Aug. 24, 2000 -- You might have to beat the mold off some Rodney Dangerfield jokes. But the Smithsonian has forever preserved the comic’s white shirt and red tie. You have to admit, he’s a classic. Of sorts.
Dangerfield tells The Wolf Files he was drunk in December 1993 when he married his wife Joan in Los Vegas. “She wants me to repeat the vows again, when I’m sober,” he says.
I tell you, this guy gets no respect.
Indeed, the recommitment ceremony is part of the public relations blitz for Dangerfield’s new movie, My Five Wives. The has-been, potty-mouthed standup comic Andrew “Dice” Clay will preside over the ceremony, an invitation-only affair at the movie’s Aug. 28 premiere in Santa Monica, Calif., and other guests will include Jerry Stiller, John Byner, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman.
Still, the unlikely union between the Jewish-born, 78-year-old bug-eyed comic and his Mormon-born, 46-year-old wife demands some reflection. She owns a Los Angeles flower shop, and they met in the mid-1980s.
“I never took the time to stop and smell the roses,” he says. “I finally did, and it’s great.”
To be happily married is a lot to say for a man who has spent much of his career grousing about bad sex and go-nowhere relationships. From his standup routine:
“I tell ya, with my wife I got no sex life. Just when I get going, she wakes up.”
“My wife, she likes to talk during sex. The other night she called me from a motel.”
“Blind dates never work out. I had a blind date. The girl, she showed up, she was pregnant. What do ya say to a girl that’s pregnant? ‘What have you been doing lately?’ And she told me she had a fight with her boyfriend. I said, ‘Look, you tell your boyfriend next time you fight, he should knock you down.’”
These days, as he’s gearing up for another run on Vegas, beginning Aug. 31 at the MGM Grand Hotel, The no-sex-in-marriage schtick isn’t really the centerpiece of his routine. “What can I say? It works for us.”
And when it comes to matters of faith, “I’m officially neutral.”
One, And I’m Done
My Five Wives traces its roots to Dangerfield’s conversations with Joan’s family. The Mormons — members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — once practiced polygamy. Brigham Young, a patriarch of the faith and the first governor of Utah, was said to have 27 wives, by some accounts, and more according to others.
“I used to have this joke,” Dangerfield says, “I don’t care how you bring ’em, just bring ’em young.”
He says he’s happy with the one woman he has, but was astounded to find that polygamy is still practiced in parts of the world. In the movie, he plays a business mogul who buys land in the fictional town of Redwood Falls, Utah, who is surprised to find that the land he’s purchased comes with three wives.
The movie is not about Mormonism, he says. Rather, it is a comic look at what a guy like him would do in a polygamous union.
“One of the advantages of having five wives is they can’t all have a headache at the same time,” Dangerfield cracks.
At the same time, how does a man well into retirement age keep five nubile women happy? “They think I’m Don Juan,” he says. “But after one, I’m done.”
The movie and new run in Vegas mark a comeback for Dangerfield. In March, he underwent double bypass surgery. “I’ve been cut up so much,” he says, “I feel like I’m back in my old neighborhood.”
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.