Danny DeVito: 'I've been playing Louie ever since Taxi'

Hit US comedy Taxi comes to CBS Drama (opens in new tab) this week, so we caught up with Hollywood star Danny DeVito, who played surly dispatcher Louie De Palma for five highly successful series in the early 80s, to talk about the show that helped launch his career..

Did you know that Taxi was going to be such a big hit when you started it?"

"No! Jim Brooks, Ed Weinberger, Stan Daniels and Dave Davis left The Mary Tyler Moore Show and got their own deal at Paramount. Jerry Belson sent them an article about a cab company where everyone who worked there did something else at the same time. They were all driving cabs while they waited for other careers to take off and that's where the idea for Taxi came from.

"In the show, one of us was an actor, one of us wanted to run an art gallery and so on. Obviously Latka (played by late comedian Andy Kaufman) is Latka. Louie (DeVito) was Louie and Reiger (Judd Hirsh) was the hub because he was the only one who wanted to be a cab driver! Anyway the casting director called me and said I had to go in for this because these guys were the crème de la creme. I didn't know who the hell they were, but I gave it a read. Most of my friends said 'Don't do television' - they were snobs! Imagine if I'd listened to them! 

"Anyway I read the part and I thought it was terrific, I'd never done anything like that before. I went into the audition and everyone's sitting around in Ed Weinberger's office looking serious. The casting director introduces me and I'm not sure if they remembered me from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but apart from that I was completely unknown. I threw the script on the table and said, 'One thing I want to know before we start - who wrote this s**t!'

"I took one step back in total terror because no one did a thing.. and then they started laughing so hard, it was almost scary. They were so relieved because they were looking for a real character and then this fireplug walked in and abused them. They thought it was perfect so I was very lucky!"

Will the show always have a special place in your heart?

"I had the most glorious five years working on that show. The writers were brilliant, they never let us down. I didn't know what to expect, but the great thing was that we used three - sometimes four - cameras, which was quite unusual at the time... and we did it in front of a live audience. All that laughter is real. I do It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia in a barn and if the crew laugh in the middle of a take it's not good! But Taxi was great because we'd do it every Friday night and then spend the whole weekend getting wrecked!"

What was a normal week for you and the cast?

"We'd go to work on a Monday at about 10, have a read through, chat about what we did at the weekend, Marilu Henner would hold court and then we'd put the show on it's feet a little bit, walk it around, have lunch and then quit. Then the next day we'd come in around 10, they'd have rewritten from the read-through, we'd go over the script again until 6 maybe 7. Wednesday would be the same thing, but they'd have a new script by then because Tuesday night was their official rewrite night. 

"The writers would stay up all night long sitting around with sandwiches and boxes of Chinese food, just pitching at each other. So Wednesday you'd get a script and you'd start learning it a little bit. Thursday you'd come in at noon, run through the show twice, stop and start, which would take you up to 6. The next day was the day of the shoot and we'd come in at noon, work on the show and take a dinner break. Then the audience comes in, we'd shoot the show from 7 until 10 and then go party like animals! 

"So many people used to come to our shows as well so the parties would be crazy. Belushi, Penny Marshall and Robin Williams once he started Mork and Mindy, would all be there and we would get mad crazy after the show! Sunday rolled around and you were blitzed. Sunday you just had to recover!  I had five years of that!"

Do you still like to party now?

"Yeah I still like to party. I've had to slow down a bit, but I still like to drink and eat well!"

What was it like with Andy Kauffman in the middle of all of that?

"Andy was a genius. He was a conceptual artist. He could come into this room right now and just blow everyone's minds without doing anything. One of you would get wrestled as well! He loved to wrestle women - not little ladies, but formidable women. He would only pick on big women. I saw him wrestle this woman from the post office once, Andy was a big guy, he was 5"11, but beefy. He would wrestle them to the point where I saw that man's face turned bright red. We'd be like 'Come on Andy! Enough with that!'

"Everything he did was to be funny. There wasn't a mean bone in his body, but he was a maniac. I made a movie about him, Man On The Moon. I was at Michael Douglas's birthday party and a few of us started talking about making this movie. Jim Carey absolutely nailed the part as well."

What's your favourite story about Andy?

"Well we once gave his alter-ego Tony Clifton a part which was fun, but he was terrible so we had to fire him. Ed Weinberger pulled me aside one day and said 'We're giving a part to this guy called Tony Clifton, he's going to play your brother. It's really Andy wearing make-up, but you're not supposed to let on that you know it's Andy. Everybody's going to be in on it.'

"I was sold right away because I loved stuff like that. So the morning came and he walked in an hour late and he's got two really sexy hookers on his arm. He also had the worst aftershave on and he's hugging everybody. So we sat down and read the script through and by the next day it was obvious that he couldn't do it. He was just reading it all wrong and we were like "What the hell is he doing? We need to get rid of this guy!" 

