First things first, Danny DeVito’s acting career in the 1960s wasn’t going super well. He was struggling, and in 1966 he made friends with another struggling actor. They opted to split their rent in Manhattan, bringing their rates down to $75 each.
The other struggling actor was Michael Douglas, son of Kirk Douglas. This bit of trivia about roommates is EXTREMELY important because their friendship is where DeVito’s career would truly take off.
Leaving the Nest
In the early 1970s, Danny DeVito starred in an off-Broadway adaptation of the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as the character Martini.
It just so happened that Michael Douglas’ father, Kirk Douglas, had been spending years trying to adapt the novel into a film. Michael took over his father’s work, and when he finally was able to get the project together as a producer, the first actor cast was Danny DeVito as Martini. It was the 5th role DeVito had ever landed in a feature-length film and gave his career a nice little boost.
In other words, if Douglas and DeVito had never been roommates, both of their careers could have been wildly different.
The Big Push
However, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would not be the Michael Douglas-produced project that would launch him to superstardom.
The first time they acted together on screen was the adventure film Romancing the Stone, where DeVito played a supporting role. But as a favor, Douglas put his own name, Kathleen Turner’s name, and Danny DeVito’s name above the title on the poster, putting DeVito on the same level as the two leads. This led to a massive boost in DeVito’s career, which is how he rose to prominence in studio comedies throughout the 80s.
Working with Prime Talent
DeVito’s had the fortune of not only working with Milos Forman, a Best Director Oscar winner but with four other Best Director Oscar winners as well. The other four are James L. Brooks, Robert Zemeckis, Barry Levinson, and Francis Ford Coppola.
On top of that, he’s appeared in two Best Picture winners (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms of Endearment) and one Best Picture nominee (L.A. Confidential).
The Raider That Never Was
The most famous story about an actor missing out on Raiders of the Lost Ark is definitely Tom Selleck having to turn down the role of Indiana Jones due to his commitments on the show Magnum P.I.
Turns out, Selleck wasn’t the only one. Danny DeVito was in consideration for the part of Sallah, but also had to turn it down due to TV commitments, the commitment being the series Taxi where he played Louie De Palma.
On the subject of TV shows…
In terms of “what if” casting, this is the most fascinating scenario that DeVito was involved in. Danny DeVito was in consideration to play George Costanza. Yes, THAT George Costanza, the one on Seinfeld. Ultimately, the role went to Jason Alexander, but it’s a hell of a mental exercise to imagine what Costanza would have been like if he was played by DeVito.
One of the most successful films Danny DeVito was ever involved with is without a doubt Twins. Made for a budget of $15 million, it made over $216 million worldwide, and it’s a damn good thing it did.
You see, the film was directed by Ivan Reitman (who you may recognize as the director of Ghostbusters), and starred Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. A $15 million budget was relatively low to pay all three of them plus the rest of the film crew, so they opted to profit share instead of taking salaries. The deal was thrown together so quickly that they signed a napkin (which DeVito had framed later).
Since they opted for a profit share, the three men made a [email protected]#tload of money off the film. Schwarzenegger has gone on record to say that the film earned him over $35 million over the years, which is more than he’s received for any of the Terminator films. Schwarzenegger has gone as far as saying it was the best decision he ever made, and I imagine DeVito has similar feelings.
The Short Cop
However, DeVito and Schwarzenegger were pitted against each other in Hollywood in what might be the most baffling example of potential casting ever.
DeVito was, at one point, strongly considered for the lead role of John Kimble in Kindergarten Cop. Which is… Just real [email protected]#king weird considering that Schwarzenegger ultimately got the part. He wasn’t the only actor approached for the role, other actors included Jack Nicholson, Patrick Swayze, and (as always happens when talking about late 80s/early 90s casting) Bill Murray.
Dodged a Bullet (Bill)
That being said, DeVito losing out/turning down roles hasn’t always been a bad thing. He was originally cast to play Mario in the notorious Super Mario Bros. movie in 1993, but backed out for reasons that are unknown to this day (I’m assuming he realized that the movie was going to be a [email protected]#k, but that’s pure speculation on my part). He was replaced by Bob Hoskins, who ended up regretting the role so much that he’d specifically ask interviewers not to ask him questions about working on the film.
As prominent (and lucky) as DeVito has been, there’s definitely a documented case where his judgment of a film couldn’t have been more wrong. He famously headlined the comedy Ruthless People with Bette Midler, and after they saw the final cut at the premiere, both of them were horrified by the film. They shared a phone call where both of them fell into a nervous rage at how they’d killed their careers by being in the movie.
The film would end up being the 9th highest-grossing film of 1986 in the United States, ahead of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Suffice to say, neither’s career was ruined by any measure.
The Best Producer You Never Knew
A shocking number of people don’t know that DeVito has only ever been nominated for one Academy Award in his career, and it wasn’t for acting. It was for Best Picture because he produced Erin Brockovich.
And that’s far from the only movie he’s produced that you’ve heard of or seen. Other highlights include Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Man on the Moon, and… The TV series Reno 911!.
As I said, you don’t really know Danny DeVito.
An Unusual Best Friend
Before separating in 2012, Danny DeVito was famously married to Rhea Perlman. They starred in movies together, produced movies together, and shared a friend circle.
One of Perlman’s friends that has stayed DeVito’s friend well past that separation is, oddly enough, Lucy Liu. She’s said that DeVito, “knows how to celebrate life,” and doesn’t “waste time being depressed about anything.” Liu would often attend DeVito’s birthday and Thanksgiving celebrations, and I’d love to be a fly on the wall for some of those conversations.
The Rough Cut
Danny DeVito’s career as a director has some fascinating notes in it, but I think this story should give you an idea of what kind of man he is.
DeVito directed and starred in Matilda, and found out some pretty terrible news during filming about the titular character’s actress, Mara Wilson. Wilson’s mother, Suzie Shapiro Wilson, had breast cancer, and her prognosis was poor. Suzie Shapiro Wilson would pass away towards the end of filming, and the film is dedicated to her memory.
That’s not quite where the story ends though. Mara Wilson grew up assuming her mother never saw Matilda, and while she never saw the final cut, Danny DeVito arranged that a rough cut could be screened for Suzie so she could see her daughter in the film. Wilson only learned this a few years ago, and I think it speaks to DeVito’s character as a person.
The Sun Kept Shining
I feel like this story is pretty well-known at this point, but in case you don’t know, Danny DeVito essentially saved It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Six episodes into the series’ first season, things weren’t going super well. While the show had some fans, the ratings were low, and critics (at the time) weren’t enthusiastic about it. However, it just so happened that DeVito’s children were big fans from the start, and got their father on board with loving the show.
It also happened that DeVito personally knew the head of the FX network, so he arranged a meeting between himself and Rob McElhenney to ask what he could do to help. This conversation eventually led to DeVito’s role as Frank Reynolds, which arguably gave the show way more notoriety and helped propel it into a 14 season run with a 15th season on the way.