“Hey there! How’s it going? How you doing, buddy? Good to see you. And you!” Such is the ebullient sound of Danny DeVito echoing across the Universal Studios backlot. He waves hello, high-fives and pulls funny faces with anyone who crosses his path. No one goes unacknowledged. The 67-year-old actor, who was once likened to a “braised testicle”, is not the tallest star in Hollywood at 5ft, but he has personality enough for three people.
We meet in Los Angeles, before catching up on a transatlantic phone call when he’s in London, and the experience is the same in person or on the phone. He’s a mini force of bubbling good nature that will not be denied.
First up, the LA meeting, which takes place in a tiny office, overlooking a surreal landscape of artificial grass and candy-coloured trees. The decor has been arranged for the TV interview for his new movie, Dr Seuss’ The Lorax, an animated version of the 1971 children’s book from the people who brought you Despicable Me.
Even though DeVito only supplies his voice for the film, he looks like a Seuss character with his new bleached blond haircut. “I was just feeling summery,” he explains, hunkering down (more accurately, up) around a table. “There was a picture of Marilyn Monroe lying around the house. I took it to the hairdresser and said, ‘Give me that’”.
Inevitably, DeVito plays the title character of his new film, a small irascible creature who doesn’t take crap from anyone, gets up to all sorts of high jinks and indulges his appetites to the full. “I brought all my natural gifts with me,” he chuckles. “The Lorax is a wonderful character to play because he can do whatever he likes. He’s an agent of mischief. He’s not bound by the social rules. As the Lorax, I can fart any time I want. I can eat 50 to 60 marshmallows in one sitting. It’s no wonder kids identify with him.”
He feels an additional kinship with the project, having grown up reading Dr Seuss books in New Jersey. “Seuss was just a constant friend along with my comic books. You could always go to Green Eggs and Ham. There was something added to it with the rhymes. We do a little rhyming in the movie, but we’re also telling a serious story here that’s a lot of fun.”
The serious story is the book’s eco-message, which the film (in cinemas from Friday 27 July) artfully preserves without getting preachy: the Lorax has to save the truffula trees from the greedy Once-ler. “He’s just a misguided person,” says DeVito. “There’s no doing battle with someone who’s determined to turn everything into a thneed [the Once-ler’s money-making invention]. It’s only when he sees that nothing can live – there’s no air to breathe – then he finally gets it. Thank goodness.”
When we resume our chat on the phone a month later, DeVito is in London on a whistle-stop promotional tour of Europe, where even jet lag and a spell of Russian cold can’t dim his bonhomie. “The good news is that everyone over here can pronounce the word Lorax. Thneed is the one they have trouble with. Thnade? Thnader? Thnee-dee?”
He is calling from the room that was used as Geoffrey Rush’s consulting office in The King’s Speech and heartily appreciates the irony. Even from his earliest days as an actor, DeVito never had a problem speaking his mind. At his audition for the part of crabby Louie De Palma in the 1978-83 sitcom Taxi, he threw the script down in front of the show’s producers and said, “Who wrote this s**t?” When they burst out laughing, he knew he had the part.
Perhaps because he’s away from home, he’s in the mood to wax nostalgic, especially about his youth growing up in Asbury on the New Jersey coast. “It was midway between Atlantic City and Manhattan. Out of season, it was like a Bergman film. Rows of parking meters, deserted beaches, busy winter sky, the ocean was tumultuous…
“It was very romantic for me. The music was all doo-wop. Guys on corners. The trick was to get a corner by a department store that had a nice echo. Of course, nobody had any money in those days. All we could afford to do was get a White Castle hamburger. You would literally stop for 50 cents of gas. Everybody chipping in. Topping off the needle, we called it.”
DeVito grew up the son of a dry cleaner with no real plans for the performing arts. He only turned to acting after a spell working as a cosmetician at his sister’s beauty salon. He studied at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts before boldly heading to Hollywood in 1967 to audition for the movie adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. He didn’t get the part and returned to New York to learn his trade in the theatre, before finally getting a role in the 1975 adaptation of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His one-time room-mate (and fellow New Jersey native) Michael Douglas produced the film. “He was a good guy to me,” says DeVito.
Even a quick glance over the DeVito résumé reveals an enviably varied career. Along with his comedy hits like Twins and Ruthless People, he has produced award-winning triumphs like Pulp Fiction and Erin Brockovich, and even directed a few mordant gems, too, such as The War of the Roses and Matilda.
For the past seven years, he has been a staple on the defiantly off-colour sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He plays a once-successful entrepreneur whose lack of scruples somehow only makes him more charming. It’s the key to the DeVito persona – making self-interest so brazen it becomes lovable. But it’s also quite at odds with his down-to-earth generosity off-screen. To cite one example, DeVito funded the 4th of July fireworks off the coast of Malibu for many years. He still has a house there, close to other Hollywood royalty like Steven Spielberg and Dustin Hoffman.
But one can tell his heart remains in his home state, as he recalls the thrill of being inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame two years ago. This Valhalla of locally born icons includes Jack Nicholson, Count Basie and Frankie Valli. It was a magical night for DeVito, who got to duet on Glory Days with perhaps the state’s most famous son, Bruce Springsteen. The singer said, “No one inducted to this point physically and temperamentally personifies our state [like DeVito]. We are small but mighty; he is small but mighty. We have attitude. If you’ve seen Danny in any of his roles, he has Jersey attitude pouring out of him, even when he’s standing still.”
Which is not for long. He’s soon off to his next assignment leaving a trail of merry greetings. “Hey. How’s it going? Good to see you.”