YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Infinite jest

At 81, comedian Rodney Dangerfield wants to keep the laughs, and the movies, coming -- and it's costing him.

November 22, 2002|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

For a large and enviable portion of his adult life, Rodney Dangerfield has worn a bathrobe and nothing else. By his wife's estimation, Dangerfield has more than 20 of them, including certain favorites, and when comedian friends talk about Dangerfield their anecdotes invariably include the detail that Rodney was backstage or in his trailer or strolling through a hotel lobby or out on the street practically naked, except for the robe.

Every now and then, however, Dangerfield gets dressed, and even less occasionally he gets dressed and leaves his high-rise Westside condominium. This was the case Tuesday, when the comedian attended the "premiere" of "The 4th Tenor," his new movie, and celebrated his 81st birthday with a party at Westwood's Napa Valley Grille. There were a few hundred people on hand, some of whom Dangerfield knew. His wife, Joan, had arranged the whole thing, and Rodney, in a gesture of solidarity, wore pants.

"The 4th Tenor" is the sixth in a series of what might be called the Rodney Dangerfield Movies. They are all post-"Caddyshack," post-no-respect, and they all star Dangerfield as either a schnook with a heart of gold or the crazy rich guy who can party like a rock star -- including "Easy Money" in 1983 (schnook), "Back to School" in 1986 (crazy rich guy), and "Ladybugs" in 1992 (schnook).

Except the movies have kept coming where others might have stopped, and so has the joke-writing. For Dangerfield, the yen to tell the world that he's around, and still getting no respect, hasn't much abated, even if doctors, and Hollywood, are telling him otherwise.

It was sometime after "Meet Wally Sparks," in 1997, or maybe "My 5 Wives," which came out briefly in 2000, that Dangerfield began having to finance the Rodney Dangerfield Movies himself.

In "The 4th Tenor," which opens today in one theater in Los Angeles and one in New York, Dangerfield plays Lupo, the love-struck proprietor of an Italian restaurant with singing waiters, who falls in love with his star soprano (played by Annabelle Gurwitch, formerly of the TBS film series "Dinner and a Movie"). "The 4th Tenor" has no domestic theatrical distribution, though Warner Bros. bought the rights to domestic home video, pay-per-view, and video on demand. The film was co-written and directed by Harry Basil, a comic who has been opening for Dangerfield on the road for years, and it was produced by Dangerfield and Joseph Merhi. Merhi is a 48-year-old Lebanese-born producer who knows his way around selling titles straight to video or overseas, having produced more than 90 movies, including "Fist of Honor," "Night of the Wilding" and "Cellblock Sisters: Banished Behind Bars."

"Actually, as early as this morning, Romania, of all places, they called and we're closing a deal," Merhi said on the phone last week, talking about how "The 4th Tenor" was pre-selling and would make back the roughly $4-million budget. He added that the White House had inquired about screening the movie on Air Force One, though several calls to the White House could not confirm this.

Like others, Merhi fell in love with the octogenarian comedian's gotta-keep-working chutzpah, his "graciousness." They had never met before Merhi received a call from his tennis partner, Dick Van Patten.

"Dick Van Patten, the actor, called me one day and said he was speaking to Rodney, and Rodney has a dream of making this movie.... Rodney delivered the script personally to my house."

Van Patten, the accidental broker of "The 4th Tenor," attended the movie's Westwood premiere and birthday party. He seemed as stunned as anybody that he'd played a role in getting the film made. He and Dangerfield weren't social friends, Van Patten said; in fact, they didn't really speak, but one day Rodney called him, saying that he knew Van Patten was well-liked around town, and very connected, and could he find him a producer? Van Patten thought about it for a few minutes and came up with Joe Merhi.

"Rodney bought me a Chrysler convertible," Van Patten said.


Do-it-yourself Rodney

"I guess I finance them by myself, mostly," Dangerfield said earlier this month, sitting on a sofa in his ornately appointed living room. He was referring to "The 4th Tenor" and "Back by Midnight," another movie in the can, produced with Merhi, in which Dangerfield plays a prison warden. "That's why I'm broke," Dangerfield joked. "People think I'm dumb. Bums tell me they'll pay me back." He paused. "It's a funny line, I think, you know?"

Los Angeles Times Articles