An actor-producer who earned his 'bankability'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As a teenager, Danny DeVito remembers mowing his neighbor's lawn and holding down another summer job on the Jersey shore.

Who would imagine this Asbury Park, N.J., native would one day be one of Hollywood's busiest producers?

DeVito stars, directs, and produces. And the names of his companies are still close to home. Jersey Films produces movies like "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts, which opens today (see review, page 15).

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Jersey Shore specializes in lower-budget movies, including "Drowning Mona" with Bette Midler (now in theaters) and "The Caveman's Valentine" with Samuel L. Jackson (in production). There's also Jersey Records (film scores) and Jersey TV Productions.

DeVito's companies aren't an ego trip. Of the 13 pictures they've produced, he has only appeared in four.

He does outside work as an actor. In his coming movie, "The Big Kahuna," he's teamed with Academy Award-nominee Kevin Spacey and newcomer Peter Facinelli. In fact, Spacey is one of the producers on "Kahuna."

"I learned a lot from Kevin," DeVito says. "We shot the entire movie in New York City in just 16 days. That's a much shorter schedule and smaller budget than Jersey's 'Erin Brockovich.'

"When I grew up in Jersey, I loved going to the movies, but never thought I'd be in one. It was my older sister who figured after two years as a hairstylist [in her salon] I needed to branch out.... She'd heard about the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. We thought they taught makeup, so I enrolled ... as a night student."

DeVito soon discovered the academy was all about acting. His sister had paid for the classes, so he decided to stay in school.

"Once I got on the stage, and everyone started to laugh, I took it as a compliment. They really like me," he says grinning. "One of the teachers suggested I enroll in fencing and speech classes."

Imitating the instructor, DeVito recalls his words, "So you'll learn to walk, not waddle." In a rich Jersey accent, he continues, "and not talk funny."

After graduation, DeVito found no work in New York. He decided he'd have a better chance in movies. "I was really head-in-the-clouds going to the West Coast," he concedes, "and flatter than my wallet when I returned jobless."

"Hey," he adds, "there were good times, too. I did get into the big money - $60 a week; I did meet a wonderful young actress, Rhea Pearlman [now his wife for 18 years], and I eventually did get on the stage."

In 1971, DeVito won the lead in "The Shrinking Bride." It opened and closed the same night. Then DeVito got into the off-Broadway production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

On opening night, actor Michael Douglas was in the audience. He had plans to turn the play into a movie. Four years later, he asked DeVito to repeat his role. The movie won the Academy Award for best picture.

"You always hear people say, 'That was a turning point. I didn't know it at the time, but 'Cuckoo' was the key that unlocked my Hollywood future.

"I began to learn production values when Rhea and I worked together, producing some documentaries." Next came acting in and directing "Throw Momma From the Train" and "The War of the Roses." "Those films were hits, and gave me that glorious word, bankability, so I could dream of starting Jersey Productions."

It was 1992 when DeVito and Michael Shamberg ("A Fish Called Wanda") formed Jersey Films. One year later, Stacey Sher came on board as president.

They've piled up an impressive track record, including "Reality Bites," "Pulp Fiction," and "Get Shorty."

They've signed John Landgraf, formerly head of specials at NBC, to run their television branch, which has already sold two series - "Further Adventures," with Mary Stuart Masterson, to CBS, and "Celebrity" to Fox.

"I will always love the stage," DeVito says. "Who knows, maybe that's the next step for Jersey. Each year Rhea and I take the kids [Gracie, Lucy, and Jake] to New York for a week just to see all the plays." The preteen girls have appeared in school plays; little brother Jake is into sports.

Douglas has played a big part in DeVito's life. "It was when I was attending his birthday party that I got into a friendly discussion with director Milos Forman about comedian Andy Kaufman." That conversation five years ago resulted in Jersey producing the Kaufman biopic "Man on the Moon" starring Jim Carrey. DeVito worked with Kaufman from 1978 to 1983 on the TV series "Taxi."

"I'll never forget my dad's philosophy," DeVito says. "He told me years ago, 'It never gets darker than midnight,' which meant no matter what you're going through, it's going to get better. The dawn will come, just hang in there."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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