We all remember him in his signature black suit and red tie, saying his iconic catchphrase, “I don’t get no respect.” Those five words made Rodney Dangerfield relatable, hilarious, and – well – respected. What makes his story so special is that he never let his fame get in the way of being an honest person.
Dangerfield was admired and beloved (his comedy album, No Respect, won a Grammy Award in 1981), but most of his fans didn’t know the man’s real story with the funny facial expressions. For instance, his famous tagline had a very uninspired inspiration. You see, Rodney Dangerfield didn’t have the most ideal of childhoods.
Dangerfield found work as a stand-up comedian in any place he could find during his late teens and through most of his 20s. But he found only minimal success and had to resort to getting a “regular” job, selling aluminum siding to make ends meet and provide for his family.
He spent several years off stage until he got the show business bug once again. He started selling aluminum siding by day and performing stand-up in the Catskills at night. Still, his career wasn’t moving, and eventually, his failure ruined his marriage.
It took a while, but he finally realized that if he wanted to make a name for himself in show biz, he would have to create an on-stage image. By the age of 44, the man born Jacob Rodney Cohen had become Rodney Dangerfield – the man who gets no respect – the everyman people could relate to.
His style of one-liners and self-deprecation took his career from the trenches to the skies and turned him into one of the best and most successful stand-up comics of the 1960s to the ‘80s. He then used his fame to make a difference.
Dangerfield became a mentor to the many young comics of his era and the coming generations. He opened up his own comedy club in New York City to find new talent, giving a refreshing new platform to edgy comics like Andrew Dice Clay and Roseanne Barr when they couldn’t find stages to perform on.
Dangerfield remained one of the good guys in a business that easily turns people into greedy, guarded performers. From standing by Jim Carrey’s early routines to giving Eddie Murphy some of the “worst career advice,” Dangerfield made a real impact.
Jacob Rodney Cohen was born in Babylon, New York, in 1921. He lived in several NYC neighborhoods before settling down at the age of 10 in Kew Gardens, Queens, with his mother, Dorothy Teitelbaum, and sister.
Shortly after he was born, his father – a comic and juggler named Phil Roy – abandoned the family. And so, he grew up feeling “unloved and unwanted,” at least according to Dangerfield’s widow, Joan. He only saw his father once or twice a year. Later in life, his father begged for his son’s forgiveness… and received it. Better late than never, right?
Aside from the trauma of growing up without a father, Dangerfield had to suffer the cruelty and frigidness of his mother for his entire life. Throughout his childhood, Dorothy never kissed, hugged, or showed her son any affection.
In an interview with Howard Stern in 2004 (the year he died), Dangerfield revealed a tragic anecdote – that a man in his neighborhood once molested him. He told Stern that this man would pay the young Rodney a nickel and kiss him for five minutes.
Dangerfield confessed that as a kid, he had “no supervision at all.” He wrote about his early experience of molestation in his 2004 autobiography called Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs.
He was asked in an interview what toll that experience had taken on him, and he replied, “I don’t know. It affects everyone differently. I could have come out being a nicer person, or I could have come out being a nasty person. In my case, I guess I was born a very good person.”
After Cohen’s father left the family, his mother took the kids to Queens, where Dangerfield went to Richmond Hill High School, graduating in 1939. He also took it upon himself to support the family by delivering groceries and selling newspapers and ice cream at the beach.
By the age of 15, he started writing for stand-up comedians while also performing at a resort in Ellenville, New York. At 19, he changed his name to Jack Roy and went down a path of financial turmoil for nearly a decade.
Dangerfield worked many odd jobs, like selling soda and driving a fish truck. There was even a point where he performed as a singing waiter, that is, until he was fired. It was then, in the mid-1950s, that he started working as an aluminum siding salesman to support his wife and family.
He later joked that he was so unknown when he left show business that “at the time I quit, I was the only one who knew I quit.” He was modest and self-critical, and fans just ate it up.
Dangerfield was married three times, twice to the same woman. He first married Joyce Indig in 1951, divorced her in 1961 only to get remarried in 1963… and divorced again in 1970. For most of his marriage, he lived separated from his family.
The couple had two children together: a son Brian Roy in 1960 and a daughter Melanie Roy-Friedman soon after they remarried. His third marriage was in 1993 to a woman named Joan Child, whom he met on Santa Monica beach, where she owned a flower shop.
Joan was a proper Mormon flower shop owner whom he first met in the late ‘70s. She is also 30 years younger than him. Joan said she still remembers the first time she saw her husband when he approached her shop in the Santa Monica Place Mall.
