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MOVIES : Natural Born Actor : Comic titan Rodney Dangerfield is getting respect for his performance as a hateful dad in 'Natural Born Killers.'

August 21, 1994|Hilary de Vries | Hilary de Vries is a regular contributor to Calendar. and

His living room is as white and still as an ashram, but he stands there looking as exhausted and rheumy-eyed as we remember him. Rodney Dangerfield, creator of all those edgy, collar-yanking stand-up routines, the "I can't get no respect" Rodney Dangerfield who, at 72, is as much a part of our collective cultural consciousness as his fabled white shirt and red tie now lying in state at the Smithsonian.

If he is not the oldest stand-up comedian still working, he is most certainly the only comic whose influence spans three generations; his nightclub act predates Lenny Bruce and his proteges, fostered at his own club, Dangerfield's in New York and on his HBO specials, include the late Sam Kinison, Andrew Dice Clay and Jim Carrey. "Rodney Dangerfield," as one critic once put it, "is the godfather of the cutting edge of comedy."

He has not performed live for more than a year, but he has not been idle. After launching a modest but successful film career in 1980 with "Caddyshack"--and becoming something of a box-office draw with his 1986 sleeper hit, "Back to School"--Dangerfield has embarked on two new endeavors: his second marriage, to Joan Child, a 41-year-old florist, and a first-ever dramatic role, as Juliette Lewis' reprehensible father, in Oliver Stone's controversial film "Natural Born Killers," which opens Friday.

"I'm always on to the next thing," he says, padding around his minimalist Wilshire Boulevard apartment in his black velvet slippers as if he were looking for something long ago misplaced. Here's the white marble steam room he had installed ("it was a closet but I'm not into clothes"), here are photographs of himself, with Joan, with his two grown children, with President Clinton--"To Rodney . . . thanks for the respect, Bill Clinton." Here's the impressive view off the living room window. "We're waiting for drapes, those are just temporary," he says, sinking into the massive leather chair behind an equally massive burled wood desk while he continues the tour. "This furniture was supposed to be in the other room, but Joan had the brilliant idea of putting it in here."

He sighs and lights a cigarette. After years of playing clubs and Vegas and back again, years of an equally turbulent personal life, he now seems a man of carefully considered routine whose days are as clean-limbed as his home. He has three scripts he's trying to shepherd into production, but mostly that means writing and phone calls sandwiched between mornings spent in the pool and afternoons at the gym, sweating it all out in the steam room. He explains all this puffing serenely on a series of cigarettes. "I'm still very self-destructive," he says, slapping the pink sliver of paunch protruding between his shirt and trousers.

And Dangerfield does seem a walking anomaly. Despite the obvious happiness of his marriage--"OK, Joan baby, I'll see you at 6," he sings into the phone--he still nurses a brutally Darwinian approach to life, that nobody, as he puts it, "gets a free ride." Even as he insists "that comfort in my life comes first now," he evinces a startling insecurity, an emotional nakedness that, at times, is colored by the free-floating hostility of his old stand-up routines. "Do I scare you, honey?" he says, his bloodshot eyes suddenly as wild as they ever were. "Because I could scare you."

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Question: So, this past year has been a big one--your second marriage and your first dramatic film role--all after you turned 70.

Answer: Well, I never thought I'd get married again, but I met Joan 10 years ago--she owns a flower shop and I stopped in to smell the flowers and I guess Joan smelled better--and when you add it all up, I love her, she's a great girl. You know, I quit show business to get married the first time, when I was 28. I used to do a joke about it, that I was the only one who knew I quit. Then I came back at age 40 and everybody thought I was crazy. But I've always worked. I've been writing jokes since I was 15 and now I guess I'm an actor too. Or at least Oliver Stone thought so.

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Q: Let's talk about this role. It's quite different than anything you've played in the past.

A: Oliver calls me--I don't know him and I wasn't even that familiar with his work because we all have our own bags, do our own thing, you know? But he's very complimentary about \o7 my\f7 work, seen all my movies and thinks I'm an actor. He says he's got this part for me. Well, I never saw a script, he just said I was supposed to be "the father from hell." And the way I act in the movie is horrible. I deserve to be killed.

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Q: I gather you also wrote, or rewrote, most of your own lines?

A: I wrote "Easy Money" and some of "Back to School" and, with "Caddyshack," I came with 20 new jokes every day. I also write on the spot. So on this movie, all the filthy stuff I wrote. Oliver said he loved it and that was it.

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Q: Beyond the writing, how did you prepare as an actor?

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