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Danny DeVito sits down at the table, faces eight entertainment writers from various parts of the country and takes a drag from his huge cigar. But nothing happens. The cigar, which is almost as big as the star himself, won't smoke. So, he strikes a match.

Several of DeVito's colleagues - Penny Marshall, Mark Wahlberg, Lillo Brancato Jr. and James Remar - will also light up as they follow DeVito, filing by one by one for interviews . . . but only after asking if anyone among the circle of reporters objects. DeVito, however, just relights his stogie and puffs away.He's not rude about it, you understand. He's just Danny DeVito, and he knows he doesn't have to ask. Despite his diminutive physique, DeVito is a man of stature. He's the star here and he knows it.

In fact, if DeVito weren't here, in all likelihood most of the press wouldn't be either. DeVito knows that, too.

The occasion is a series of roundtable interviews with nearly 100 members of the print media from around the world, to discuss DeVito's latest film, "Renaissance Man," a comedy-drama that opens across North America on Friday.

Directed by Marshall ("Awakenings," "Big," "A League of Their Own"), the film casts DeVito as an out-of-work advertising executive who unexpectedly finds himself tutoring "dumb" Army recruits, to help them make it in the service. As the film progresses, DeVito's character introduces his eight-member class to Shakespeare and watches as each reveals a questioning mind that has heretofore been hidden away.

"The first time I ever read Shakespeare - well, it's footnote hell," DeVito said with a laugh. "And once you figure out a scene, once you learn it, or you get through an act - or if you're lucky, the whole play - you feel like a million bucks.

"I mean you really feel terrific that you figured it out. This guy (Shakespeare) was brilliant, but, man, was he cryptic? And when you figure it out you get this incredible sense of self-esteem. And that's a big part of our movie."

Director Marshall agrees. "I found (Shakespeare) intimidating," she said, referring to her experience in high school. "That's why I like this (`Renaissance Man'), because it was trying to make it accessible to regular people, rather than a highfalutin thing.

"The educational system is in serious trouble and this says that every kid can be taught if you take the time. The Army is the last place for a kid who can't afford to go to college to get an education and learn a trade."

Upon reading the screenplay, Marshall immediately pictured DeVito as the obvious choice for the lead. "I wanted Danny because he's the antithesis of the Army. And also, I liked the fact that it wasn't going to be John Houseman teaching Shakespeare."

DeVito says he took the role because he wanted to work with Marshall, and he adopts a nasal tone to affect her famous Bronx whine as he relates their initial conversation about the project. "Penny called and said, `Danny, I've got this script and it's so good - I'll do it if you'll do it.'

"So, I read it and I said, `Wait a minute. It's about an advertising guy who's out of work, at the end of his rope, he's going to go be a teacher - OK, I get it. What? In an Army fort? Wait a minute! This is, like, so far out!

"But it was great. I really enjoyed it."

He adds that screenwriter Jim Burnstein actually lived it. "This is true," DeVito explains. "It's dramatized. I'm sure this guy didn't go down the Victory Tower. But he did this - he actually taught on a military base. And he taught Shakespeare. It's really incredible if you think about it."

The Victory Tower is the focus of a central scene in the film - a 40-foot high platform used to teach recruits to rappel by rope to the ground. The story has DeVito's character climbing up and then working his way down the tower in order to ingratiate himself to his students. And in the film it is obviously DeVito - not a stunt double.

"It's not a very comfortable thing to do, I wouldn't recommend it," DeVito said, chuckling. "You look at it objectively, it's 40 feet up - that looks like a piece of cake. And then you get up there and everybody looks like an ant. It really is weird. A tank looks like a thumb-nail.

"But I did it. I did it many, many times. I got kind of good at it after a while. The first push off, that's the most difficult one. There's no tether, there's no net, there's no safety this or that. You're just out there. It's like an interesting metaphor for life. You're on a ledge and you have to commit, and once you take that plunge and get to that 90-degree angle, it's up to you. You control how fast or slow you go - and once you get to the end of it, you want to go up again.

"It would have been a totally different scene if you had a stunt guy up there. That would have been a chump-out, that would have been really bad."

Marshall, however, says she shamed DeVito into it early on. "I did it, so I figured he could do it. I went down the tower and I sent him a video of it. So, he got the message. I did it, I'm older than him and I am a girl.

"But our cinematographer Adam Greenberg is petrified of heights. He was chained and held onto a pole the whole time. We were laughing so hard. I'm not thrilled with heights either, but he was on his hands and knees, and he kept saying, `It's squeaking, it's squeaking.' "

Another primary role in the film is a tough-minded drill sergeant who doesn't appreciate DeVito's undisciplined instruction of his recruits. In an interesting casting choice, Marshall went for Gregory Hines. "Gregory playing a drill sergeant is really nice, but I don't think every drill sergeant has to be Lou Gossett, even though (Gossett) did a brilliant job" (in `An Officer and a Gentleman,' for which he won an Oscar). Marshall also added a little homage to Gossett, having DeVito continually refer to Hines as "Lou," though that is not the character's name.

Hines looked at the role as an opportunity to show another side of his acting talent. "I knew it was a real departure from anything I had done. I wanted to show someone who was a disciplinarian and someone who was strong and someone who cared about these people, and drill sergeants do.

"I've been tutored by drill sergeants, one in particular, Kenneth McKee, who is now retired. He showed me letters he had gotten years after these young people had left the training, saying, `Thank you for the discipline and the motivation and the direction. I'm achieving this, and it's because of you.'

"And I wanted to give a credible performance of what a drill sergeant is today, in this, the new Army. They don't hit people anymore, they don't curse at them, they don't point at them, it's a different technique."

Marshall said she was somewhat surprised by the difference in the Army she had seen in movies and the Army as it exists in 1994. "They aren't allowed to curse the kids anymore or they'd get fired. This is the volunteer army, folks. It's a different ballgame. And not very many movies have been made about the present-day Army. It's always the pre-Vietnam Army. Like the drill sergeant in `Full Metal Jacket' or `An Officer and a Gentleman.'

"But I'm not saying they're these kind, gentle people. They are there to train them."