Rodney Dangerfield dies at 82; mastered role as comic loser

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Rodney Dangerfield, who earned the respect of comedians and audiences everywhere by insisting he never got any, died yesterday of complications after undergoing heart surgery at a Los Angeles hospital.

The 82-year-old comedian, whose bulging eyes, rapid-fire delivery and always-too-tight shirt collar proved comic gold for nearly four decades, had been operated on at UCLA Medical Center Aug. 25 to have a heart valve replaced. He lapsed into a coma after the operation, suffering a small stroke and developing infectious and abdominal complications, publicist Kevin Susaki said. But he had emerged from the coma in the past week.

A master of the self-putdown, Mr. Dangerfield delighted audiences by never looking at ease, always making himself the butt of the joke and leaving behind the impression that, no matter how bad your life might be, his was worse. Audiences ate it up.

"Your 'no respect,' everybody can identify with that," an admiring Jack Benny once said.

"No respect, I don't get no respect at all." That was Mr. Dangerfield's signature line, and he must have delivered it tens of thousands of times over the years. Invariably, more misery would follow.

"My wife's a water sign, I'm an earth sign; together we make mud," he would say. Or maybe: "When I was born, I was so ugly that my mother slapped the doctor." And then there was, "When I played hide-and-seek, they didn't even look for me."

Mr. Dangerfield delivered that last joke during an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, one of the first times he tried out his sad-sack routine on the public. Thirty-seven years later, it was still going strong; a story in the May 28 issue of Entertainment Weekly detailed how, even slowed by illness and infirmity, he still could take charge of a crowd.

"I'm in a good mood, really," he tells the audience during a surprise visit to a New York comedy club. "I just finished my first book. Now, I'm gonna read anudder one!"

Son of a comic

Born Jacob Cohen on Nov. 22, 1921, in Babylon on Long Island, N.Y., the boy who would become Rodney Dangerfield was the son of a vaudeville comic, billed as Phil Roy, who abandoned the family when Jacob was still young. He and a sister were raised by their mother, who moved them to a Queens neighborhood where, Mr. Dangerfield would later recall, he never felt at ease.

"When I was young, I had to deliver groceries to the homes of the kids I went to school with," he told an interviewer. "I had to go to the back doors to make deliveries. It was embarrassing."

Who knew that young Jacob, who often found himself the butt of anti-Semitic wisecracks, was even then gathering material for a career of making people laugh? At age 15, he started writing jokes, "not out of happiness," he explained, "but to go to a different place, because reality wasn't good for me."

He got his first paid gig at 18, earning $2 for performing -- under the name Jack Roy -- at a theater in Newark, N.J. A year later, he started working at resorts in New York's Catskill Mountains, once a breeding ground for comics and other performers. Still going by the name Jack Roy, he started at $12 a week, climbing to $150 a week after two years.

But the job was getting to him; he didn't like playing what he would always refer to as "dumps." He gave up the business at age 28 and married a singer, Joyce Indig. But the two had a troubled domestic life, divorcing in 1962, remarrying a year later, then divorcing for the second and final time in 1970.

During the first divorce, $20,000 in debt and living in a seedy New York hotel, he decided to give show business another try. Telling a sympathetic club owner of his plight, saying he was too embarrassed to perform under his own name (which by now legally was Jack Roy), he was given both a job and a new name, one his friend reportedly pulled out of thin air: Rodney Dangerfield.

His revived career proved no better than his first go-round until those appearances on the Sullivan show in 1967. The laughs came fast and furious, and so did the bookings. The new and decidedly unimproved comedian was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, as well as on variety shows hosted by Dean Martin and Merv Griffin.

In 1969, tired of the road and wanting to spend time with his kids, he opened his own Manhattan nightclub, Dangerfield's. For maybe the first time, he was getting adulation, if not respect.

Mr. Dangerfield appeared in his first movie, The Projectionist, in 1971; it went nowhere, and nine years would pass before he'd try again. But as the rich, boorish Al Czervik in Caddyshack, starring alongside Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Ted Knight, he proved a major hit. Which should have been a surprise to no one; college students had long been among his biggest fans -- a 1978 survey ranked him as their favorite comic.

"He was like a big father figure to all of us," comedian Roseanne told Entertainment Weekly. "He made it his business to help young talent along, and boy, that's something. I don't know if anybody does that anymore."

He later starred in several pictures that played off his loser persona, including 1983's Easy Money and 1986's Back to School. He also appeared in Miller Lite beer commercials and HBO comedy specials, and even recorded a hit rap parody, "Rappin' Rodney."

In 1994, director Oliver Stone cast him as Juliette Lewis' alcoholic, horribly abusive father in Natural Born Killers, a role Mr. Dangerfield always claimed to have written himself. His portrayal was memorably depraved, exactly what the role called for, but once again respect failed to come his way; when Mr. Dangerfield applied for membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he was rejected for lacking "enough of the kind of roles that allow a performer to demonstrate the mastery of the craft."

Rejected, again

As much as the rejection fit his persona, the academy's decision stung. "This is ridiculous," Mr. Dangerfield said. "Maybe the character ... was so distasteful that it turned the academy off."

In recent years, a series of medical setbacks, including arterial brain surgery last year to increase his body's blood flow, had slowed Mr. Dangerfield physically, but he remained a veritable joke machine.

While he may not have been able to match the 325-jokes- per-hour pace he was said to have kept in his prime, he was always recognizably Rodney in front of a crowd.

His infirmities might even have helped keep young audiences among his biggest fans; for years, he had smoked marijuana legally, under doctor's orders, most recently to control high blood pressure. Over the past several months, articles had appeared in several publications painting him as a sick old man with a reefer, dressed in a bathrobe, disdainful of convention but still cracking wise.

The title of his autobiography published this year? It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs.

Yesterday on his Web site (www.rodney.com), the joke of the day read simply, "I tell ya, I get no respect from anyone. I bought a cemetery plot. The guy said, 'There goes the neighborhood.'"

Mr. Dangerfield is survived by his wife, Joan; two children from his first marriage; and two grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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