Rodney Dangerfield was one of the most distinctive, enduring figures in the field of stand-up comedy. A performer since his youth, he didn’t break through as a major comedian until middle age, first becoming a mainstay of the US talk show circuit, then becoming a major movie star in the 1980s.
Here are some facts you might not have known about the iconic funnyman, born more than 100 years ago.
20. His legal name was Jack Roy
Like a lot of showbiz figures, Rodney Dangerfield was not born with his professional handle. Born November 22nd 1921, he was raised in the Village of Babylon in New York, and his parents named him Jacob Rodney Cohen. But at the age of 19 he had his name legally changed – not to Rodney Dangerfield, but to Jack Roy.
Dangerfield started using the name Jack Roy (inspired by his vaudevillian father’s stage name, Phil Roy) in his early career as a joke writer and performer. Although it was not the name that he became famous with, Jack Roy remained his legal name for the rest of his life. He later took the name Rodney Dangerfield from a comedy cowboy character played by Jack Benny.
19. He made his film debut as an extra in a Stanley Kubrick movie
Dangerfield would go on to appear in a number of hit comedy films, but he made his screen debut in an early film from one of the most acclaimed directors of the 20th century: Stanley Kubrick. The comedian appears as an onlooker – in a background artist role, without credit – in Kubrick’s 1956 crime thriller The Killing. (He’s on the far left in the image below.)
Based on the book Clean Break by Lionel White, this drama starred Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray and Vince Edwards and it was released when Kubrick was only 28 years old. It follows the tale of a racetrack heist and a group of rival criminals, and Time Magazine predicted it would “make a killing” at the box office – although it actually struggled, failing to land a general release across the US. The film has since become a cult classic.
18. He almost gave up performing to sell aluminium siding
Although he would go on to huge success later in life, Dangerfield’s career did not take off for a long time. After pursuing comedy from his mid-teens, his financial struggles were so great he was forced to abandon his career in the mid-1950s. In order to support his family, Dangerfield – then still known professionally as Jack Roy – spent a number of years working as an aluminium siding salesman.
Aluminium siding is a powerful insulator, often used to protect homes in coastal areas as the metal reacts with water and salt to form a sealed layer. Clearly Dangerfield was well versed in the benefits – he was so successful as an aluminium salesman that he might’ve given up show business entirely. But he was drawn back to it, restarting in the early 60s to perform at various hotels in the Catskill Mountains.
17. He got his big break at 45
After adopting the stage name Rodney Dangerfield in the early 60s, the comedian’s fortunes finally began to turn. However, his career didn’t really take off until March 5th, 1967, when – at the age of 45 – he booked a last-minute appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show after the scheduled guest fell through. This was where Dangerfield built his eventually massive fanbase.
Ed Sullivan was the best-loved talk show host of the time, and his show had helped launch the careers of numerous major acts including Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers and The Muppets. Dangerfield appeared on the show for a total of 17 times between 1967 and 1971. He also built his comedy career on programs like The Dean Martin Show and The Tonight Show.
16. He took his catchphrase “I don’t get no respect” from a gangster
One of Dangerfield’s most frequently repeated lines was “I don’t get no respect.” A key part of his routine was playing the downtrodden, ageing schlub who is frequently belittled by his wife, his kids and the world in general. Dangerfield would eventually publish a book entitled I Don’t Get No Respect, in addition to calling his 1980 comedy album No Respect.
The comic had been inspired to use this line after overhearing it uttered in sincerity by a small-time Mafia associate, who was complaining about how young people regarded him. Dangerfield has also explained that the line stuck with him because of his difficult childhood and his jokes about it: “I had this joke: ‘I played hide and seek; they wouldn’t even look for me.’ To make it work better, you look for something to put in front of it: I was so poor, I was so dumb, so this, so that. I thought, ‘Now what fits that joke?’ Well, ‘No one liked me’ was all right. But then I thought, a more profound thing would be, ‘I get no respect.”
15. He got his first leading role in a movie aged 59
Dangerfield’s career trajectory challenges old notions about showbiz being a young man’s game. On top of breaking big in his mid-40s, Dangerfield was pushing 60 when he got his first leading role in a movie, the 1980 comedy Caddyshack, in which he co-starred with two of the biggest young comedy stars of the era, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray.
Dangerfield played Al Czervik, the obnoxiously wealthy real estate developer who lets off steam at the golf course. Although Caddyshack wasn’t a huge hit on release, it soon became a cult favourite, and launched Dangerfield as a big screen star. He would follow it with lead roles in Easy Money, Back to School and more.
