Danny DeVito on Killing Ghosts, Living Next Door to Brad Pitt and Loving Who He Is

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

If you ever happen to be in Danny DeVito’s Los Angeles home—or reach him live on a Zoom call—please ask for a tour of his pool-table room-slash-office. You won’t be sorry.

“Wanna see something really cool?” he asks while swiveling the camera on his phone. Boom. There’s the umbrella he used as the Penguin in the blockbuster Batman Returns. Next is the hat hanging on the edge of a lampstand. “That’s from Matilda!” he says, referring to the quirky kids classic that he directed and narrated. He’s not done. On his desk sits a miniature figure of a grumpy and frumpy older woman. It’s the title character, played by Anne Ramsey, from the dark comedy Throw Momma from the Train. “I like to have a smattering of things around various rooms,” he says. “I think it’s funny.”

Make no mistake: This is not an actor-director-producer who takes himself too seriously. He also interrupts the interview to rave about his fixation with his LED lamp and shows off the various lighting levels. He jokes about how he regularly phones his three kids, Lucy, 40, Grace, 38, and Jake, 35, (with actress-wife Rhea Perlman) to help with his computer issues. “Even though I know I’m a pain in the ass,” he says, “I have to call them up and say, ‘Tech support!’ and they roll their eyes and go, ‘Not you again!’”

Audiences, of course, do not feel the same way. With that unmistakable New Jersey accent and attitude, DeVito has been a left-of-center charmer for nearly 50 years. Consider that he’d be legendary if he only played hilariously brash Louie De Palma in the classic sitcom Taxi. But DeVito went on to become a fearless player in films like Romancing the Stone, Twins, Ruthless People, The War of The Roses (which he also directed), Get Shorty, L.A. Confidential and Jumanji: The Next Level—plus the aforementioned trifecta of hits. He’s also been a highlight of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, one of the longest-running comedies in TV history, since 2005. In short? At 4-foot-10, DeVito may not stand tall—but he always stands out.

At 78, DeVito now co-stars in Disney’s latest live-action family fare. In Haunted Mansion (in theaters July 28), he plays a college professor who helps a desperate single mother (Rosario Dawson) bust the ghosts out of her newly purchased abode. (Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson and LaKeith Stanfield are the other spiritual experts.) The movie is based on the popular Disneyland ride that DeVito frequented all the time when his son and daughters were younger. “It’s a good, fun movie for kids and adults with some wacky, cool things in it,” he says. “And it’s just on the edge of scary. It has some teeth, you know?” He boasts that his character even catches a ghost.

<p>Parade Magazine</p>

Parade Magazine

Just before sitting down for lunch with a friend, DeVito talked it all out with Parade. (Interview conducted in June 2023 before the SAG/AFTRA strike.)

Mara Reinstein: Is it a thrill to be in a big-budget summer movie at this point in your career?

Danny DeVito: It is. You know, I’ve always wanted to work with Rosario, and I love Tiffany and Owen and LaKeith. And I like the bigness of it. I did Jumanji a few years ago and that was big too. So was [2019’s] Dumbo. Behind the scenes, I’m a fan of all the new technology and all the various toys. So, I would hang around the lighting and grip and camera departments most of the time. This wasn’t a small crew. There were a lot of people making the movie and getting jobs. That’s really good.

Also, this summer: Your former Batman Returns cohort Michael Keaton reprised his iconic role for the first time in 31 years in The Flash. Did that surprise you?

I love that Michael did that. That’s so cool.

<p>Warner Bros.</p>

Warner Bros.

Would you come back as the Penguin?

Oh, yeah! I talk to [director] Tim [Burton] all the time about it. I think Oswald is one of the most operatic and greatest parts I’ve ever been offered to do. He’s a tragic bird who could not fly. Come on! Gimme a break! Every actor wants to be able to do that. And if there were ever a chance to do it again, I’d do it. I love Colin [Farrell]. He’s a good friend of mine. And he’s done great things with his Penguin stuff [in The Batman]. But that’s a different kind of Penguin. I like going big in a lot of ways, whether it’s Sunny or Taxi.

Why weren’t you at the Taxi reunion lunch a few months ago? Tony Danza posted a nice photo on social media.

Fortunately for them, they were all in New York. I was not. But Marilu [Henner] instituted a thing during the pandemic where the whole cast gets on a Zoom and catches up with each other—and we still do it about once a month. So, it’s me and Tony and Marilu and Chris [Lloyd] and Carol [Kane] and Judd [Hirsch]. And [co-creator] Jim Brooks gets on, too. So, we’re always united because we always reunite.

Why do you think that show remains a TV touchstone?

Two things were supremely important. First, we had writers who would never let you down. All week they tended to that script and burned the midnight oil before we would shoot it in front of the audience. And give us credit, too. They put together Judd and Marilu and Tony and Chris and Carol and Andy [Kaufman] and Jeff Conaway. We were shooting a show, and we’d be talking about it right then and there how this was a lasting treasure. Like, “This is f--king outrageous!” All these great writers and producers gave this show to us and we were so appreciative of the exploration and the fun and the education. It was such a great time.

After Taxi ended, did you try hard to move away from such a domineering character?

No, no, no, no, no. It was really cool. Like, now I’m Frank [from Sunny]. And to some kids, I’m Mr. Wormwood from Matilda. I don’t mind it when people think I’m the character or call me by the name. Especially when women call me Officer Goodbody from Friends!

Yes! You played a stripper in the last season. How did that come about?

