Rodney Dangerfield

Rodney Dangerfield

Dangerfield performing in 1972
Born Jacob Cohen
(1921-11-22)November 22, 1921
Deer Park, New York, U.S.
Died October 5, 2004(2004-10-05) (aged 82)
Westwood, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Nationality American
Occupation Stand-up comedian, actor, producer, screenwriter, comedian
Years active 1940–1949, 1962–2004
Spouse(s) Joyce Indig (m. 1949; div. 1962)
Joyce Indig (m. 1963; div. 1970)
Joan Child (m. 1993; his death 2004)
Children 2

Comedy career

Medium Stand-up, film
Genres Depression, Human sexuality, Aging, Deadpan, Self-deprecation, Dick jokes, Fat jokes, Alcoholism
Influences Groucho Marx, W. C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Henny Youngman,[1] Don Rickles
Influenced Norm Macdonald, Conan O'Brien, Robert Klein,[2] Bob Saget,[3] Chris Rock[4]

Rodney Dangerfield (born Jacob Cohen, November 22, 1921 – October 5, 2004)[5] was an American stand-up comedian, actor, producer, screenwriter and comedian known for the catchphrase "I don't get no respect!" and his monologues on that theme. He is also remembered for his 1980s film roles, especially in Easy Money, Caddyshack, and Back to School.

Early life

Dangerfield was born in Deer Park, in Suffolk County, Long Island, New York.[5] He was the son of Jewish parents, Dorothy "Dotty" (Teitelbaum) and the vaudevillian performer Phil Roy (Phillip Cohen). His mother was born in Hungary.[6] Dangerfield's father was rarely home; Rodney would normally see him only twice a year. Late in life, Rodney's father begged him for forgiveness, and Rodney obliged.[7]

After his father abandoned the family, his mother moved him and his sister to Kew Gardens, Queens, and he attended Richmond Hill High School, where he graduated in 1939. To support himself and his family, he sold newspapers and ice cream at the beach, and delivered groceries.[7]

At the age of 15, he began to write for stand-up comedians, and he himself began to perform at a resort in Ellenville, New York,[8] at the age of 19 under the name Jack Roy,[9] to which he legally changed his name.[10] He struggled financially for nine years, at one point performing as a singing waiter until he was fired, and also working as a performing acrobatic diver before giving up show business to take a job selling aluminum siding to support his wife and family. He later said that he was so little known then that "at the time I quit, I was the only one who knew I quit!"


Early career

In the early 1960s he started down what would be a long road toward rehabilitating his career as an entertainer, still working as a salesman by day. He divorced his first wife Joyce in 1961, and returned to the stage, performing at many hotels in the Catskill Mountains, but still with minimal success. He fell into debt (about $20,000 by his own estimate), and couldn't get booked. As he would later joke, "I played one clubit was so far out, my act was reviewed in Field & Stream."[11]

He came to realize that what he lacked was an "image"a well-defined on-stage persona that audiences could relate to, and that would distinguish him from similar comics. Returning to the East Coast, after being shunned by the premier comedy venues, he began to develop a character for whom nothing goes right.

He took the name Rodney Dangerfield, which had been used as the comical name of a faux cowboy star by Jack Benny on his radio program at least as early as the December 21, 1941, broadcast, and later as a pseudonym by Ricky Nelson on the TV program The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The Benny character, who also received little or no respect from the outside world, served as a great inspiration to Dangerfield while he was developing his own comedy character. The "Biography" program also tells of the time Benny visited Dangerfield backstage after one of his performances. During this visit Benny complimented him on developing such a wonderful comedy character and style. However, Jack Roy remained Dangerfield's legal name,[12] as he mentioned in several interviews. During a question-and-answer session with the audience on the album No Respect, Dangerfield joked that his real name was Percival Sweetwater.

Career surge

Dangerfield's one-liner style of comedy
  • "My fan club broke up. The guy died."
  • "Last week my house was on fire. My wife told the kids, 'Be quiet, you'll wake up Daddy."'
  • "I was ugly, very ugly. When I was born, the doctor smacked my mother."[5]

On Sunday, March 5, 1967, The Ed Sullivan Show needed a last-minute replacement for another act,[13] and Dangerfield became the surprise hit of the show.

Dangerfield began headlining shows in Las Vegas and made frequent encore appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.[14] He became a regular on The Dean Martin Show and appeared on The Tonight Show a total of 35 times.[15] One of his quips as a standup comedian was, "I walked into a bar the other day and ordered a drink. The bartender says, 'I can't serve you.' I said, 'Why not? I'm over 21!' He said, 'You're just too ugly.' I said as always, 'Boy I tell you, I get no respect around here'." The "no respect" phrase would come to define his act in the years that followed.