14. He helped launch Jim Carrey’s career
At the height of his own popularity, Dangerfield had a key role to play in helping a future comedy superstar get ahead in the business: a certain Jim Carrey, who started out as a stand-up comic and impressionist before breaking big in 90s movies like Liar Liar, The Truman Show, Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
Impressed by the young Canadian comic, Dangerfield hired Carrey to be his opening act during his Las Vegas residency in the mid-80s, and the two remained friends in the years that followed. On the other hand, Dangerfield also gave some advice to the young Eddie Murphy that wasn’t so useful – he told the young comic, “Hey, kid, I don’t know where you’re gonna go with that, you know? The language, and the race stuff.” However, the pair shared a laugh about this advice three years later, once Murphy was a cast member on Saturday Night Live.
13. He re-wrote most of his lines in Natural Born Killers
While most of his film roles were fairly light-hearted, Dangerfield took on some riskier material when he agreed to appear in Natural Born Killers, director Oliver Stone’s controversial 1994 crime thriller starring Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis. Dangerfield would play a small but key role in the film, as the abusive father of Lewis’ Mallory, and he personally rewrote most of his dialogue.
Dangerfield’s lines are disturbingly paired with, as critic Roger Ebert put it, “a sitcom laugh track that grinds out mechanical hilarity.” Ebert went on to say of the comedian’s unsettling performance, “Everything is funny to the ‘live studio audience,’ because Dangerfield’s timing is right for the punchlines.” His violence in the sitcom setting was shocking to audiences worldwide.
12. He voiced Mr Burns’ son on The Simpsons
With his distinctive tones, Dangerfield was a sought-after voice actor. He lent his vocal talents to a number of animated projects, including his own feature-length family film Rover Dangerfield – but by far his most celebrated voice acting role came in a 1996 episode of The Simpsons. Dangerfield appeared in the episode Burns, Baby Burns as Larry Burns.
This character is the long-lost illegitimate son of Springfield’s wealthy tyrant Mr Burns and his old flame Lily Bancroft. Raised in an orphanage, Larry finds his way to Mr Burns via a locket – though he soon hits it off with Homer rather than Burns (both Larry and Homer enjoy a drink or two). Unsurprisingly, Dangerfield’s character was a very thinly veiled play on his usual comedy persona.
11. His gravestone reads ‘There goes the neighbourhood’
- Credit: Alan Light via Wikimedia Commons
Rodney Dangerfield passed away on October 5th 2004 aged 82. He had previously suffered a mild heart attack on-stage during The Tonight Show, and in 2003 he entered hospital for heart sugery. When asked when he would be out of hospital, he joked: “If all goes well, about a week. If not, about an hour and a half.” He passed away six weeks later.
Rodney’s widow Joan Dangerfield chose a fittingly comedic epitaph: the words ‘There goes the neighbourhood’ are engraved on his headstone. This line came from one of Dangerfield’s routines: “I tell ya I get no respect from anyone. I bought a cemetery plot. The guy said, ‘There goes the neighborhood!'” Joan also arranged for the word “Respect” to be displayed in sky writing in his honour.
10. He was the first comedian to own a website
Clearly Rodney was a futuristic thinker. In 1995, he became the first ever comedian to own his own website. “I knew right away it would transform communication,” he said when describing his purchase to Time Magazine in 2004. “It’s a tremendous thing to be able to communicate with your fans. I can ask questions and get answers right away,” he added.
According to Culture Sonar, some fans have claimed they bought computers just so they could access Dangerfield’s Webby-nominated site, Rodney.com. However, Dangerfield did run into some frustrations with the new online world. In 1997, he sued Epoch Networks Inc. – the company that designed Rodney.com – for $2.8 million, claiming they had borrowed his image for their own promotions.
9. He was a talented acrobatic diver in his youth
Dangerfield’s greatest on-screen stunt has to be the ‘Triple Lindsay Jump’ – a spectacular fictional dive featuring three different boards. It is a highlight for his character Thorton in the 1986 movie Back to School. This scene involved stunt doubles and special effects, but it was actually inspired by real-life aspects of Dangerfield’s youth in Atlantic City.
According to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Dangerfield was a talented diver before his show business career took off. Dangerfield also found work as a singing waiter in his youth, performing at the Polish Falcon Nightclub in Brooklyn when he was 18 years old. Even in middle age, he was an excellent swimmer, so producers included a significant swimming pool scene in Back to School too.
8. He’s one of the few actors who have played both God and the Devil
Dangerfield had the unusual honour of playing both God and Lucifer in feature films. In the 2005 comedy Angels with Angels, he starred alongside Julie Carmen as God Himself. This movie was panned by critics, with Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times describing it as an “overly contrived comedy studded with former TV stars and largely unconvincing impersonations of other showbiz legends.”
The movie in which Dangerfield played Lucifer fared little better among the critics. In 2000’s Little Nicky, he also starred as four other characters, and worked with big names like Adam Sandler, Harvey Keitel and Patricia Arquette. It earned $16 million on its opening weekend at the box office despite negative reviews.