I had known [co-creator] Marta Kauffman for years. Our kids went to school together. And Jennifer [Aniston] and Brad [Pitt] lived next door to me and we became close neighbors and friends. Out of the blue, I guess they all thought it would be funny if Danny were the officer at a bachelorette party and did a little strip. I was fortunate enough to work with the girls in that cast!

Was it madness living next door to Brad and Jennifer?

They had a very private beautiful home and they were great neighbors. And they had a giant hedge and a gate. Brad, God bless him, was very protective of his family. I would be going to work or coming out of the driveway, and I would see one of the tour buses. People would be standing in front of this hedge getting their picture taken. All you could see was the hedge! But it’s Brad and Jennifer’s hedge, and that is something meaningful. Maybe they took a leaf and put it into a book as a souvenir.

Are you kind of glad that you were never a Brad Pitt-like movie star? You get to act in a variety of roles.

I don’t celebrate the fact that I’m not Clark Gable. I do celebrate that I am who I am.

Did you aspire to be a full-time leading man?

I’m a big fan of Brad and Humphrey Bogart and [Jack] Nicholson and Leonardo. The painter, not the actor. Only kidding! You know, we all have a place. I did imagine my place would be closer to Peter Lorre or Edward G. Robinson or even W.C. Fields.

Do you have a favorite performance?

They’re like your children. They’re all fun so it’s hard to nail down one.

<p>Getty Images</p>

Getty Images

You did have great and funny collaborations with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner—though The War of the Roses is so dark.

They both died but they deserved it! That end always appealed to Michael and Kathleen and they were headstrong about it. There was no negotiation. They’re dear friends, but it wasn’t the easiest movie to make because I put them through the paces. They were really hanging from the 35-foot chandelier. Then they made a splash on the floor.

You and Michael were famously roommates in New York City before hitting it big. Are you two still close?

I just spoke to him the other day. He’s doing really well. He was with Catherine [Zeta-Jones] and the kids. He’s taking a little break from acting. I still need to see him in the new Ant-Man movie.

Do you ever just have a conversation about how far you’ve both come from that little apartment?

We do. I remember the apartment was on West 89th street on the second floor with a lot of windows at the front. We met in the 1960s at the Eugene O’Neill Foundation, which was like a playwrights’ conference in Connecticut. Michael and I were smoking a lot of pot in those days and became good friends. Then I needed a place to stay and he said, “I got this big room” and I ended up moving in. The rent was nothing. I think it was, like, $70. When he went off to do The Streets of San Francisco in California, he still paid half. It was like a dormitory, so we had this deal that if you had a guest, there was a tie on the door and you couldn’t come in.

And did you keep him out of the apartment a lot?

We never calculated. That’s a can of worms to open! But I was dating Rhea. [Musician] Itzhak Perlman lived near us and I would see him get out of his car all the time. He had his own special spot. I’d say [joking], “Rhea, your cousin just came over.”

<p>Getty Images</p>

Getty Images

How are you and Rhea doing these days? What’s the status?

We’re like this! [He puts two fingers together]. We’re thick as thieves. We’re really close and see each other a few times a week and have dinner and breakfast. We just became grandparents, so now we’re insufferable. If I weren’t doing this right now, I’d be looking at photos of my baby granddaughter, Sinclair. Auntie Lucy and Uncle Jake love her very much too.

Related: Rhea Perlman Gives a Surprising Update on Her Marriage to Danny DeVito

Your kids are all involved in the arts. Were they ever going to be lawyers or doctors?

No. Look, my parents [Daniel, a small business owner, and Julia, a homemaker] were always very encouraging of anything I wanted to do. I learned from that and it rubbed off on me and on Rhea. We never pushed anybody in any direction. Now we’re blessed with three wonderful children. And we work together a lot.

In terms of your career, is there anything left for you to accomplish?

There’s a lot. Lucy and I are going to do a new play together on Broadway called I Need That. Rehearsals start in September. We’re developing movies and television with my production company [Jersey Films]. Jake and Lucy are basically running the company. A new season of Sunny just started, and it’s off the charts! I love pulling out all the stops for it. I love coming out of couches naked and losing my memory and falling out of buildings and going into toilets. Like, Come on, is that all you got? And you never know what the future brings.

<p>Universal Pictures</p>

Universal Pictures

Your Twins co-star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, recently told Parade that you two are reuniting on a new project. Well?

Yeah, I’m going to direct it. We’re working on it now. Our movie is not Twins but it’s still a comedy with the two of us and there will be areas to explore. Let’s put it this way: We’re not The Odd Couple but we’re oddities. And curiosities!

Related: Arnold Schwarzenegger Opens Up About His Lucky Life, First TV Series and Political Future

Danny, are you just a fun guy to be around?

You’re experiencing it right now. I don’t get much more fun than this.

Is it your New Jersey-ness? Do you just keep it real all the time?

It is Jersey. It’s the experience of being in an Italian-American family in New Jersey in the 1950s. It was a different time after the War. When I grew up, everybody was family. I had aunties next door. I had a million uncles, and they were all my dad’s friends. We had hardships but we got through it. You learn that education is a prime thing. Look at everything. Don’t put your head in the sand. Always look forward. Go through to find the truth. Look as deep as you can. And don’t take anybody’s word for anything—learn it for yourself. That’s the way it should be.

Haunted Mansion premieres in theaters on July 28, 2023. 

*Interview conducted in June 2023 before the SAG/AFTRA strike

Next, Everything We Know About Disney's New 'Haunted Mansion' Movie