“He lived in New York but was in town staying at the nearby Pritikin Longevity Center trying to lose weight and get healthier,” Joan explained. “Part of their program included taking morning walks. Being a die-hard fan, I recognized Rodney immediately.”
“I was 16 when I first saw him on The Tonight Show, and suddenly there he was, 14 years later, walking towards me, the funniest man in the world.” Dangerfield then stopped by often and eventually worked his way to ask her on an official dinner date.
He would come by each morning to watch her arrange flowers, often asking her questions. She recalled how he casually asked her, “What kind of drugs do you like?” The Mormon wasn’t offended, though; rather, she was confused. “Antibiotics, I guess,” she told him.
Well, what she said was, “Antibiotics, I guess, they revolutionized medicine.” He thought she was “the squarest person” and replied, “What planet are you from?” Still, her innocent reply was so endearing to Dangerfield that he was smitten. They dated off and on over the years, until December 26, 1993, when they finally got hitched.
They whisked off to Las Vegas and walked the aisle in the first wedding chapel they could find. “He started smoking marijuana in the limo, and I wasn’t sure how serious he was,” Joan recalled. “But he went through with it, thank goodness.”
Joan recalled one summer when she was spending Christmas with her family in Utah. Dangerfield called her to ask if she could come back because he missed her too much. The next day, they were getting married in Las Vegas.
When she called her parents from the car to tell them she had just gotten married, her mother asked, “To whom?” Her parents thought the two were just good friends and had written off their 41-year-old daughter “as an old maid,” according to Joan. “So, they were relieved.”
Despite their very different backgrounds, the two were quite an item, bringing new meaning to the phrase “opposites attract.” The couple grew inseparable. For Joan, “it was love at first sight” – the “Holy Grail of encounters.”
She found him fascinating. “I couldn’t look at him without smiling.” When his health prevented him from touring regularly, he kept writing jokes and tested them out on his wife in his later years. Even if the jokes weren’t funny, she would chuckle every time. “Laughter,” she said, “is something Rodney still responds to. It makes him feel happy.”
Dangerfield met Joan’s family for the first time only a few weeks after the wedding. In Utah, he saw how conservative and easygoing her parents were. Her mother was a housewife, and her father a carpenter.
The parents – who never swore, argued or complained about anything – welcomed the outrageous comedian with open arms. “Once they recovered from the surprise,” Joan admits, her father and her husband soon became friends. Her father particularly admired just how much of a hard worker Dangerfield was.
Aside from co-writing hit movies in the ’80s, like Easy Money and Back to School, Dangerfield wrote his material, and it often took months to perfect a joke. He would keep folded sheets of paper and a pen in his pocket at all times so he could jot down ideas.
In the evenings, he hit the comedy clubs, sometimes performing at two or three a night. It was his way of working on his new material. If a joke got laughs, he knew he was on the right track; he knew the joke was a winner if he got applause.
In 1980, People magazine published a profile on Dangerfield, during a time when the comic was living in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with a housekeeper, his poodle named Keno, and his best friend of 30 years named Joe Ancis.
To Dangerfield, Ancis was “the funniest guy I know.” He was also a friend of and a big influence on legendary comedian Lenny Bruce. Dangerfield lived with Ancis, who was “too psychologically damaged to be able to live in a germ-infested world on his own,” until Ancis died in 2001.
It’s only natural that audiences assumed Dangerfield’s on-stage persona was his real personality. But Dangerfield actually resented being confused with his comedic façade. His wife Joan described him as “classy, gentlemanly, sensitive and intelligent,” yet people often treated him like the loser he played.
Dangerfield wrote about it in his autobiography, whose original title was My Love Affair with Marijuana. If you’re curious, he was raised as a Jew but referred to himself as an atheist, telling Howard Stern that he was a “logical” atheist.
According to Joan, Dangerfield’s mother convinced him to open up a savings account one summer to save up for a football uniform. Joan told The New York Times that her husband said that his mother didn’t just withhold affection and kindness. She also stole his money.
In 2004, he admitted that if he could change anything in his life, it would be to have a “different mother, different father, different sister, different everything, but I’ll stay the same.” It wasn’t just his family who let him down…
A historian named Carl Ballenas said that during Dangerfield’s adolescence – at the turn of the Second World War – he found himself the target of anti-Semitism from both teachers and classmates.
The whole “no respect” theme was partly the result of his treatment around this time in his life. It all started in Kew Gardens, Ballenas said. As a coping mechanism, Dangerfield resorted to comedy. When he hit 17, he started trying his act before a live audience at the local clubs’ amateur nights.
