The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Danny DeVito

There are nice people in Hollywood, and there are not-so-nice people. There are great actors and not-so-great ones... and then there's Danny DeVito. And Danny DeVito? He's in a class all of his own, and that's "national treasure that must be protected at all costs." It doesn't matter when you grew up, there's something he's been in that's shaped your childhood. From his turn as the Penguin in Batman Returns to his role in Matilda, there's a lot of people who have grown up with him — and those are just two movies.

And, of course, once we're grown up and safely into adulthood, there's Frank Reynolds in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the father figure that's both incredibly awesome and someone that no one would ever, ever want to claim as their own.

Watch any interview with Danny DeVito, and it's clear there's more than a little bit of Frank there. He's energetic and outgoing, he shares way too much sometimes, and at the end of the day, he's one of those people that should be on everyone's ideal dinner party list. For all his charm, though, there's a lot of tragedy in his past — tragedy he's managed to overcome in a testament to what the human spirit really is capable of.

Danny DeVito grew up more than dirt poor

Danny DeVito was just 19-years-old when he left his hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey, and headed to New York City to try to make it as an actor. His friends, says Rolling Stone, were less-than-optimistic that he'd actually make it, scoffing, "...who do you think you are, Gregory Peck, Clark Gable? Look at yourself." Ah, friendship.

We all know that DeVito did, in fact, make it, so the joke's on you guys. But up until then, life hadn't been so great. Later, he reminisced (via Contact Music) about how poor was poor: "It was very romantic for me. 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."

One of Danny DeVito's early jobs, says Money, was working the kids' carnival rides in the neighborhood. It was that job that taught him to save some money in his sock drawer — advice he still thinks is good. When he landed his first acting job, he was getting $68 a week... not exactly an overnight success. That's not much in NYC, and he says they had to get creative in finding things to do. Like what? "Second-acting," or slipping in to see Broadway plays during the second act, with the crowd returning from intermission. "I've seen many, many plays... just the second act."

Danny DeVito's complicated relationship with his parents

Families are complicated, and Danny DeVito's family was super complicated. For starters, his mother was 40 when he was born, and she was already the mother of two teenage girls by the time he came along. What did she think of that? According to Rolling Stone, she had this to say about her youngest: "I didn't want him, but I'm so proud of him."

By the time he was a teenager, DeVito wanted out of the house. It wasn't just because heroin was turning his neighborhood into a scary place, it was because alcoholism was turning his home into an even more frightening one. His father — who held a series of jobs from running a candy store to owning a dry cleaning business and a pool hall — was an alcoholic.

"My father had a drinking problem and was sick in that way. It's why I constantly look around to make sure everything is alright. When I was a kid, family-wise, you always want everything to be smooth and easy. Calm. And my father was a sweet man during the day. But as soon as he had a drink, he went off the deep end. I felt vulnerable."

Persuading his parents to get him out

When Danny DeVito was just 14-years-old, he convinced his parents to send him away to a Catholic boarding school. He made the decision for a few reasons, and they're heartbreaking. 

He told The Guardian that while his family was far from well-off, there were plenty of others in the neighborhood who were even poorer — and he was seeing them go down the road that led to drugs and addiction. "What we were doing in those days were stolen pharmaceuticals," he says. "Though you could be tempted with heroin, I wasn't. And it was mainly heroin then, there wasn't crack or anything when I was a kid. You went straight to skin-popping and mainlining." And he saw the effects it could have, too: "One of my good friends wound up dying in prison. It wasn't an uncommon thing." 

That — coupled with his father's alcohol abuse, he told Rolling Stone — was why Danny DeVito opted to get out of town and away from all the dangers while he could. If that sounds oddly mature, he says that's one of the benefits of having a mother that was old enough to regularly be mistaken for his grandmother — which in turn gave him a bit of extra maturity.

The limits of Danny DeVito's size

At a glance, it's Danny DeVito's size that makes him stand out in a crowd. According to Rolling Stone, he was never bullied, but he did have some problems. Growing up, he needed to find other ways to get the attention of girls, and that — he told The Guardian — is why he learned to dance.