In 1969, Rodney Dangerfield teamed up with longtime friend Anthony Bevacqua to build the Dangerfield's comedy club in New York City. Rodney now had a venue in which to perform on a regular basis, without having to constantly travel. The club became a huge success. Dangerfield's has been in continuous operation for over 40 years.[16] Dangerfield's was the venue for several HBO shows which helped popularize many standup comics, including Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Tim Allen, Roseanne Barr, Robert Townsend, Jeff Foxworthy, Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, Rita Rudner, Andrew Dice Clay, Louie Anderson, Dom Irrera and Bob Saget.

Rodney Dangerfield's 1980 comedy album No Respect.

His 1980 comedy album, No Respect, won a Grammy Award.[17] One of his TV specials featured a musical number, "Rappin' Rodney", which would appear on his 1983 follow-up album, Rappin' Rodney. In December 1983, the "Rappin' Rodney" single became one of the first Hot 100 rap records, and the associated video was an early MTV hit.[18] The video featured cameo appearances by Don Novello (aka Father Guido Sarducci) as a last rites priest munching on Rodney's last meal of fast food in a styrofoam container and Pat Benatar as a masked executioner pulling a hangman's knot. The two appear in a dream sequence where Dangerfield is condemned to die and doesn't get any respect even in Heaven, as the gates close without his being permitted to enter.

Career peak

Though his acting career had begun much earlier in obscure movies like The Projectionist (1971),[8] Dangerfield's career peaked during the early 1980s, when he began acting in hit comedy movies.

One of Dangerfield's more memorable performances was in the 1980 golf comedy Caddyshack, in which he played a nouveau riche developer who was a guest at a golf club and began shaking up the establishment of the club's old guard. His role was initially smaller, but because he and fellow cast members Chevy Chase and Bill Murray were so deft at improvisation, their roles were greatly expanded (much to the chagrin of some of their castmates).[19] His appearance in Caddyshack led to starring roles in Easy Money and Back To School.

Throughout the 1980s, Dangerfield also appeared in a series of commercials for Miller Lite beer, including one where various celebrities who had appeared in the ads were holding a bowling match whose score became tied. After a bearded Ben Davidson told Rodney, "All we need is one pin, Rodney", Dangerfield's ball went down the alley and bounced perpendicularly off the head pin, landing in the gutter without knocking down any of the pins.

In a change of pace from the comedy persona that made him famous, he played an abusive father in Natural Born Killers in a scene for which he wrote or rewrote all of his own lines.[20]

Dangerfield was rejected for membership in the Motion Picture Academy in 1995 by the head of the Academy's Actors Section, Roddy McDowall.[21] After fan protests the Academy reconsidered, but Dangerfield then refused to accept membership.

Dangerfield appeared in an episode of The Simpsons titled "Burns, Baby Burns" wherein he played a character who is essentially a parody of his own persona, Mr. Burns' son Larry Burns. He also appeared as himself in an episode of Home Improvement.

Dangerfield also appeared in the 2000 Adam Sandler film Little Nicky, playing Lucifer, the father of Satan (Harvey Keitel) and grandfather of Nicky (Sandler).

He was recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, which put one of his trademark white shirts and red ties on display. When he handed the shirt to the museum's curator, Rodney joked, "I have a feeling you're going to use this to clean Lindbergh's plane."[22]

Dangerfield played an important role in comedian Jim Carrey's rise to stardom. In the 1980s, after watching Carrey perform at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, Rodney signed Carrey to open for his Las Vegas show. The two would tour together for about two more years.[23]

Personal life

Dangerfield was married three times, twice to Joyce Indig. He had two children with Indig: son, Brian; daughter, Melanie. From 1993 until his death, he was married to Joan Child.[24]

In his book The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff revealed that, during his time selling aluminum siding, Dangerfield was investigated by the FBI for fraudulent sales practices; such disreputable behavior was common in the United States home improvement business after The Second World War and the subject of the film Tin Men. News of the investigation was even reported in The Long Island Star-Journal on October 22, 1955, which named "Jack Cohen, also known as Jack Roy" (Dangerfield's birth and initial stage names, respectively) as a top executive of one suspect home improvement firm. According to fellow comedian Robert Klein, Dangerfield rarely spoke of the charges and never did so in much detail, but he managed to avoid a trial or jail time. Nevertheless, Nesteroff speculates that his return to comedy and name change were both at least partially motivated to distance himself from the matter.

