The brilliant Danny DeVito is an icon of both the big and small screens. As one of the most physically distinctive actors in the game, he has used his diminutive stature to his benefit over the years and is still going strong in his 70s. Plus the star has been candid about his height in interviews, even opening up about the unusual medical condition that caused it.
Despite DeVito’s small frame, he could never be accused of being a small performer. Over a career that has spanned four decades and counting, he has always attacked every role with the same amount of scenery-chewing gusto. From Ruthless People to Twins and L.A. Confidential, to name a few, he has rarely disappointed.
Indeed, DeVito’s film career has encompassed countless classics, including Romancing The Stone and Terms of Endearment. And since 2006 he has starred in FX’s dark sitcom It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. With its upcoming 15th season, it will become the longest-tenured live-action sitcom in U.S. history.
On top of his acting work, DeVito is an accomplished director with a host of credits under his belt. He directed Throw Momma From The Train, The War Of The Roses and beloved Roald Dahl adaptation Matilda, all three of which he also starred in. While his last theatrically released directorial effort was 2003 comedy Duplex, he has helmed a host of short films since then.
Plus DeVito’s contribution to cinema encompasses his production company Jersey Films. It has produced award winners such as Erin Brockovich, Get Shorty and Garden State. DeVito was even personally instrumental in getting Pulp Fiction moving, producing Quentin Tarantino’s flick.
As DeVito told The Guardian in 2012, “I hadn’t even seen Reservoir Dogs when I bought his next project, which wasn’t even written. It was just about him. I liked the way he was talking about it.” It’s fair to say his belief in Pulp Fiction was unshakeable.
At the start of his career, a similar belief in himself helped DeVito land a supporting role in the classic 1975 Jack Nicholson movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. But it would be a few years later that he would nab the role that would make him famous. It was as the irascible Louie De Palma in the sitcom Taxi.
The story of how he won the part is classic DeVito. As told to Los Angeles magazine in 2020, the actor had been on a run of movie auditions that he hadn’t booked. And his friends in the business warned him to avoid television. But when the Taxi pilot script came his way, he fell in love with the character of Louie.
As DeVito tells it, he arrived at Paramount to audition in front of producers, including famed writer James L. Brooks. This creative team had previously made The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but DeVito didn’t have a television at home so he had no idea who they were. All he knew was that he wanted the part, because he felt Louie was an unusually well-developed character.
“Everybody was sitting down,” remembered DeVito. “It was a scary moment. I had the script in hand, and I said to them, ‘Nice to meet you. One thing I want to know before we start.’” At this point, the fearless – and potentially foolish – actor attempted a gambit that, nine times out of ten, would have gotten him thrown out of the room.
In a jokingly angry way, DeVito asked, “Who wrote this garbage?” Well, he didn’t use the word “garbage,” if you catch our drift. He then hurled the script on the table in front of everyone. DeVito said, “There was a one second pause. Then Jim Brooks almost died laughing.” He had taken a chance, and, against all the odds, it had paid off.
“Basically, it was one of those things where Louie actually walked into their office,” chuckled DeVito. “From then on, I could say any word I wanted and get a laugh. If I said, ‘And?’ I’d get a laugh. Anything!” The rest, as they say, is history. Louie proved so popular that, 16 years after the show ended, he was ranked as the best character in TV history by TV Guide.
And when DeVito returned to TV for It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia in the mid-2000s, he couldn’t have predicted its insane longevity. All he knew, once again, was that the gleefully amoral and physically depraved Frank Reynolds was a great role. In 2020 he admitted to Los Angeles magazine that he doesn’t see an end for the show in sight.
“Yeah, we don’t know what we’re doing,” DeVito laughed. “But we could probably go some more. We could do this show forever. I could. Now, I recommend every actor out there do theater, do movies. But if you find a bunch of people to work with on a television show, do it, man. Have some fun.”
One DeVito movie that certainly made the masses laugh was 1988’s Twins. In a brilliant sight gag, the film teamed the vertically challenged DeVito with the herculean Arnold Schwarzenegger as the world’s most unlikely twins. DeVito told the Archive of American Television, “He supposedly got all the good genes, and I got the crappy ones. It turns out I got all the smart genes, and he got the stupid ones.”
Another of DeVito’s high-profile roles was that of Oswald Cobblepot, also known as The Penguin, in Tim Burton’s 1992 blockbuster Batman Returns. The film’s depiction of the comic book villain was memorably grotesque, with DeVito donning intense makeup and prosthetics. The result is a pale, leering, pointy-nosed creature who is genuinely unsettling to behold.
In 2019 DeVito told Stellar magazine about the extensive makeup process. He revealed, “It started at four hours and we got it to about three and change.” This didn’t detract from how much he enjoyed playing the character, though. DeVito added, “But I loved every minute of it; we felt like we were at the opera performing a masterpiece.”
At one point in Batman Returns Cobblepot chows down on a raw fish. And DeVito was
adamant there were no Hollywood smoke and mirrors involved. He laughed, “Oh yeah, that was real fish. Bluefish. Fresh, of course. Movie stars only eat fresh fish. Don’t try to pawn two-day old fish on us. You bring that right from the market.”
Throughout the course of the movie, Cobblepot has a viscous black liquid in his mouth, which sometimes drips from his teeth. DeVito revealed, “Well, in the middle of the action, I would squeeze a mixture of mouthwash and spirulina into my mouth – but that was because I needed to ooze this green, kind of black thickish liquid out of the corners.” It was truly disgusting.
DeVito inhabited the character so completely that Burton claimed nobody would speak to him on the set. Why? Because he frightened them. Burton said, “I don’t know if that was his usual way of working, but there was a point where he just clicked on it and was completely this character who was totally antisocial, who had been out of the loop a little too long. Danny was 100 percent into the transformation.”