And as he got older? "Well, every character I've ever played has been my size. I think it's an asset," he told the Archive of American Television. "I think it's kind of... what you make it, in the way you are, the way you feel." At the same time, though, he went on to say there were restrictions — it was difficult to be in films opposite tall actors and actresses... unless it's a film like Twins, where he played Arnold Schwarzenegger's twin brother. And that's okay for a pretty sad reason: "... because that's the joke. ...The joke is that we're twins. 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."

Danny DeVito isn't just short: according to Yahoo! News (who reported on a fall DeVito took at a press conference), he has been diagnosed with Fairbank's disease, or multiple epiphyseal dysplasia. It's a genetic condition that is characterized by a person's short stature, and can also lead to joint pain, arthritis, and misalignment of the hips, ankles, and knees (via Johns Hopkins).

On dabbling in drugs

Danny DeVito may have wanted to get out of his hometown and away from the hardcore drug use, but when he talked to Rolling Stone, he was candid about his own experiences with illicit substances. And it's complicated, starting with his youth in New Jersey and his early habits: pharmaceutical-grade uppers and downers. While he avoided the heroin, there were other habits that he's hinted at... and talked about how it's not something he's proud of.

"Yeah, I overindulge. Back when we did illegal drugs, I'm the one if you put... if you said, 'There's some in the bathroom for you,' well, don't think that later on there's going to be any left for you."

When asked if he would go back to those days, if someone offered him the same drugs now, DeVito answered: "Why not? A line of coke? What's the matter? Look at what I'm going to myself with a cup of coffee and a Diet Coke. I'm ashamed of myself."

Danny DeVito's very in-tune to prejudices

Danny DeVito (pictured with daughter Lucy) has played a lot of despicable characters — The Independent asked him if children are ever scared of him when they recognize him as the mean father from Matilda. (He says no, because their parents are usually around to reassure the kids he's not going to hurt them.)

But in real life, he's very in-tune to the prejudices that others face — especially women. And he told The Guardian that he credited growing up with and being close to his two older sisters — who he describes as "really tough broads" — for giving him a comfortable respect for women. "I am very friendly with women! ... I feel comfortable around them. They were always in my house. My sisters, their girlfriends. I felt like I could sit down and talk to a woman." Danny DeVito's also said that he's had numerous conversations about the #MeToo movement, and had this to say: "...what I come away with is four words: 'Women must be heard.' ... We're all suffragettes. We got to get women equal pay. We got to get 'em on the map. We got to respect 'em."

And getting through Hollywood hasn't been an easy journey — it's one he summed up like this: "It's like going through the jungle. You hear all the sounds. Somebody's being eaten on the other side of a plant. But you got to just stay on your path."

On missing his father

Danny DeVito's father passed away in 1984, and in 2012, he wrote a moving tribute to him for Father's Day (via The Guardian). He remembered that his dad had made the jump from owning a business to working from home, becoming a bookie who took bets on horse racing. For DeVito, it was incredible: "I loved it. I could see him whenever I wanted. If you have a father who wants to spend time with you, which mine did, then you're really fortunate. ... I owe a great deal to my father in terms of him always being there."

He credits his father for teaching him to always be prepared, no matter where he was going. He talks about "that rush of being with your dad," of going to the movies together, of going fishing. The love there is clear: he says, "I still miss him. There's that emptiness that you have to take with you. But that's part of being human."

Sadly, DeVito also adds that his father never got to meet his grandchildren; he passed just after he saw his son get married. They may not have had the easiest relationship, but they clearly loved each other — and there's no expiration date on grief.

Danny DeVito and his wife are separated, but not divorced

In 2012, The Huffington Post reported that one of Hollywood's great, long-lasting marriages was at an end: Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito were done. There was a ton of speculation about the cause and regardless of what went on behind closed doors, a 2013 interview with The Guardian showed just how broken up he was. "Ah, Rhea and me? We're going OK, we're still good buddies. We talk all the time, we're OK," he told them. Then, they described him as losing "a little of his pluck," and reaching out for a big, long hug.

The rocky road was one that continued, and in 2019, they were still separated, but not divorced. For Perlman's side of the relationship, she had this to say (via People): "Danny and I have always loved each other and we have three amazing children together. We really agree on almost everything important. ... It was a hard transition... but everything smoothed out. Everybody's got a good relationship with Danny, and with me and each other. That's all we care about."

And as for DeVito? He told People: "We're friends. We're happy. Everybody's happy." Relationships are complicated — even the ones that seem like they'll last forever.