In his autobiography, It's Not Easy Bein' Me, Dangerfield gave his side of the story. He quit show business when he got married and sold aluminum siding to support his family, eventually starting his own home improvement business. But his accountant "cooked the books" and the company was fined $20,000 after the FBI came knocking. He had to borrow money from a shylock to pay the fine. It couldn't have happened at a worse time; his mother was dying of cancer, his wife was sick, he had two kids and was totally broke. Depressed and desperate, he was able to get booked at a club where he used to be a favorite, but he was 12 years older now and he didn't know how he'd do this time around. If he bombed, the word would spread and he'd be finished for good. Fearful of failure and rejection, he asked club owner George McFadden to come up with a fake name to promote his appearance in the Friday Mirror, McFadden came up with "Rodney Dangerfield." Turned out he was older, but funnier too. He killed under the pseudonym accessing a duffle bag full of jokes he'd written and polished during his days as a tin man. He was back in show business and his act as a down-on-his-luck everyman catapulted Dangerfield into the spotlight, onto The Ed Sullivan Show, and eventually to Vegas.

Dangerfield resented being confused with his on-stage persona. Although his wife Joan described him as "classy, gentlemanly, sensitive and intelligent,"[25] he was often treated like the loser he played. In his 2004 autobiography, It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs (ISBN 0-06-621107-7) - released posthumously - he confessed to being a longtime marijuana smoker. The book's original title was My Love Affair With Marijuana.[26]

Dangerfield was an atheist.[27]

Later years and death

Dangerfield's headstone at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery

On November 22, 2001 (his 80th birthday), Dangerfield suffered a mild heart attack while backstage at the Tonight Show. During Dangerfield's hospital stay, the staff were reportedly upset that he smoked marijuana in his room.[28] But he was back at the Tonight Show a year later, performing on his 81st birthday.[28]

On April 8, 2004, Dangerfield underwent brain surgery to improve blood flow in preparation for heart valve-replacement surgery on August 24, 2004. Upon entering the hospital, he uttered another characteristic one-liner when asked how long he would be hospitalized: "If all goes well, about a week. If not, about an hour and a half."[29]

In September 2004, it was revealed that Dangerfield had been in a coma for several weeks. Afterward, he began breathing on his own and showing signs of awareness when visited by friends. He died on October 5, 2004a month and a half shy of his 83rd birthdayat the UCLA Medical Center, from complications of the surgery he had undergone in August. Dangerfield was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. His headstone reads, "Rodney Dangerfield... There goes the neighborhood."[30]

Joan Child held an event in which the word "respect" had been emblazoned in the sky, while each guest was given a live Monarch butterfly for a butterfly-release ceremony led by Farrah Fawcett.[31]


UCLA’s Division of Neurosurgery named a suite of operating rooms after him and gave him the "Rodney Respect Award," which his widow presented to Jay Leno on October 20, 2005. It was presented on behalf of the David Geffen School of Medicine/Division of Neurosurgery at UCLA at their 2005 Visionary Ball.[32] Other such recipients of the "Rodney Respect Award" include Tim Allen (2007),[33] Jim Carrey (2009), Louie Anderson (2010),[34] Bob Saget (2011) and Chelsea Handler (2012).[35]

In his memory, Saturday Night Live ran a short sketch of Dangerfield (played by Darrell Hammond) at the gates of heaven. Saint Peter mentions that he heard Dangerfield got no respect in life, which prompts Dangerfield to spew an entire string of his famous one-liners. After he's done, he asks why Saint Peter was so interested. Saint Peter replies, "I just wanted to hear those jokes one more time" and waves him into heaven, prompting Dangerfield to joyfully declare: "Finally! A little respect!"[36]

On September 10, 2006, Comedy Central's Legends: Rodney Dangerfield commemorated his life and legacy. Featured comedians included Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Jay Leno, Ray Romano, Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Saget, Jerry Stiller, Kevin Kline and Jeff Foxworthy.[37]

In 2007, a Rodney Dangerfield tattoo was among the most popular celebrity tattoos in the United States.[38]

On The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, May 29, 2009, Leno credited Dangerfield with popularizing the style of joke he had long been using. The format of the joke is that the comedian tells a sidekick how bad something is, and the sidekickin this case, guitar player Kevin Eubankssets up the joke by asking just how bad that something is.[39]


Actor and screenwriter

Actor only

TV work



Title Year Notes
The Loser / What's In A Name (reissue) 1966 / 1977
I Don't Get No Respect 1970
No Respect 1980 #48 US
Rappin' Rodney 1983 #36 US
La Contessa 1995
Romeo Rodney 2005
Greatest Bits 2008

