Saturday, July 6, 2019

There Goes the Neighborhood: Rodney Dangerfield

Rodney Dangerfield was born Jacob Rodney Cohen on November 22, 1921 in Long Island, New York.  He was the son of Vaudeville performer Phillip Cohen, who abandoned his family shortly after Rodney was born.  Talk about no respect!

Young Rodney helped his mother financially by delivering groceries and by selling newspapers and ice cream.  But by 15, he had already developed a keen sense of humor and began selling jokes instead, this time at a club in upstate New York.

After he turned 19, he legally changed his name to Jack Roy and turned professional.  It was tough going for several years though, and he'd often find himself taking regular jobs to now support his own wife and family.  After nine years in the business, with little to show for it, he retired.  He'd later quip "at the time I quit, I was the only one who knew I quit."

In the early 1960s, he began reviving his career.  He played a number of clubs in the Catskills, many of which were off the beaten trail.  "I played one club, " Rodney related.  "It was so far out, my act was reviewed in Field and Stream."

Jack Benny, the original
Rodney Dangerfield.
Realizing he needed an image to jumpstart his career, he adopted the role of the lovable loser.  Jack Roy just wasn't bringing in the crowds, so he also knew he'd need a new moniker.  Thus was born Rodney Dangerfield, a name that he, ahem, "borrowed" from Jack Benny, who had used the name on his radio program of the 1940s.  Strangely enough, the name had also been used by Ricky Nelson on his series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett.  The more you know.....

March 5, 1967 was a turning point in Dangerfield's career.  Ed Sullivan needed a last-minute replacement for his variety show, and Dangerfield got the part.  You can watch a subsequent Sullivan appearance here.

It revived his career and he soon began performing in Vegas.  He would also make frequent return visits to The Ed Sullivan Show as well as Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show, back when that show was funny.  Here's one such appearanceHere's another.

In 1969, he opened up his Dangerfield's Comedy Club in New York City.  It became a huge success, helping to launch the careers of such notables as Ray Ramono and Jay Leno.  It's still in operation today, and you can visit their web site here.

1st Avenue and 61st Street, New York City.
In 1980, Rodney released his album No Respect, which quickly earned him a Grammy (!).  You can listen to the album in its entirety here.

That same year, he'd appear in the comedy classic Caddyshack.  Here's his introduction in the film.

The film's success led to starring roles for Dangerfield, including the 1983 classic Easy Money.  Watch the trailer here. And here he is promoting it on Carson.

Then in 1986, he'd star in the most successful film of his career, Back to School. You can watch the trailer here.  And here he is learning history from a relatively unknown Sam Kinison.

A few years later, Rodney took a more serious role in 1994's Natural Born Killers.  In typical Dangerfield fashion, he wrote all of his own lines.

The following year, Dangerfield was nominated for acceptance into the Motion Picture Academy, but he was denied membership by then-President Roddy McDowell, the same guy who played a talking monkey in the Planet of the Apes franchise. Fans protested the decision, but Rodney ended all debate declaring he'd never wanted membership in the first place.  So there.

In 2000, Dangerfield returned to film, with a role in Adam Sandler's Little Nicky.  Watch him play Lucifer ruling over hell here.  Word of caution: This film won multiple Razzie Awards, and it's not hard to see why.

In 2001, Dangerfield suffered a heart attack while backstage at Jay Leno's The Tonight Show.  I wonder who they got to replace him that night.  Then in 2003, he underwent brain surgery to improve blood flow in preparation for heart surgery.  Jesus.  At the hospital, he uttered another classic when asked how long he'd be in for.  "If all goes well," he said, "about a week.  If not, about an hour and a half."  He died two months later however, having spent the final weeks of his life in a coma.

He was laid to rest at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village in it's famed Celebrity Row, where this author, and thousands more annually, come to pay their respect.

Rest in peace Rodney!

  • Rodney's role in Caddyshack was originally written to be much smaller than how it actually appears in the final film.  He proved so adept at improvisation however that it was greatly expanded.  Several of his co-stars were less than thrilled by this, including Ted Knight.

  • Throughout the 80s, Rodney appeared in a series of commercials for Miller Lite Beer. Here's the most famous of them.

  • In 1990, Rodney shot the pilot for a new NBC sit-com entitled Where's Rodney? I never heard of it either.  The series focused on a young boy named Rodney who could conjure up Dangerfield as a sort of guardian angel whenever he needed advice.  Yikes.  You can watch the show's intro here.  Look for a post-Punky Brewster Soleil Moon Frye among the cast as well as perpetual guest star Jay Thomas.

  • In 2004, Rodney released his autobiography It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs.  Pick up a copy on Amazon.

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