"So they called Andy who's answering the phone through his secretary, saying he's somewhere in upstate New York - which was of course rubbish, we know he's just round the block! He was saying 'Oh no! He's not doing good? Oh my god. This is terrible, it's going to be very bad for his career if he's fired. I'll tell him to come late tomorrow and you fire him because he's late - but not because he's a bad actor!' So the producer agreed and the next day, the studio is packed with journalists and agents, because they know that Tony's going to get fired. 

"Tony shows up that day with the hookers and gives presents to everyone! This is the kind of stuff he does! Everybody knows what's going on, but we're not acting like it. Meanwhile Ed Weinberger says he has to leave. Now Andy has told Ed that Tony will go quietly, but he doesn't so they have to call security and outside there's 20 reporters with cameras because somebody from Andy's camp called them. Anyway the next day this thing was all over the paper, you can probably still find pictures of it on the net. Anyway he turns to us as the security guards are dragging him away and shouts, 'You guys will never work in Vegas again!'

He made some great episodes of Taxi though...

"He sure did. I worked with Christopher Lloyd on Cuckoo's Nest and recommended him because he was a brilliant actor and his first show was 'Paper Marriage'. Basically Latka (Kaufman) was getting deported and all the characters (apart from Louie, who would take advantage of anybody) wanted to help him stay. 

"Anyway they needed Latka to get married so that he wouldn't be deported, so they found this hooker to marry him. Chris Lloyd played Reverend Jim and he did such a good job that they decided to have him back in the second season as a regular. Chris and Andy were the weirdest two people you'd ever meet. One time I invited them round for a party and my mum was there, because she did a couple of episodes in the show. She got stuck talking to them both, but they just weren't saying anything, they were just staring at her. She was trying to keep the ball rolling, but in the end she was just like 'What's wrong with these two! Are they dead?! I know they're alive, I see their eyes moving!' In the end I managed to rescue her, but it was very funny.

How was it working with your wife, Rhea, on the show. Did it make it easier?

"I wouldn't say so. Why would it make it easier? Because we shared a ride into work? Yeah that made it good I suppose. (laughs)"

Why did the show get cancelled by ABC when it was doing so well?

"I don't know why! I couldn't understand why they cancelled it after the fourth season. NBC picked us up for the fifth season which was brilliant because we got to the 100th show. That year we all won Emmy's and I was hosting Saturday Night Live so I brought the whole cast on the show and my first line was 'Well ABC cancelled Taxi!' and the whole place went crazy."

Do you think it will ever be revived?

"I don't know about that."

If they asked you to play Louie again would you be interested?

"I hate to tell you, but I've been playing Louie ever since I started the show! Once in a while I depart, like in The Sunshine Boys."

Did you enjoy doing theatre in London?

"Yeah we had a great time. Working with Richard Griffiths was such an honour - we did 106 shows. I hadn't been on stage for 40 years so I had a ball. The only thing about the Savoy Theatre is that there's too many f**king steps! There ain't no elevator in there and somebody should do something about it! Every night Richard and I walked 77 steps down to the stage and look at us! Neither of us are built for that kind of athletic activity!"

Do you prefer TV or theatre?

"Well I had a great time doing The Sunshine Boys - apart from the steps - and everyone was really nice to me. We had a great cast, a great director and a great audience. But I'm really a movie buff and I love making movies. Television is fun and this is my ninth series of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The thing about movies is that you don't get the feedback every week. TV has the best of both worlds because you get to play the audience, tweak the show and you're doing it on film. But I don't know which one I prefer."

When Taxi finished did you wonder if you'd ever work again?

"Well, at that time only a handful of people had broken out of television and into movies. One was Clint Eastwood, one was John Travolta and I was another.. and then it started happening all the time. When you're an actor, you never know whether you're ever going to work again and you always think you never will no matter what! You want to find good stuff to do of course! Sometimes you end up doing things that you shouldn't do because a friend wants you to, but I have a tough time turning stuff down because I feel like it's a big community. Maybe it's from Taxi that I got that because we were like a big family and we never had a fight."

Is there a piece of work you're most proud of?

"I absolutely loved Matilda. I love directing and it was great working with the kids."

What can you tell us about the upcoming Twins sequel?

"Arnold and I have had dinner about it and we've met with Eddie Murphy. Universal's very excited about doing it, but it's just a case of finding a script that we like and a story that works. I'm sitting on the sidelines waiting at the moment."

Would you ever run for President?

"No that's a stupid thing to do. I'm glad that Mitt Romney didn't get in though!"


Sean Marland
Feature writer for TV Times, What's On TV, TV & Satellite Week and whattowatch.com

Sean has been writing about all things telly for over 10 years and in that time he's been lucky enough to interview stars like Ian McKellen, Tom Hardy and Kate Winslet. His favourite shows are The Great British Bake-Off, People Just Do Nothing and Succession and in his spare time he enjoys drinking tea, doing crosswords and watching football.