Christopher Walken, who co-starred in the movie as Max Schreck, backed up Burton when he spoke to The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. He said, “Once he was in that costume, he was the Penguin. He was always in character, using the menacing voice. I saw Danny after the movie, never during production.”
For DeVito, the role actually meant a lot to him personally. He told The Hollywood Reporter, “When I met with Tim, he gave me a painting of this little creature on a yellow ball with red and white stripes. The caption is, ‘My name is Jimmy, but my friends call me the hideous penguin boy.’” He added, “I carry it around with me wherever I go.”
Perhaps the character of Oswald Cobblepot spoke to DeVito on a deeper level than most. After all he grew up different from the other children in his neighborhood because he suffered from Fairbank’s disease, otherwise known as Multiple Epiphyseal Dysplasia. A disorder that affects the growth of bones, it’s the reason he stopped growing once he hit 4 feet 10 inches.
According to the Johns Hopkins Medicine website, MED hits the long bones in the body, and it has the potential to cause arthritis, too. Sufferers often experience pain in the joints of their lower limbs, can have hip and knee issues and sometimes even inward-rolling ankles. It stunts the growth of anyone affected and is normally inherited from one parent.
On March 29, 2019 an in-depth interview with DeVito was published by The Times. And he touched on the anxieties he’d experienced due to his stature, saying, “We all have these little things, our insecurities about ourselves. My height and my demeanour. I’m a little rough around the edges. I was always a little shy about it.”
Rather than let his insecurities stop him from pursuing an acting career, though, DeVito pushed forward. He said, “I kind of went into the mouth of the dragon. Instead of hiding in the background, I went up to the front. I said, ‘Here I am. This is what I do.’”
In the end, DeVito felt he was able to turn his lack of height and overabundance of personality into things that set him apart from other actors. He told the Archive of American Television, “Well, every character I’ve ever played has been my size. I think it’s an asset. I think it’s kind of what you make it, in the way you are, the way you feel.”
A great example of DeVito making his size work came when he starred as Louie De Palma in Taxi. He’d won an Emmy Award for the show – the same year that he’d given a performance about needing to purchase his clothes in the husky boy’s department of a store. And the speech iterated by De Palma was inspired by DeVito’s real life.
During the August, 2020 interview with Los Angeles magazine, DeVito was reminded of the monologue. He said, “Oh, yes, I tell the story about my pants. That’s my story. Once I got to this size, I stopped growing, but I wasn’t skinny. So, I couldn’t go to a store and get clothes right off the rack.”
“So, I used to have to go to the large boy’s department,” continued DeVito. Then, referring to Taxi producers Ed Weinberger and James L. Brooks, he said, “I told Ed and Jim this story. We put that in the show. It’s always good to draw from your life if you can.”
In 2012 DeVito spoke to The Guardian about his physical appearance being an asset. And he was adamant that it helped him to stand out from the crowd of beautiful, physically gifted Hollywood stars. Why? “Because I wasn’t so average,” DeVito said.
“Early on, when I’d go in for a part, people would go, ‘Oh,’” DeVito revealed, before they would then stare at him. He continued, “Later, when they rewind that meeting, it would be, ‘We’ve seen 20 actors for the role of the servant in The Merry Wives of Windsor, but wait a minute, we’ve done this already with this guy, so let’s try this Danny guy.’”
In truth, DeVito believed the only time in his life where his height was a hindrance was during his teen years. This is why he took up dance. He explained, “But then I learned how to dance real good. I had to because I couldn’t slow dance.” He charmingly demonstrated to 5 feet 10 inch journalist Barbara Ellen exactly what he meant.
After instructing The Guardian’s Ellen to get to her feet and move with him to the other side of the room, the loveable DeVito acted out a typical teenage scenario. He said, “So you’re standing there, on your own, and I come over and I’m like, ‘Hey, do you want to slow dance to this song?’ But it’s like, ‘No.’” DeVito then mimed his shoulders slumping in defeat.
“So, what am I going to do?” asked the mischievous DeVito, before he grabbed Ellen’s hands and began dancing with her. A few well-executed moves seemed to impress the journalist, who wrote that his fleet-footedness was nifty. He then grinned at her and said, “You either say no or I get real lucky!”
In truth, this dance demonstration may have been DeVito’s way of using his exuberant personality to put a brave face on a situation that caused him angst in his youth. In 1996 he spoke to Cigar Aficionado and addressed the very same topic in a much different manner. He began, “When I was young, I always wished I were taller.”
“I was plagued,” DeVito continued. “I couldn’t slow-dance with the girls I wanted to because my face would be in a spot where I might be thought of as moving too fast.” In this retelling of his teen experience, DeVito wasn’t full of his usual bluster and devil-may-care attitude. Instead, he was described as sporting a shy grin.
But the actor did admit that he faced some bullying in his youth. He said, “I took a lot of lumps, but I had a lot of friends who helped me and looked out for me.” This doesn’t jive entirely with a 2015 Rolling Stone profile which stated that DeVito was not teased or rejected by his peers for being short. By that point in his life, perhaps, he saw things differently.
One thing that was consistent with this interview and later ones, though, was that DeVito always pinpointed his height as a boon to his Hollywood career. He told Cigar Aficionado, “Once I started acting, I realized that my size made me unique. That opened me up, made me deal with it in a positive way and see the positive side of it.”
And DeVito told The Guardian in 2012, “It all worked out for me.” So he considers himself a lucky guy to have had the career he’s had; he discovered a love for acting, and he managed to make it his living. He summed it all up with, “Once you’ve been bitten by that bug, it’s your passion and you have to follow it. That’s true whether you’re tall, short, black, white, green, yellow.”