morning?
DeVito: I’m telling you, and I keep saying this to folks, they’ve kind of infected me with this pulsing desire to get into mischief. They started it out really, like you said, I was kind of going, ‘Wait a minute. Whoa. What’s going on here?’ Although, I did ask for it. I said I wanted to live in squalor and filth and I wanted to do everything the gang does and I want to be part of the gang and everything.
I just started having so much fun. It’s like you get up in the morning and the character gets out of bed going, ‘Wow. I got to get dressed right away, get down there, and see what the nut nuts are doing, so I can get involved.’ Because we know they’re going to come up with something.
One thing I noticed, you spend a lot of time eating. I guess I should say putting food in your mouth.
DeVito: Yes. ….
How do you handle those kinds of takes?
DeVito: How do I hand those kinds of takes? I really stuff my face in the show. I spit it out most of the time, when it’s too much. But once in a while I’ll just munch during the day and I shouldn’t do it. It’s not good for the waistline, but it’s a lot of fun to do that. When I eat an apple when I eat like an animal, that’s a whole other story.
Next Thursday night I do a lot of eating. Frank’s brother—we got a show coming up here—where I do a lot of mongrel eating. It’s like a dog, a rabbit—starving; some kind of creature who’s starving. Once I start eating it, it has to go in all the way—just stuff it in, like drinking a beer. I don’t worry about the beer falling all over my cheeks. I just want that cold, thirst-quenching liquid coming down my throat.
I’m curious to hear some of your thoughts on how TV comedy has changed over the years? As someone who’s a comedy legend, in my opinion, and how it’s changed for you as an actor, being a part of it back then and now?
DeVito: I’m not sure about that question totally—how to answer my take on the change of the comedy itself. Things have to do with timing, and things have to do with subject, and things have to do with surprise, and things have to do with things like that. All those things are the template for comedy, because the audience has to be surprised and has to be all those.
Whether you look at any of the comedians along the way, or you look at the television along the way, it’s always that. Then the times change so things get different out there in the world and the material changes because of it. Whether you’re mocking something or you’re emulating something that is so ridiculous, that is the way. Values change in the society and then also your PC, what you call PC, changes—like politically correct or socially correct, or something that is irreverent. You may have been thinking about it for many, many years, but it just wasn’t its time yet and now—and that is the way I think things have changed.
Okay. As a follow up, is there a specific episode that you’re looking forward to seeing fan reaction to this season?
DeVito: I’ve been watching the shows and they’ve been really—must say, up to our expectations. Seems like the fans are having a good time. This week we have a special show on where I meet my brother. I see my brother for the first time in many, many years and we had a very sordid past. This is kind of fun. This is like a show that does flashbacks and you get a little bit more insight into what Frank went through as a young man. I’m looking forward to this.
I’m such a huge fan. I just want to say that I love the show.
DeVito: Thank you so much. Thank you.
My question is, what is your favorite episode?
DeVito: I don’t have a—it’s really hard. There have been quite a few now and I literally go to work every day with a smile on my face and usually wind up the same way at the end of the day. I don’t really have a favorite episode.
I always refer to, when I explain the show to people who may not have seen it; I always refer to the dumpster baby when I try to tell them what kind of show it is. Where two people are walking down the street and they’re talking about waste and saving the planet and whatever they’re talking about. They throw a wrapper away and then they go throw it in the dumpster, because that is the proper place for it, and they find a baby. So that sets up for me, when I tell people if somebody hasn’t seen the show yet.
It’s hard. I have so much fun on all the shows. This season has been particularly fun with rum ham and stuff like that, and Dee getting audited, and Frank’s Little Beauties. Thursday we have a show coming up with a bunch of good actors in it and the rest of us. We have a show where I meet my brother and that is fun. It’s a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to that show a lot. Thursday night.
I’m looking forward to seeing that. My second question is in regards to creating a new season. What do you guys think about as a way of improving or making it different from the previous seasons?
DeVito: I think what happens is we look at—or they and the writers—look at all, whatever is going on in the world and get inspired by whether it’s politically, or whether it’s socially, or something’s happening in the world and then take that as a clue and just invent other stories. But I think the best way to put this is that they’re always on, and they’re always on the hunt and they’re always on the hunt to raising the bar as much as possible.
And I believe—the thing about Rob and Glenn and Charlie and Kaitlin and the writers that we have, they’re all very energetic about the show and they all love it. I have no doubt that we’re going to get another couple of seasons of ridiculous hilarity.
I just wanted to say that rum ham was genius.
DeVito: Thanks man. And you know what? I’ll tell you what, it was tasty.
I bet it was.
DeVito: It really was. A lot of people ask me for the recipe. I got to get the prop guy to tell me what the recipe was because it had rum in it and it was sweety, not too sweet, but it tasted so good. It was so well done. Just, it had pineapples, you know?
Yes and I want to try that this Thanksgiving.
DeVito: Happy Thanksgiving—you got to get some of that going.
My first question was, you played so many in the past, but do you think Frank Reynolds compares to any of the characters you’ve portrayed in your career?