Compilation albums

Title Year Notes
20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Rodney Dangerfield 2005


  1. Biography: Rodney Dangerfield, The Biography Channel, January 21, 2010
  2. Jerry Seinfeld: The Comedian Award, HBO, April 1, 2007
  3. "Bob Saget on Tom Green Live - Episode 168". Tom Green Live. ManiaTV!. August 2, 2007. Archived from the original on April 21, 2008. Retrieved June 26, 2008.
  4. Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. Season 14. January 11, 2008. BBC One.
  5. 1 2 3 "Rodney Dangerfield, Comic Seeking Respect, Dies at 82" New York Times October 6, 2004
  6. It's not easy bein' me: a lifetime of no respect but plenty of sex and drugs. 2005. Retrieved 18 July 2016.
  7. 1 2 "Dangerfield: summer-film comet". Deseret News. August 26, 1986. Retrieved August 26, 2013.
  8. 1 2 Goldman, Albert (June 14, 1970). "That Laughter You Hear Is the Silent Majority". The New York Times. p. 111.
  9. "Rodney Dangerfield". Retrieved July 24, 2013.
  10. "A "Born Loser" Who Gets Laughs". The Baltimore Sun. July 13, 1969. p. TW6.
  11. "Rodney Dangerfield Remarries . . . And This Time He's Sober." ABC News. August 24, 2000.
  12. Kapelovitz, Dan (October 2004). "Clear and Present Dangerfield". Hustler. Retrieved May 21, 2007.
  13. "Rodney Dangerfield | Ed Sullivan Show". March 5, 1967. Retrieved March 31, 2012.
  14. cast list for Ed Sullivan Show
  15. episode guide for Tonight Show
  16. "Rodney Dangerfield dead at 82". Associated Press. October 7, 2004. Retrieved September 14, 2006.
  17. 23rd Annual Grammy Awards.
  18. "Rappin' Rodney Dangerfield - No Respect in 1983". Fourth Grade Nothing. August 10, 2011. Retrieved March 31, 2012.
  19. Caddyshack: The Inside Story, Bio.HD December 13, 2009.
  20. De Vries, Hilary. "Natural Born Actor : Comic titan Rodney Dangerfield is getting respect for his performance as a hateful dad in 'Natural Born Killers.'" L.A. Times. August 21, 1994.
  21. "Dangerfield dies". The Sydney Morning Herald. October 6, 2004.
  22. "AP news report in the ''Ocala Star-Banner,'' April 29, 1982". Retrieved July 24, 2013.
  23. Jim Carrey's foreword in It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect But Plenty of Sex and Drugs by Rodney Dangerfield. (c) 2004, HarperCollins Publishers.
  24. Pearlman, Jeff (July 24, 2004). "The Tears of a Clown". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 14, 2016.
  25. Hedegaard, Erik (May 19, 2004). "Gone to Pot". Rolling Stone. Retrieved May 21, 2007.
  26. Pearlman, Jeff (July 18, 2004). "Dangerfield is no laughing matter". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved September 14, 2006.
  27. Dangerfield said he was an atheist during an interview with Howard Stern in May 2004. Stern asked Dangerfield if he believed in an afterlife. Dangerfield answered he was a "logical" atheist and added, "We're apes––do apes go anyplace?"
  28. 1 2 Brownfield, Paul (December 21, 2002). "Comic genius Dangerfield still cutting jokes to thwart boredom". Journal - Gazette. Ft. Wayne, Ind. Los Angeles Times. p. 3.D.
  29. Rosemarie Jarski, ed. (2010). Funniest Thing You Never Said 2. Ebury Press. p. 501. ISBN 978-0091924515.
  30. Gary Wayne. "Rodney Dangerfield's grave (photo)". Retrieved March 31, 2012.
  31. "Rodney's Bio". Archived from the original on February 2, 2009.
  32. "Neurosurgery Division to Present Jay Leno With Rodney Dangerfield Legacy Aw" (Press release). Regents of the University of California. September 14, 2005. Retrieved November 1, 2012.
  33. "Rodney's Respected by Tim". September 4, 2007.
  34. "Louie Anderson Illuminates The Night". CNN. October 19, 2010.
  35. "Comedian Chelsea Handler Receives Bennett Custom Recognition Award". Bennett Awards. February 26, 2013.
  37. reference to Legends: Rodney Dangerfield
  38. Chen, Perry; Yael, Aviva (February 23, 2007). "Op-Art: All the Body's a Stage". The New York Times. Retrieved May 21, 2007.
  39. "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," New York: National Broadcasting Company, May 29, 2009.


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