Born Jacob Cohen, November 22, 1921, in Babylon, NY; died from complications from heart valve replacement surgery, October 5, 2004, in Los Angeles, CA. Comedian and actor. When most people think of Rodney Dangerfield, the first thing that comes to mind is the line that made him famous, "I don't get no respect." But what few know is the comic was well-respected by fans and other comics. He began his career in his teens, but left show business to lead a normal life. He returned to the stage years later and became one of the hottest comics around. He opened his own comedy club that would be the launching pad for numerous comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Carrey.
Dangerfield was born Jacob Cohen on November 22, 1921, in Babylon, New York, in the borough of Long Island. His father was a comic who went by the name of Phil Roy and2 was part of a comedy juggling act that toured the vaudeville circuit. Roy abandoned his family after Dangerfield's birth. His mother, whom Dangerfield recalled as overbearing, moved him and his sister to a swanky neighborhood in Queens. Dangerfield helped out by selling ice cream on the beach, and delivering groceries after school, sometimes to his more affluent classmates.
Dangerfield's childhood years were rough. He endured anti-Semitic remarks from his teachers, and to deal with life, he began writing jokes and stuffing them in a duffel bag. He began performing his jokes on amateur night at various clubs. Dangerfield also took on the stage name of Jack Roy. He earned two dollars after doing a comedy routine at a theater in New Jersey, his first paying job.
Dangerfield also landed a stint at a resort in the Catskills, in upstate New York. He performed for ten weeks, making $12 a week plus room and board. Once he saw that he could make a living as a comedian, he legally changed his name to Jack Roy. Though he continued to land spots at various comedy clubs, Dangerfield also drove a laundry and fish truck. He also worked as a singing waiter at the Polish Falcon nightclub in Brooklyn.
Despite bringing in as much as $300 a week, Dangerfield still struggled. He met and married singer Joyce Indig, and both decided to give up show business and lead a normal life. The couple moved to New Jersey, and soon had two children, Brian and Melanie. To provide for his family, Dangerfield became an aluminum siding salesman.
The normal life was not idyllic for Dangerfield. He began battling depression, a condition he dealt with most of his life, and sought psychiatric help. He and his wife bickered constantly and finally divorced in 1962. The couple would remarry in 1963, and divorced for good in 1970.
During his "normal" life, which he described as "a very colorless existence" to People, Dangerfield continued to write jokes and kept them in the duffel bag. Being debt-ridden and having to live in a seedy hotel in New York helped spark his desire to return to standup. According to the Washington Post, he said, "It was like a need. I had to work. I had to tell jokes. I had to write them and tell them. It was like a fix. I had the habit." Fearful of rejection, he asked club owner George McFadden not to use his name. McFadden came up with Rodney Dangerfield, and his act as a down-on-his-luck everyman catapulted Dangerfield into the spotlight. From this he landed a spot on The Ed Sullivan Show, which many considered his big break.
Dangerfield toured the country in the 1960s doing standup in various clubs. As more and more people took notice, he appeared on several shows including The Merv Griffin Show, The Dean Martin Show, and also The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He would appear on The Tonight Show 70 times throughout his career.
After viewing The Godfather, Dangerfield began to include the line that would define his style. As he worked on the joke, "When I played hide-and-seek, they didn't even look for me," he felt he needed something more. The film and the real-life mobsters who frequented the clubs where he performed spoke of respect. So he came up with the persona of someone who never received any respect, and added the line "I don't get no respect" to his repertoire. He tested it at one performance and received a big response. The line helped Dangerfield establish a bond with his audience and his popularity grew.
In the early 1970s, Dangerfield's former wife died, and to provide his children with a stable life, he opened the comedy club Dangerfield's in Manhattan. With him as a regular headliner, the club was a success. Dangerfield was also very generous in giving unknown comedians their chance to perform on stage. "Rodney didn't care what kind of comedy you did. As long as you were a comic, you were a part of his fraternity," comedian Carrot Top relayed to People. Jim Carrey, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Roseanne Barr were among the many comics who performed at Dangerfield's.
Thanks to his high visibility on The Tonight Show and a series of Miller's Lite beer commercials, Dangerfield began his acting career with a role in the film The Projectionist. However, the movie was a flop, and Dangerfield concentrated on his standup comedy act and club for nine years before returned to the silver screen.
In 1980 Dangerfield took a part in the comedic film Caddyshack, along with Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Ted Knight. The movie was a hit, and led to other films including Easy Money, which he also wrote, Back To School, and Meet Wally Sparks. Dangerfield also took on his only dramatic role as an abusive father in Natural Born Killers with Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson. In an ironic twist, many thought his performance in 1994's Natural Born Killers was worthy of an Oscar nomination, but his application was rejected because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences thought he did not have enough roles that showed his mastery of his craft. According to CNN.com, he stated, "They give no respect at all—pardon the pun—to comedy." Undeterred, Dangerfield created a website and many people emailed their criticism to the academy. They relented and offered Dangerfield admission, which he declined.
In addition to his standup and acting careers, Dangerfield also performed on Broadway in Rodney Dangerfield on Broadway! and released a number of comedy albums which included 1984's "Rappin' Rodney," a rap parody. He won a Grammy Award in 1981 for No Respect. Dangerfield also starred in a number of HBO specials; he sometimes used these specials to showcase up-and-coming comedians.
Dangerfield's health began to deteriorate. He suffered from heart problems, and underwent double bypass surgery in 2000. In 2003 the comedian also had arterial brain surgery to help increase his blood flow so he could have heart valve replacement surgery. Despite ill health, Dangerfield continued performing and making appearances. He published his autobiography It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs in 2004. He appeared on the sitcom Still Standing and also planned to release another comedy album in 2005. Dangerfield had heart valve replacement surgery in August of 2004. After the operation he suffered a small stroke that was followed by infections and abdominal complications. He slipped into a coma, but later awoke long enough to kiss his wife. Danger-field died from complications of surgery on October 5, 2004, in Los Angeles, California; he was 82. He is survived by his second wife, Joan Child; his children, Brian and Melanie; and two grandsons. Sources:CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/10/05/obit.dangerfield.ap/index.html (October 6, 2004); Entertainment Weekly, October 15, 2004, p. 15; E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/ News/Items/0,1,15079,00.html?eol.tkr (October 6, 2004); Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2004, p. B8; New York Times, October 6, 2004, p. A27; People, October 18, 2004, pp. 69-70; Washington Post, October 6, 2004, p. B7.
— Ashyia N. Henderson