EXCLUSIVE: How 'Taxi' Informed Danny DeVito's Tony-Nominated Broadway Debut

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It may seem odd that an actor as firmly associated with New Yawk as Danny DeVito would wait till his early 70s to make his Broadway debut, in this year’s revival of Arthur Miller’s The Price. Mind you, DeVito -- who’s actually a Jersey boy, born in Neptune Township and raised in Asbury Park -- initially prepared for a stage career, graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and performing at major regionals and off-Broadway before landing the TV role, as dispatcher Louie De Palma on Taxi, that made him a star.

“I’d come close to doing Broadway a couple of times a while ago, but it didn’t work out,” says DeVito. “As an actor, you go where the work is” -- and DeVito’s had no shortage, between his seemingly endless film credits (as a producer and director as well) and his numerous television projects, among them the long-running FX series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. (“We’re taking a year off,” DeVito says, “but we’ll probably do three more seasons.”)

But then “the right play came along at the right time,” and DeVito couldn’t say no. As a result, he earned his first Tony Award nomination -- for performance by an actor in a featured role in a play -- his first time at bat. “Can you imagine that? I have to say, I feel so cool.”

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Though not one of Miller’s more iconic plays, The Price taps into themes and concerns prominent in the playwright’s catalog, as well as his personal experience living through the Depression. The Roundabout Theatre Company production that featured DeVito also cast Mark Ruffalo and Tony Shalhoub as estranged middle-aged brothers Victor and Walter Franz, who are meeting to sell contents of their old family home’s attic before the brownstone that housed it is torn down. DeVito played Gregory Solomon, their furniture dealer, a man in his late 80s who delightfully eats a hardboiled egg in the first act.

“The other characters do most of the heavy lifting,” DeVito says, praising Ruffalo, Shalhoub and Jessica Hecht, who plays Victor’s wife, Esther. “The only dilemma I face, really, is whether I’ll stay alive long enough to sell the furniture.”

Joan Marcus

DeVito had not seen or read the play before it was sent to him by Steppenwolf Theatre Company founding member Terry Kinney, who directed the Roundabout revival. “I’d seen Terry’s work at Steppenwolf, and I know the Roundabout is a cool place to work. There was that, and the opportunity to slip into the wonderful intensity of this play, of the words in Arthur Miller’s head. And every night you’re working with a different audience, and that’s one of the elements that informs every performance.”

DeVito notes that back when he was working on Taxi, “We shot in front of a live audience, on Friday nights. We were shooting for the cameras, but we’d usually do the first act all the way through, so it was like doing a one-act play. That experience was informed by the off- and off-off-Broadway theater I did before Taxi, and now my experience on Taxi has informed what I’ve done on Broadway.”

The veteran actor, whose last theater gig was a revival of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys in London (2012) and Los Angeles (2013), has loved spending time in New York: “I go back and forth, but I have a place here, and I love being here.” With The Price wrapped, DeVito will next head back across the pond to shoot Disney’s live-action adaptation of Dumbo, helmed by Tim Burton, who previously directed DeVito in Batman Returns and Big Fish. “I play Medici, the guy who owns the circus where Dumbo goes,” says DeVito. “Disney loves this project -- we all do, and Tim’s going to do a great job, as always. It’s always something unique with him.”

DeVito won’t miss the Tonys, though. He’ll attend with daughter Lucy, a rising actress who has collaborated on a few projects with her dad. “Last year we did a short film called Curmudgeons, based on a play that Lucy took me to see.” The younger DeVito is also active in theater; she’s currently appearing in a series of new one-act plays produced by the Ensemble Studio Theatre, based in midtown Manhattan. “It’s a great source of material and talent,” the proud father says of the company.

DeVito would like to eventually return to the stage himself. “Of course, you have to keep in mind that the last plays I’ve done at this point were written by Neil Simon and Arthur Miller. So I’ve set the bar pretty high for myself.”