Cinema: Tinseltown's Tiny Terror

Offscreen, though, Danny DeVito is a hardworking pussycat

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He stands 5 ft. tall, on point. His face has the canine cantankerousness of a mutt on David Letterman's Stupid Pet Tricks. He secured TV fame playing a gnomish cab dispatcher with a heart of gunk. Not, you might say, Hollywood's idea of a leading man, unless for a Muppet remake of Rumpelstiltskin. But in today's Hollywood, where the hottest teen idol is a 64-year-old named Rodney Dangerfield, anything is possible. So why not Danny DeVito as the topliner of the highly liked summer hit Ruthless People? Or as the scene stealer in a rock video touting a previous hit, The Jewel of the Nile? Or as the voice of the sweet-souled Grundle King in the cartoon feature My Little Pony? Or as a bustling writer, director and producer? Sure: Danny DeVito as a trash- compacted Stallone-Springsteen-Copp ola. And he is cute too.

This tiny terror with the big raucous talent has earned his stardom, and he is savoring it. "You can't do the 'poor guy' number with Danny," says his friend, Writer-Director James L. Brooks. "Instead of getting mad at the hurt he's experienced -- which takes the fun out of success when it comes -- Danny decided instead that it's a gas things have worked out so well." It was Brooks who helped cast DeVito as Louie DePalma, the pernicious troll of the Sunshine Cab Co. on TV's Taxi (1978-83). Expectorating slurs, dancing a jig at the bad luck of his betters or revealing the winsome vulnerability of a lizard left too long in the sun, Louie ranks with Frank Burns of M*A*S*H and Mary Tyler Moore's Ted Baxter as one of sitcom's great no-goodniks. Without truckling, DeVito made the loathable lovable. "It was a feast for me," the actor recalls, "working with brilliant writers who put 'bons mots' (rhymes with Don Knotts) in my mouth. We were like a family; we never fought -- it was sickening!"

A feeling for family -- genteel or belligerent, sickening and sustaining -- is crucial to DeVito, born 41 years ago in Asbury Park, N.J. "My father was a tough man with a great deal of warmth," he says. "It made for a mixed bag of emotions; you never knew when it would explode. He owned a candy store, then a dry cleaner's, then a pool hall. In the pool hall, I'd put tips on the cues, clean the tables and hang out. It was my day-care center. At home I was spoiled by my mom and her millions of girlfriends. In Italian families, boys can do anything. Girls are locked in the closet."

Like many performers-to-be, Danny deflected attacks on his shortcomings (he was always small for his age) with wit and bravado: "Ever since I was born, I've thought of myself as a romantic lead." But not, initially, as an actor. There was the vagrant lead part in a high school play about St. Francis of Assisi. "I was in a brown robe," he remembers. "No shoes, no socks. The curtain wasn't all the way down, and just before we were about to begin, I heard my mother say, 'I think those are his feet.' " Still, it was not until after a stint as "Mr. Danny" in his sister Angie's beauty parlor ("I once did 35 heads on a New Year's Eve") that he enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts to study makeup and picked up acting, fencing and mime as well. The response of DeVito's father to the news of this career move came as a shock. "Dad said, 'Great, Dan. I know you can do it.' I wanted to run out of the room and check the address of the house to make sure I was in the right one."

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