Joe Piscopo looks up to Danny DeVito, which is hard because DeVito's only slightly taller than a dishwasher. Piscopo, the perennial second banana, slouches in his chair, the better to eyeball the comedic Napoleon.
Friends on screen and off, the paisanos have teamed up, Abbott and Costello style, for a gangland buddy movie, "Wise Guys." DeVito is the wiser guy and Piscopo is the perfect foil, sort of like Don Rickles and Tonto.
"Like Crosby and Hope . . . Martin and Lewis," says Brian De Palma, who directed them in this surprisingly sweet-natured farce. "The movie turns on a goofy relationship these guys share."
They play next-door neighbors who work as flunkies for the Newark mob. DeVito is the fast-talking Harry Valentini, and Piscopo is his wide-eyed sidekick, Moe Dickstein. Their palship starts unraveling when The Boss secretly contracts each to kill the other.
"What you see on the screen is the relationship we have in real life," says Piscopo. "I'm pretty naive and gullible. And Danny, man, he could take me anywhere."
"Wise Guys" was almost iced itself. It was bounced from studio executive to studio executive, delayed from February to May and scheduled, at first, to open only in Philadelphia. But it got a last-minute reprieve.
And so here they sit at the Lowell Hotel, swigging designer water, talking about "Wise Guys" as well as Piscopo's May 13 ABC-TV comedy special (on which DeVito will also appear). Piscopo's new girlfriend, sitcom blond Pamela Bach, took the red-eye from L.A. to be with him. They can't bear to be apart.
"She's an actress," he says by way of introduction.
"Yeah, 'Debbie Does Dallas,' " says the hostile half-pint, offhandedly zapping them both.
The 41-year-old DeVito, who might be as much as five feet tall, grew up joking his way out of confrontations, using comedy like karate, in self-defense. His height usually works to his advantage, but at present he's piqued with Piscopo, 34, for writing him into a short skit for the ABC show.
"He's Fred Flintstone and I'm Barney Rubble. I'll go on record that he's going to be paying for this for the rest of his expletive life."
The staff was bending over backward to please him, getting him sushi, anything he wanted. Then it was, "Well, Mr. DeVito, why don't you go and get made up. I figured a little powder would do it . . . Next thing you know, they're bringing out these rubber pieces. And I said, 'What are they?' And he said, 'The hair.'
"So I go upstairs and they put me in a barrel hair suit. 'You may want to take your clothes off to get made up,' they say. A barrel with Velcro. They put thongs on my feet . . . I thought it was gonna be Piscopo and me doing the dialogue of 'The Flintstones' with a suit on . . . Then I remembered this is the guy who dresses up like anybody. Mr. Prosthetics, I'm dealing with . . .
"Since 'The Flintstones,' I figure that I can get him to do anything I want. I made it clear when I did this, especially after I saw the rubber hat, that this wasn't a one-time thing, that he'd be paying me back for the rest of his life. One of the criteria of the scripts that I will consider is they have to have at least two or three strange parts in them for Joe Piscopo."
DeVito is really on now, and Piscopo can hardly get a joke in edgewise. If he tries, DeVito runs with it, changes the subject, rapes and pillages the conversation. The faster he talks, the more excited he gets. He sounds like a violin with a cold.
Piscopo begins a story about his mad dog scene in "Wise Guys," in which he is suspended face first over snarling Rottweilers while the film crosscuts to DeVito submerged in a lobster tank.
"If I was going to do this without a stunt man," Piscopo says, "I said I want the elastic bands off the claws on DeVito's lobsters."
"Ohhohoh," giggles DeVito, and takes over the tale.
"There were 25 lobsters in the tank . . . They had a huge garbage bag filled with ice. They had it in there from like 6 o'clock in the morning. So they had to get the temperature to really freezing cold to keep the lobsters alive, see. You know I am a humanitarian at heart . . . You know I'm very thrilled, they kept the lobsters moving.
"So they took this bag out and they put me in . . . I'm talking like frozen face. I felt like a popsicle."
A makeup man with a bright idea "takes me out and puts Vaseline all over my exposed skin. My hands, face, neck. They put me in a wet suit. 'You're not going to be wet at all' . . . Meanwhile, they dump me in. The first thing that happens is I fill up with water, like a water balloon. Forget about it. It was freezing, but what happens is you get totally numb after a while. And you don't wanna come out -- you want to stay there with the lobsters."
A Lesson in Nutrition
DeVito has another Perrier, or "Perryaire" as he calls it, to moisten his hearty rasp. He's shipshape in slacks, sport jacket, starched white shirt and tiny Reeboks. Piscopo, California-colored biceps popping, puts his Adidas jacket on over his low-cut body shirt. Then he takes it off again, either because he is too hot or because he can't bear to cover his cleavage, newly pumped up for his special impersonation of Bruce Springsteen.
Unlike the late John Belushi -- or maybe because of him -- Piscopo and DeVito lead healthy lives. They won't even drink Coke, much less snort it. DeVito works out on a trampoline and swims. Piscopo runs and pumps iron.
"It was great being on the set with Danny because on other sets it's usually all junk food," says Piscopo. DeVito made sure there were wholesome foods like turkey, almonds and ginseng for snacks. "We have to be careful about what we eat," says DeVito rather primly.
"Don't mix carbs," says Piscopo ominously.
