Funnyman Dom DeLuise, 75, Known for Classic Comedies

Dom DeLuise -- the roly-poly actor, comedian, author and chef -- died at the age of 75.
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Dom DeLuise, 75, the rotund comic actor whose frequent television appearances in the 1960s and 1970s helped propel a career in films in which he often teamed with director Mel Brooks and actor Burt Reynolds, died May 4 at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. He had high blood pressure and diabetes, a family spokesman said.

Mr. DeLuise had a broad, slapstick style of physical humor that was derived largely from his idol, Jackie Gleason. He was a master improviser of throwaway lines, gestures and bug-eyed looks of surprise delivered with casually perfect timing.

He excelled in television sketches, getting his television start in the early 1960s as the hapless magician Dominick the Great on "The Garry Moore Show," a CBS variety program where he often appeared alongside comedians Carol Burnett and Ruth Buzzi. Mr. DeLuise twice had his own short-lived TV series and, in the early 1990s, was the host of "Candid Camera," but he became better known for his film roles, particularly in a half-dozen comedies by Brooks.

He often played outlandish characters -- from the effeminate director Buddy Bizarre in Brooks's "Blazing Saddles" (1974) to a bloated, belching Emperor Nero in "History of the World: Part I" (1981) -- who could trigger laughter just by walking into camera range. He also was the voice of Pizza the Hutt in Brooks's "Star Wars" parody "Spaceballs" (1987).

Mr. DeLuise appeared in four films with Reynolds, including "Smokey and the Bandit II" and the cult favorite "Cannonball Run" movies. In the two "Cannonball Run" films, he played the nerdy Victor Prinzim, who drives an ambulance in a cross-country road race. From time to time in the film, Mr. DeLuise transformed himself into "Captain Chaos," a deep-voiced, would-be superhero who possessed unearthly driving skills.

"One day, I was in the schoolyard, nine guys were beatin' me up pretty good, and there he was," he said, explaining his transformation into a caped crusader. "Dun dun DUNNN! . . . out of the blue! Pow! Slam! Bam! Baff! I sure was grateful! Nobody bothered me at school after that."

Mr. DeLuise appeared with Gene Wilder in several films, including "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" (1975), which Wilder directed.

"During three months of rehearsals and prerecording our songs, Dom DeLuise kept us laughing," Wilder wrote in his 2005 memoir, "Kiss Me Like a Stranger."

"When the actual filming started, he kept the whole crew laughing, not just with his acting but also between takes. He was the funniest man, in person, that I've ever known."

In addition to his live-action comedy, Mr. DeLuise often performed as a voice-over artist in animated films and cartoons, including the role of Tiger in Steven Spielberg's "An American Tail" (1986) and its sequels, and as the dog Itchy Itchiford in the popular TV series "All Dogs Go to Heaven." He also appeared several times at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in a speaking role in the opera "Die Fledermaus."

Mr. DeLuise battled a weight problem for most of his life, sometimes weighing 325 pounds or more. He bore a striking likeness to celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme and once visited Prudhomme's restaurant in New Orleans, convincing diners that he was in fact the chef.

In later years, Mr. DeLuise wrote several cookbooks and children's books and occasionally appeared as a television and radio chef. He said his interest in cooking came from his mother.

"She was always ready to cook at a moment's notice," he said. "She carried around two meatballs in the bun in her hair."

Dominick DeLuise was born Aug. 1, 1933, in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Italian immigrants. He attended New York's High School of Performing Arts, studied biology at Tufts University near Boston and spent two years as an apprentice actor in Cleveland.

He met his wife, actress Carol Arthur, while doing summer stock in New England and in 1971 replaced James Coco on Broadway in the Neil Simon comedy "Last of the Red Hot Lovers." His television career bloomed in the 1960s and 1970s with "Garry Moore," "The Entertainers," "The Dean Martin Show" and "The Carol Burnett Show." He was a frequent guest host of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."

Mr. DeLuise was known mostly for comedy, but he made his film debut in 1964 with a small role in Sidney Lumet's political thriller "Fail-Safe." He played an undercover police officer in his own directorial debut, 1979's "Hot Stuff." A year later, he had the lead role in the bittersweeet comedy "Fatso," directed by and co-starring Anne Bancroft. Throughout the 1980s, he directed many plays at theaters in Florida, often with his sons, actors Peter, Michael and David DeLuise.

They survive him, along with his wife of 43 years and three grandchildren.

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