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A Labor-Intensive 'Hoffa' : Jack Nicholson got the part, but it's Danny DeVito, directing with the bark of the Teamster boss himself, who acts like Jimmy Hoffa

August 30, 1992|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Every man has his price. What's yours?

--Jimmy Hoffa

If Danny DeVito were a rubber band, he'd be ready to snap.

For two days, the director has been trying to shoot a complicated sequence in "Hoffa," which stars Jack Nicholson as Jimmy Hoffa, dark prince of the American labor movement.

Nothing is going right. The sound is garbled. Extras knock over chairs. A flock of pigeons flies across the sound stage's cavernous rafters, making a racket.

Just when DeVito finally thinks he has a usable take, his camera goes on the blink. "We're in hell now," Nicholson groans. "Eighteen takes. Fourteen technicals."

A camera operator balls up his fist and starts pounding the camera, literally whacking the side of the film magazine. Nearby, Nicholson watches in disbelief. "Real high technology you got here," he says. "Imagine how they'd fix a jet plane."

Suddenly, the rubber band has stretched too far.

DeVito bounds out of his director's chair. He barrels across the set, his stubby legs churning. He races past Nicholson, who looks strikingly like Hoffa, his face fleshed out with a prosthetic nose, hairpiece and fake right front tooth.

"YOU QUEEPS!" DeVito bellows, his voice echoing across the sound stage. "YOU QUEEPS. I GET ALL YOU DO-DOS!"

Nicholson's eyebrows shoot up. He throws back his head and spreads his arms wide. "QUEEPS!" he answers, his voice a human fog horn. "QUEEPS! YOU AIN'T GOT ALL YOUR DO-DOS!"

It's a breathtaking sight. Two grown men--not to mention two Hollywood superstars--are shouting complete gibberish at each other, talking in tongues, like a pair of demented winos with a bad buzz on Skid Row.

DeVito runs another circle around Nicholson, continuing the refrain: "QUEEPS! YOU QUEEPS!"

The uproar subsides as quickly as it started. Having worked for more than two decades as an actor--first in theater, then on "Taxi" and finally in movies like "Ruthless People" and "Batman Returns"--DeVito shrewdly sensed that Nicholson's energy was flagging.

Hoping to get his star's motor revved up, DeVito launched into the "Queep" routine, an old in-joke between the two men, who grew up in neighboring seaside New Jersey towns and have worked together as far back as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

"We realized at some point that we both knew the same guy, this crazy guy named Mitchell, who everybody called Turtle," explains DeVito, who at 47 is eight years Nicholson's junior. "Mitchell and Jack would go to basketball games together. And if Mitchell didn't like the way the game was going, he'd just run out on the court and take the ball away."

De Vito starts to laugh. "And when he'd get excited, he'd start yelling, 'YOU QUEEPS! YOU AIN'T GOT ALL YOUR DO-DOS!' "

Having both spent years struggling before stardom, DeVito and Nicholson get along like two guys who fought in a foxhole together.

The shot they've been laboring over opens in a prison visiting room where Hoffa's wife, Josephine, played by Natalija Nogulich, informs him that he's being pardoned by President Nixon. Then the camera, affixed to an immense Luma crane, rockets up past a bank of spotlights and into a completely different set, swooping down onto a raucous Teamsters welcome-home rally.

"Once we get past Hoffa and Jo and up into the lights, then we should really go ," DeVito tells his camera operator. "As fast as you can."

"OK, but we have a certain speed limit," the cameraman replies, cautioning DeVito on the crane's technical limitations.

DeVito's eyes bug out. He flaps his hands in the air. "What speed limit?" he growls. "Just go like hell !"

"Of course life is a jungle. Anybody who thinks that it isn't just doesn't know what's going on."

--Jimmy Hoffa

Jack Nicholson may be playing the part, but on a movie set, it's Danny DeVito who really acts like Jimmy Hoffa. Blunt, out- spoken, rarely prone to introspection, he is beloved by his crew and given a wide berth by the studio brass. Fiercely loyal and doggedly protective of his turf, DeVito, like Hoffa, operates at only one speed--go like hell.

"Directing movies is in his blood," says 20th Century Fox Films chief Joe Roth. "If you didn't know Danny first as an actor, as the guy from 'Taxi' and 'Twins,' you'd think of him as a Francis Ford Coppola, as a great movie director. He has a grand vision."

DeVito sees Hoffa as a rough 'n' tumble American hero--an irrepressible rogue who took care of business, even if he flattened a few bystanders along the way. Asked to describe the Teamster boss, DeVito shook his fist: "He was the man with the biggest balls in the world."

"Hoffa" chronicles Hoffa's tumultuous rise and fall, sifted through the fertile imagination of DeVito, who directs and co-stars in the film, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, who wrote the screenplay.

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