But Dangerfield is no stranger to the art of the comeback. The Long Island, N.Y.-born Jacob Cohen began working as a teenager at Brooklyn’s Polish Falcon Club and writing jokes. He married Joyce Indig, and in his mid-20s, dropped out of show business to support his family.
As he has noted many times of his retirement, “Nobody noticed.”
He and Joyce divorced in 1961. Restless, Dangerfield returned to the stage. He struggled, fell at least $20,000 in debt by his own estimates and couldn’t get booked.
“I played one club,” he’s joked, “it was so far out, my act was reviewed in Field & Stream.”
But when the prestige venues turned their backs on him, he made a name for himself in East Coast resorts. That’s where the “No Respect” Rodney Dangerfield persona took hold. By his mid-40s, he had entered the public consciousness through a series of bookings on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Earning Easy Money
Dangerfield was a regular guest on The Tonight Show and hit it big in Las Vegas. But wanting to remain in New York, near his two children, Brian and Melanie, he opened the Manhattan comedy club that still bears his name.
By the mid-1970s, he was a regular headliner at some of the biggest venues in the country, but was largely unproven in Hollywood, where his one-liner style was considered dated. Still, he set aside big stage money for a $35,000 appearance in Caddyshack and stole the show.
As a nouveau riche wiseacre in wallpaper print shirts who is trying to break into country club life, Dangerfield reached a whole new audience. His lines might have been old-school comedy. But they were fresh to the crowd who came to see Bill Murray and Chevy Chase.
One classic line: “Hey, that’s some hat. Did you get a free bowl of soup with it? Oh, on you it looks good, though.”
Another: “He called me a baboon, thinks I’m his wife.”
And for good measure: “I hear this place is restricted, Wang, so don’t tell ’em you’re Jewish.”
Dangerfield proved he was no big-screen fluke in Easy Money and Back to School, one of the first comedies to gross more than $100 million. He even got accolades as the “dad from hell” in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.
But his recent work, in the likes of films like Ladybugs and Meet Wally Sparks, could be filed under “forgettable.” And now, he stakes his next comeback on a film he describes as “a lighthearted look at polygamy.”
Of course, he has nothing to prove, having seen the sort of Hollywood success few ever achieve. But tempting fate in your twilight years must be pretty intoxicating. After all, he’s made a fortune telling the world he gets no respect.
Buck Wolf is a producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is a weekly feature of the U.S. Section. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.