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Sunday, December 5, 2021

America’s saddest clown: the outrageous life of Rodney Dangerfield

One of the main reasons he invested $250,000 in his own Dangerfield’s comedy club in New York was because it meant he would not have to travel as regularly, allowing him to look after his children, a role he took on fully after his wife’s cancer diagnosis (they finally divorced again in 1970 and she died five years later). The club, incidentally, remained a long-running success. When he signed a deal with HBO in the 1980s to showcase young comedians at the club, he gave vital breaks to promising young comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld and Roseanne Barr.

One of the comedians who performed at Dangerfield’s has spoken publicly about one of the more bizarre, creepy sides to Dangerfield: his fondness for exposing himself. Comedian Lenny Clarke said Dangerfield would often be naked in front of other comedians in his dressing room.

This trait continued in his eighties. In a 2004 profile, The Baltimore Sun reported that “Rodney Dangerfield is always naked. In bed. In front of the TV. Eating a sandwich. Thinking up a joke. Digging through a drawer.” David Hirshey, an editor at HarperCollins, spent three days at Dangerfield’s Los Angeles home working on the comedian’s autobiography. He recalled having to constantly avert his eyes. “Can’t look down with Rodney,” Hirshey said. “It’s always… there.”

In 2004, journalist Jeff Pearlman interviewed Dangerfield for Newsday. He went to see the comedian at a penthouse in Manhattan and, when the door opened, he was greeted by a memorably “unpleasant” sight. “Rodney was wearing a robe that was wide open, his, eh, junk hanging out with the casualness of a plastic bag. I, of course, asked Dangerfield about this and he shrugged. ‘When you reach a certain age,’ Dangerfield said, ‘you throw a lot of things out the window. What do I care what people think? I’m just trying to be me.’”

Shortly before his death, Dangerfield revealed that Fox Television had bought the rights to his autobiography. When asked who he would like to see portray him, he replied: “Brad Pitt couldn’t do it. He’s not built like me. I like Steve Buscemi. He’d need a lot of makeup, but when he’s onscreen you’re always looking at him. I also like Paul Giamatti.” Perhaps the nude scenes would have given them the willies.

Dangerfield’s final 11 years were spent with Child, a Mormon who was 30 years his junior. They wed in a Las Vegas chapel on Boxing Day 1993. Despite the matrimony jokes that continued to pepper his stand-up – “My wife wants Olympic sex. Once every four years” – she said that their relationship was a happy one, recalling that, “we got weekly mani-pedis and he’d sing love songs to me at the salon. He was romantic, and left me notes like, ‘I’ll never let you down – unless you’re on a ladder.’ He was ethical, compassionate, always reassuring and kind. An exceptionally good person.” For his part, Dangerfield was charmed that when he first wooed her, she responded to his question, “what kind of drugs do you like?” by innocently answering, “antibiotics, I guess.”

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