“Rodney Dangerfield turned to humor and got people to laugh with him, not at him,” Ballenas stated. A few years later, he adopted the name Jack Roy and started performing stand-up full-time. As things started ramping up, he tested out his new material with New York audiences.
Eventually, the “no respect” catchphrase was born. Dangerfield explained the conception in a 1986 interview. “I had this joke,” he began; “I played hide and seek; they wouldn’t even look for me.” To make the joke work better, he had to tweak it…
He said, “You look for something to put in front of it: I was so poor, I was so dumb, so this, so that. I thought, ‘Now what fits that joke?” And so, as he explained, he came up with “No one liked me” at first. And that was “all right.”
But then he thought, “a more profound thing would be, ‘I get no respect.”’ Dangerfield said that he had overheard mobsters using the same phrase during one of his shows. He was later encouraged by fellow comedian Jack Benny.
To Dangerfield, Jack Benny “was an ace. He was a doll.” Dangerfield recalled, “And he says to me, ‘Rodney, I’m cheap, and I’m 39, that’s my image, but your ‘no respect’ thing, that’s into the soul of everybody. Everybody can identify with that.”
Benny continued to explain the phrase’s relevance: “Everyone gets cut off in traffic, everyone gets stood up by a girl, kids are rude to them, whatever.” He told his friend: “Every day something happens where people feel they didn’t get respect.” The phrase caught on.
The catchphrase cemented Dangerfield’s place in comedy. After a 15-year hiatus from comedy, Dangerfield returned to the stage at age 42. His first big break came on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1970s.
After that, he appeared regularly on The Dean Martin Show and the Tonight Show. Of course, his “no respect” bit became the highlight of every appearance. The rest is history. Dangerfield made a career in films, appearing in 1980’s Caddyshack, 1983’s Easy Money, 1986’s Back to School, and even 1994’s Natural Born Killers.
On Dangerfield’s chest is a long scar, like a zipper, resulting from open-heart surgery he endured that saved his life. He also had two aneurysm operations and brain surgery. But for Dangerfield, those weren’t even his biggest problems.
He would have regular sessions with a psychiatrist and take heaps of medication (according to one source, he took 137 pills daily). Dangerfield was diagnosed with clinical depression in his later years–something he traced back to his childhood. He would make jokes about it, but the truth stung.
“Have you seen the picture in my book of me as a child?” he said in an interview, pointing to himself as a boy sitting on a pony, expressionless. “That’s me. That’s how I’ve always been. Sad. Just look at me.”
As a boy who was dealt a bad hand, he had to resort to other successful ways. Writing jokes was his escape. Dangerfield even remembered the first one he ever said. At age four, Dangerfield finished his dinner and whined, “I’m still hungry.” “You’ve had sufficient,” he said his mother replied with. “But” he had said, “I didn’t even have any fish.”
He appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson over 70 times, but he really broke ground in 1980, when he starred as Al Czervik in Caddyshack. Despite what eventually became a phenomenal career, Dangerfield always struggled with depression.
He landed more and more roles in movies and comedy specials, but his sadness remained the same. Dangerfield tended to stay in bed under the covers, unwilling to face the world. It’s both ironic and logical that such a funny man was often down in the dumps.
“If a really good comedian isn’t depressed, something’s wrong,” Bob Saget once said. Dangerfield actually discovered Saget at L.A.’s famous Comedy Store. This was before he became known as Danny Tanner on Full House.
Saget recalled what a mentor Dangerfield was to him and the perspective he had: “Rodney has always talked about the heaviness — about how heavy everything is. It’s funny when he says it, but the meaning behind it isn’t. The weight is on his shoulders. He feels it, and it’s torturous.”
Jim Carrey wasn’t widely beloved from the get-go, but Dangerfield had his back. Carrey’s first big comedy gig was as Dangerfield’s opener at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and on Dangerfield’s comedy tour.
Carrey was a master impressionist at the time, but he decided to switch up his routine and just be himself on stage – a major and risky move for any comic. He bombed hard at first, and it was Dangerfield’s laughter and support that gave him the confidence to keep going.
In many ways, Dangerfield’s life has been an attempt at pain relief. He tried marijuana for the first time at 21 in 1942 and never looked back. Apparently, he lit one up every day for the next 60 years. In fact, during a visit with Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1983, he got high.
Remember, the original title for his autobiography was My Love Affair with Marijuana, so that pretty much sums that up. Unsurprisingly for someone in his mental state, he was a man of many vices.
