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100 New Yorkers of the 1970s By Max Millard Characters: 5367

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


He was 43 years old when the big break came. Jack Roy, a paint salesman from Queens who did comedy in his spare time, stood before the cameras of the Ed Sullivan Show and delivered a routine that soon had the audience helpless with laughter. Whether they realized they were witnessing the birth of one of comedy's brightest stars is uncertain. But for Jack Roy - better known as Rodney Dangerfield - the long wait was over.

His unique brand of humor caught on immediately. Within a year he was able to quit the paint business - "it was a colorless job" - and give his full time to comedy. After 10 appearances with Sullivan he went on The Tonight Show, and established such a smooth rapport with Johnny Carson that he has so far been invited back about 60 times. With Carson acting as "straight man," Dangerfield tosses off a string of outrageous anecdotes that are in keeping with his image as a man who seems to have the whole world against him.

The afternoon I meet Rodney Dangerfield at his spacious modern East Side apartment is like a day straight out of his monologue. Coming to the door dressed in a polka dot robe and looking quite exhausted, he apologizes by saying that he has been up since 8 in the morning - early for someone who is accustomed to working past 4 a.m. As we sit down to talk, he answers most of my questions with an unexpected seriousness. Still, the humor creeps in around the edges.

"I have an image to feed. Most comedians don't," he says with a yawn, sprawled out on the sofa like a bear prematurely woken from hibernation. "If I see something or read something that starts me thinking, I try to turn it around, and ask myself: How can it go wrong for me now? What can happen here? For example, you're watching something on television. You see Lindbergh on the screen. Your mind is on that TV. … You get no respect at all. You see the paper flying all over the place. You say, I get no respect at all. I got arrested for littering at a ticker tape parade.

"Rickles has an image. Steve Martin has an image. But most don't. A lot of comedians buy their material. Others take someone else's material and steal it. We don't go into that, though."

Being a professional funny man, says Rodney, "is a completely total sacrifice. It's like dope: you have to do it. … The curse is to be a perfectionist."

He writes at least 90 percent of his act. Whenever an original joke flashes into his mind, he drops whatever he's doing and jots it down. ("I get no respect. On my wedding night I got arrested for having a girl in my room.") Before a new gag can be thought worthy of The Tonight Show, it must be tested and retested before a live audience

. This is no problem, for Rodney is constantly in demand all over the North American continent, not only as a nightclub performer but also as a lecturer at colleges. Last June he was invited to give the commencement address at Harvard. "It's a strange thing," he remarks. "Kids are into me."

One probable reason for his appeal with the young is that Rodney has two children of his own, an 18-year-old son in college and a 14-year-old daughter who lives at home. It was mainly to lighten his travel schedule and enable him to spend more time with his children that Rodney opened his own nightclub nine years ago. Known simply as Dangerfield's, it is located on First Avenue between 61st and 62nd Streets. Dangerfield's is especially popular with out-of-town visitors. Among the celebrities who have been spotted there: Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Joe Namath, Telly Savalas and Led Zeppelin. The entertainment usually consists of both music and comedy - Jackie Mason, singers Gene Barry and Carmen MacRae, and America's foremost political impressionist, David Frye.

But the biggest attraction, of course, is Rodney himself. He will be playing the club from January 5 until February 4, seven nights a week. There is an $8 cover charge and a $7 minimum on food and/or drink.

Rodney has lived on the East Side since 1969. Born as Jacob Cohen 57 years ago in Babylon, Long Island, he spent most of his boyhood and his early career in Queens. After graduating from Richmond Hill High School, he changed his legal name to Jack Roy "because my father used 'Roy' in vaudeville." For years he worked small nightclubs for little or no pay. Then at 28 he married. "My wife was a singer. So we decided to both quit show business and lead a normal life. That doesn't always work out."

The first "no respect" joke he ever wrote, says Rodney, was: "I played hide and seek. They wouldn't even look for me." The same basic gag has since reappeared in a thousand variations. ("My twin brother forgot my birthday.")

Rodney now earns a substantial part of his income by making

commercials, the best known of which are for Mobil and Miller Lite beer.

He has cut two comedy albums and written a pair of books, I Don't Get

No Respect and I Couldn't Stand My Wife's Cooking So I Opened a

Restaurant.

For the moment, Rodney has no plans for other books or albums.

"Perhaps I'm not ambitious enough to pursue different things the way I

should," he confesses."I'd rather spend my free time at the health club.

The idea in life is not to see how much money you can die with."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Pr ess.

WESTSIDER JAN DE RUTH

Partner of nudes and Time covers

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