Respect isn't what Dangerfield needs

Comic tries hard for the good life

August 19, 2004|By Jeff Pearlman | Jeff Pearlman,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK - There are some sights no human being should ever be subjected to: Head for the hills. Pack your stuff. Board up the windows.

Rodney Dangerfield is naked.

What's more, Rodney Dangerfield is always naked. In bed. In front of the TV. Eating a sandwich. Thinking up a joke. Digging through a drawer in search of a bag of marijuana and his lighter. Unless he's planning to hit 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 HarperCollins, spent three days with Dangerfield working on the comedian's autobiography, he kept his eyes straight ahead. "Can't look down with Rodney," says Hirshey. Dangerfield is sitting on a chair in a penthouse suite of Manhattan's Omni Berkshire Place, where he's staying while promoting his new autobiography, It's Not Easy Bein' Me.

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 this advanced age, a bolt of electricity whose stream of caustic one-liners whoosh past your head at 500 mph.

"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."

"What a childhood I had. My parents sent me to a child psychiatrist. The kid didn't help me at all."

"I was an ugly kid. When I was born, after the doctor cut the cord, he hung himself."

As the laughter grows louder, the familiar Dangerfield emerges, tugging on his tie, nodding his head, running his hand through his gray hair. Beads of sweat dot 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. He is here, in the Omni, nude, raspy-voiced, soldiering on. Running up and down his chest is a long zipper scar, the result of open-heart surgery that saved his life four years ago. Dangerfield also has had two aneurysm operations and brain surgery. Yet those, he will tell you, are not his biggest problems.

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.

It is a strange combination but it's logical, too. "If a really good comedian isn't depressed," says Bob Saget, a veteran of the stand-up biz, "something's wrong."

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.

Truth be told, much of his life has been devoted to trying to feel good. He's used most drugs out there, has slept with prostitutes and has combined every conceivable genre of fattening food into one big sandwich.

Though he still broods, Dangerfield's outlook improved 11 years ago, when he married Joan Child, a clean-living Mormon flower shop owner he initially met in the late '70s. Child, who is his second wife (he has two grown children from his first marriage), is 30 years younger than her husband. 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.

Although his health only lets him performs stand-up a couple times a year and is no longer interested in movie roles, Dangerfield continues to write jokes, then test them on her.

"My wife is the worst cook in the world. At my house, we pray after we eat."

"People think I get plenty of girls. I go to drive-in movies and do push-ups in the back seat of my car."

Funny or not, Joan chuckles.

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

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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