He used drugs, slept with his share of prostitutes, and ate every form of fattening food known to man. His autobiography was another attempt at self-soothing. Apparently, he considered writing a memoir seven years earlier, shortly after speaking publicly about his depression in an interview with Parade magazine.
“I started getting thousands of e-mails from people who felt like I did,” he revealed. “It gave me an idea.” His initial idea was to compile a book of letters from other depressed people.
His book would have been a reminder to many suffering people that they weren’t alone. But there were no publishing houses that expressed an interest, so Dangerfield had to switch his focus. He figured he would need to write his life story instead.
“Truly, I don’t want people to feel as bad as I have in life,” Dangerfield said at the time. “If this book helps anyone improve their outlook, that’d be great.” But his life wasn’t all bad. His third marriage – to his second wife – was a positive thing.
One morning in the late ’90s, after Dangerfield read about Viagra for the first time in the L.A. Times, he got particularly excited. But it was because he had a whole new subject to write jokes about. “He had me track Viagra’s popularity online to make sure enough people were familiar with it,” Joan recalled.
She remembers him sitting at their dining room table, shuffling his slippers under the table, mouthing words to himself, and looking up at the ceiling. A few minutes later, he tested out a new joke on his wife.
He buzzed her on the intercom and said, “I started a new diet. Viagra and prune juice. The only trouble is, I don’t know if I’m coming or going.” He tried his new joke that very night at the Laugh Factory, and it killed.
The following day, he went on The Tonight Show because he was worried someone might steal the joke before he even got a chance to tell it. “It may have been the first Viagra joke told on television,” Joan suggested.
Dangerfield wrote the movie My 5 Wives (in 2000) based on all the stories Joan told him about Utah polygamists near her hometown. Writing things like, “One of the advantages of having five wives is they can’t all have a headache at the same time” never offended her.
Quite the opposite – she said she felt like “the luckiest person in the world.” She had her comedian constantly surprising her. “I couldn’t wait to wake up each day.” But Dangerfield didn’t feel as lucky.
He sought therapy regularly both before and after his marriage to Joan. One thing that helped him, according to Joan, was the fact that he was a “Romeo.” She said he loved being in love. He would sing to her and write sweet little notes.
One of them read: “How wonderful you are. I’ll never let you down… unless you’re on a ladder.” Even though marijuana helped calm his nerves, he had never used it before a show. Nor did he use a teleprompter.
His health declined in later years as he needed multiple surgeries for aneurysms and his brain and heart. In 2001, on his 80th birthday, he suffered a mild heart attack while on The Tonight Show. While he was performing, host Jay Leno noticed something wasn’t right.
Dangerfield’s movements were strange, and Leno asked his producer to call the paramedics. Even during his hospital stay, the staff were reportedly trying to get him to stop smoking in his room. Dangerfield returned to The Tonight Show the next year, performing on his 81st birthday.
On August 24, 2004, when he entered the hospital for his heart surgery, he uttered a one-liner when he was asked how long he would be hospitalized: “If all goes well, about a week. If not, about an hour and a half.”
He died six weeks later, on October 5, 2004. He was 82. Joan held an event where the word “respect” was emblazoned in the sky, and each guest was given a monarch butterfly to be released. Bob Saget officiated the funeral services, and the guests included Tim Allen, Jay Leno, Jim Carrey, Larry David, and Chris Rock. Louie Anderson said the final prayer.
Like Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy started doing stand-up at 15. Dangerfield, who was known for encouraging young talent, went to check out Murphy’s act. Murphy later spoke to W Magazine in 2020 and recalled Dangerfield’s comments.
“I don’t know where you’re going to go with that,” Dangerfield had told him. “You know, the language and the race stuff.” One day years later, Murphy found himself next to Dangerfield at a Caesar’s Palace urinal. Of course, Dangerfield had a one-liner: “Who knew?”
UCLA’s Division of Neurosurgery kept the Dangerfield legacy alive in their way. They named a suite of operating rooms after the late comic and gave him the “Rodney Respect Award.” Joan then presented the award to Jay Leno on October 20, 2005.
Other recipients of the Rodney Respect Award include Tim Allen, Jim Carrey, Louie Anderson, Bob Saget, Chelsea Handler, Chuck Lorre, Kelsey Grammar, Brad Garrett, Jon Lovitz, and Jamie Masada. But there were many other forms of admiration given to the late comic.
Dangerfield’s material was almost all one-liners, a set-up, and then the punchline. That meant that he needed many jokes to fill a comedy set. He kept being invited to television spots on The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show because he always had new material.
Dangerfield was always more than willing to give new comedians a chance, and when they were able to provide him with new jokes, he paid them a nice price for their work.