7. He once tried to sell his sweat to a casino
One of Rodney Dangerfield’s stranger projects was a plan to sell his own sweat. Many years afterwards, his widow Joan explained their scheme: “I discovered that Elvis had a handkerchief that was apparently stained with his sweat and it went for a lot of money. So Rodney had a ‘eureka’ moment. He said, ‘I sweat more than anybody! My sweat has to be as good as Elvis’ sweat, right?’ ”
The couple began bottling Dangerfield’s sweat, intending to sell it via Rodney’s frequent haunt, the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino. However, Joan has explained that the casino got cold feet: “They said, no, we couldn’t offer that sweat. They said there was an insurance issue. Rodney was crestfallen.” She still owns a Tupperware container of his sweat as a memento of their strange exploits together.
6. He was keen to be cloned
Another one of Dangerfield’s more bizarre dreams was to be cloned someday – possibly when the technology became available in the not-too-distant future. As a result, he gave out vials of his blood to friends and family before he died, in the hopes that he could perhaps be cloned posthumously. His last wife, Joan, still owns the vial he gave to her in that hope.
Dangerfield did not have any children with Joan, a flower shop worker whom he married in 1993. However, he did have two children with his first wife Joyce Indig: a son named Brian Roy (born in 1960) and daughter Melanie Roy-Friedman. Indig and Dangerfield married in 1951, divorced one decade later, and then married once more in 1963 – only to divorce again in 1970.
5. Caddyshack actually lost him money
Dangerfield rocked up to his Caddyshack audition in a black stretch limousine and strode into producer Jon Peter’s office, tore off his trousers and declared, “Let’s eat!” Dangerfield was snapped up for his unusual sense of humour, and his performance is considered one of the best among the star-studded cast of this comedy movie.
But his smaller role in Caddyshack was reportedly behind a huge financial setback. According to golf writer Geoff Shackleford, “Though [Dangerfield] would always credit Caddyshack for launching his movie career, he would often do so while complaining that he actually lost $150,000 on the film, having given up a month of headlining in Vegas to shoot it.” He earned $35,000 for the role.
4. He was a ‘mathematical genius’
After Dangerfield’s death, his wife Joan paid tribute to the aspects of her husband that were little-known to the public. “Rodney had a fantastically unique mind. Few people knew he was a mathematical genius, but everyone knew he was hilarious,” she said. This tidbit may come as a surprise to those who saw Dangerfield’s character playing the clown in a maths class in Back to School.
Rodney was a diligent schoolkid himself, struggling with his father’s abandonment and his mother’s cold attitude as a youngster. Raised in Kew Gardens, Queens, along with his sister, he went to Richmond Hill High School and graduated in 1939. To take care of his family, he delivered groceries and sold ice cream and newspapers while he was a student.
3. As Rappin’ Rodney, he helped MTV to take off
Dangerfield released a comedy album, No Respect, in 1980 and won a Grammy Award for his efforts. A few years later, he developed a character from one of his TV specials to create a follow-up album called Rappin’ Rodney. Funnily enough, his single of the same name was an immense success – and not only in the world of comedy.
The tune Rappin’ Rodney reached the new Hot 100 Rap Records list in 1983, boosted by its remarkable music video. With cameos by Don Novello and Pat Benatar, the music video showed Rodney as a man on death row. This skit was one of the very earliest MTV hits, along with Video Killed the Radio Star and Money for Nothing.
2. He may have created the first ever Viagra joke
In the late 90s, Dangerfield read about the creation and new retail of Viagra in an LA Times article. “He couldn’t believe an impotence drug was created during his lifetime so he could write jokes about it,” his wife Joan later reminisced. “He had me track Viagra’s popularity online to make sure enough people were familiar with it. They were.”
“A few minutes later, he buzzed me on the intercom and said, ‘I started a new diet. Viagra and prune juice. Only trouble is, I don’t know if I’m coming or going'”, she recalled. “That night he tried out the joke at the Laugh Factory and it killed. The next day, he booked himself on The Tonight Show because he was afraid someone might steal the joke before he got a chance to tell it. It may have been the first Viagra joke told on television.”
1. He premiered one movie in the city of Daingerfield, Texas
With a passion for underdog tales, Rodney Dangerfield wanted to do something unusual for the premiere of 1997’s Meet Wally Sparks. He plays the lead role – an uncouth talk show host – and was also a writer and producer for the comedy. Rather than taking his new creation to Hollywood for opening night, Dangerfield picked a tiny settlement with a name very similar to his own.
Dangerfield premiered the movie in Daingerfield, Texas. This city has less than 3,000 inhabitants, but it is the governmental seat of Morris County. In return, Daingerfield later named a street in Rodney Dangerfield’s honour. When the comedian came to visit, the town also held a parade and closed schools for the afternoon.