DeVito: I think he’s got—no, he’s an individual definitely. His character is set up the way his character is. His situations definitely—when you play characters and they have a certain amount of energy or they don’t have a certain amount of energy, you as an actor, you gather some of that. That always stays with you because a lot of it’s you. A lot of my moves and my things that I like to do, may come from within.
They possibly resemble, like for instance, even in—well, from Louie all the way to Other People’s Money to Twins and all those. There is a lot of similarity and sometimes their spirit, but of course, the situations and their makeup is different. I don’t think that Louie would want to live with Charlie. I know that. He wouldn’t want to do night crawlers. Man, I’m telling you. Louie would throw that. Charlie would be—if it was a situation like that, De Palma would have him sleeping out on the fire escape. There is no way. They’re similar in that way, but I guess the answer is yes.
Okay. My second question was, since your range as an actor seems so broad, was it difficult making that transition from feature films to working in television?
DeVito: I came from—I was on the stage doing off-Broadway work in New York, then I came out and did some episodic television, then I did the three camera stuff. I actually did movies before that because I did Cuckoo’s Nest, and all that was before those. If the audience accepts you in the different genres, then I think you’re really fortunate to go back and forth.
I’m just watching Claire Danes now on her show, Homeland, and she’s doing a great job. That is a different kind of show, but it’s still going from movies to TV. She’s doing a really good job. Then you look at the old days when it was Travolta went from the TV show to the movies. So did Clint Eastwood in those days. It wasn’t commonly done.
And now with all the different medias—the internet medias and the wonderful communications that we have out there in the world—people like to see the actors, especially young folks. It’s doesn’t really bug them if I see them one day in a movie and the next time I see them they’re on TV or even on the web. I think it’s pretty free.
Really great to talk to you. Been a fan of yours pretty much my whole life so this is a thrill. I have two really quick questions. First was, what is it like being from a different generation of actors than the rest of the cast? What do you bring? How do contrast? What is that like?
DeVito: Basically, Dennis and Dee are definitely like my kids, and so is Rob and so are Mac and Charlie, in their age. They’re in their early 30s and I’m in my mid-60s. How it works is, I know more than they do. They have to listen to me. They do everything I say and they wait on me. And then everything else is the same, nothing different.
And we act together, but if I need something they go get it for me. They take me to my car. They make sure I get home. Take care of the Dad. They take me out to dinner. They don’t clean my dressing room, but we have a person to do that. But, they would because they’re my kids and kids have to take care of their parents.
So far it’s been really nice. They take care of me really—and it’s fun being with young people. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for everybody who’s in that generation, the baby boomers or whatever I am, to open themselves up to young folks because I believe—not to sound cliché and like I’m winning a beauty contest—but I believe our future lies with the young people.
I’m really excited about what’s going on Wall Street, and I’m really excited about what’s happening in the world, and I think it’s about time we don’t take to the streets just because we’re going to be drafted, which is what we did when I was a kid, and not sit around and understand that there are really, really important things going on in the world that we have to raise our voices to.
Then the other question I had is kind of weird, really specific, but there was a line that you used a couple seasons back, ‘What’s the action?’ And now we’re sitting around watching The Van and you used that line. Did you just hold onto that chestnut for like 30 years, or was that totally a coincidence?
DeVito: Wait a minute. Did I say it in The Van?
You do say it in The Van.
DeVito: What’s the action?
DeVito: I don’t know. Here’s the thing you got to know. What? Yes. You know how they say that time bends?
DeVito: Yes. You take that mark and then you take the piece of paper and you bend it forward and it looks like it’s standing right next to it? The time. Yes. That is what happens to me, sometimes. I guess it happens to everybody. Out of the blue you’ll say something like, ‘Yellow socks.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘I had yellow socks when I went into third grade.’ ‘Really?’ Especially as you get older, your mind goes all kinds of wacky. So I don’t know where it came—I think Rob came up with that line.
Maybe he was watching The Van.
DeVito: He might have seen The Van. That little ….
Danny, in the show the dialog is ridiculous and the stories are ridiculous, but you and the rest of the cast play it perfectly. Is it hard to play most of those situations and keep it seemingly real and not usually—
DeVito: Hang on one second. Sorry. Say it again.
In the show the dialog is crazy and the stories are ridiculous, but you and the rest of the cast play it perfectly. Is it hard for you guys to play most of those situations and keep it seemingly real and not usually over the top?
DeVito: We’re very committed to our mental capacity. One of the great things is when Rob and Glenn and Charlie created the show, they set the bar. And there are a lot of these things that they believe, and I have come to believe as well. I think the Charlie sandwich is like tasty. I like playing night crawlers. Honestly, it’s really a great thing. I do a lot of things, like randomly drink things that—we don’t comply to the ‘don’t mix’ rule. We don’t do that. We throw up a lot. We do a lot of stuff that we’d do in normal life and it’s probably easier for us to do. I like banging whores—that is in character, that’s not married.
There are so many things—it’s just committing to what you’re doing and getting into it and always thinking it’s a great idea, until it blows up in your face like an M80 in a bunch of meat.