"You never eat fruit with anything," DeVito declares. "If you want to eat meat, which I don't eat . . . then throw fruit on top of that. What happens is the meat takes three hours to digest at least. And fruit wants to get out there in like 40 minutes, a half hour. It's stuck in there.
"You look at it like a tube," he says, making a shape like a huge wiener in the air. "Here's the meat, then you throw the fruit on there, then you throw some whipped cream and a berry. And what happens, it just gets stuck in there, turns to sugar, ferments, forms gases, gases go into the body. The histamines begin to form . . . It goes into your cells and you turn into, like, the Pillsbury Doughboy."
Captain Lou's Joke
Captain Lou Albano, the "Wrestlemania" superstar and a cartoon character in his own right, is the biggest "Wise Guys" costar, playing a mob henchman the size of a house trailer. He arrives at a morning screening dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, with lots of gold jewelry and a rubber band tied around his sparse goatee.
"He's awesome, a very sweet man," says DeVito. "But how many times can he tell the joke about the psychiatrist? He told me 150 times. I was so bombarded by that joke I started to tell it."
And he tells it: "Man goes into a psychiatrist's office. Says, 'Doc, all night long I'm dreaming of wigwams and teepees.' Doc says, 'I know your problem, you're two tents.' "
Nobody laughs. "It's the stupidest joke. He told it every morning in the makeup truck, every afternoon at lunch and every evening before he went home. So I turned into him. I started telling the joke.
"I went to Morocco to do "The Jewel of the Nile" . The first thing I did, I saw Mike Douglas . . . I haven't slept in nine hours . . . I didn't even say 'How's the film going?' . . . I say, 'Mike, man goes into a psychiatrist's office . . . ' I've told it now, the first month we're in Morocco, maybe a hundred times.
"Across the Atlas Mountains, the foot of the Sahara desert, where guys don't wear clothes, no shoes and socks. Guys are wearing robes and little pointy shoes. The governor's over there with his people. They all speak French and Arabic. I don't speak either. They got a translator. Swear to God, Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, the governor and his troops, we're all sitting around this living room. I say to the translator, ask the governor if he's ever heard this: 'Man goes into a psychiatrist's office . . .' The guy translates the joke and it gets a laugh. The governor's legs go up. I see up his dress."
DeVito's movie credits include "Jewel" and its prequel, "Romancing the Stone," as well as "Terms of Endearment" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Close friend Michael Douglas spotted him on stage in "Cuckoo's Nest," then produced the Oscar-winning movie three years later.
He met his wife Rhea Perlman in 1970 while playing off-Broadway in "The Shrinking Bride," and they've been together ever since. Currently the two have a production company with three movies in development and are working on an "Amazing Stories" episode for Steven Spielberg.
* But his years as dastardly dispatcher Louie De Palma of "Taxi" meant more to DeVito than all the rest. Talk of the Emmy-winning show makes the hard little comic wistful.
"The greatest five years of my life," he says. "There was a spirit there . . . I miss all of them. We had some times. Andy, whooo, where are you? Andy Kaufman was always flying around the building somewhere."
It wasn't the same for Piscopo when he left "Saturday Night Live" in 1984. "I miss working with Murphy. That was a kick working live with Eddie Murphy. But it wasn't what Danny's talking about. It was like you had to fight for your life on that show." He calls it "comedy 'Nam."
"If you didn't come up with the ideas for yourself, you weren't on. It's a writers' show, and the writers would utilize you . . . just to fill their sketch."
Piscopo's comedy is loud, like his "SNL" Sports Guy. But he's soft-spoken, kind of an earnest marshmallow with a real strong jaw. He started his show business career as a Trenton deejay, did commercials for Dr Pepper and was spotted by "SNL" talent scouts doing stand-up at Manhattan comedy clubs in the mid-'70s.
Lately, he's been rethinking his image. "I don't mean to compare myself to them, but Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason are people for me to admire, even Carol Burnett. They got silly. You get silly doing sketches. But you don't picture them doing stand-up or a monologue. There was always some kind of acting piece."
Next, he'd like to do a pop star's life story, maybe Springsteen's or his idol, Frank Sinatra's. Piscopo, who used to imitate Ol' Blue Eyes on "SNL," joined Sinatra on "Solid Gold" at the invitation of guest host Sinatra a month ago. "He called me 'baby.' 'Okay, Joe, baby, I'll see you later.' And I stopped in my tracks. It was so cool. Being Italian and living in New Jersey. He was more important than the pope back then. Frank Sinatra's picture was above the pope's."
A Parting Shot
DeVito drifts off while his costar talks. He's unnervingly quiet, suddenly tired. Piscopo and his girlfriend, Bach, have been itching to leave since before they got here. But the photographer asks for a few more pictures, and suddenly DeVito's stirred up again.
He sits on the arm of the sofa, razzing the photographer. "You want a couple of more pictures? You've been taking pictures for an hour . . . There are going to be two noises in a minute. Me hitting you. And you hitting the floor."
Piscopo nestles back into the sofa and looks up into DeVito's eyes. DeVito's unnerved at being this close to another guy. "Ma'm, ma'm," he cries, "He blew in my ear -- he's mauling me."
Bach makes goo-goo eyes at Piscopo over DeVito's shoulder. When it's done, Piscopo turns to Bach and they embrace somewhat desperately. DeVito can't resist a last hit.
"You can use the room if you want," he says to the lovers. "I won't be needing it for the rest of the afternoon.