I had several memorable encounters with Rodney Dangerfield that ranged from fantastic to bazaar. With any shoot, producing a compelling image is always the prime directive but if the best you can do is walk away with a great story to tell, it’s still a pretty good day.
I was a big fan of Dangerfield as a kid and when he hit his stride after Caddyshackthere was no one more fun to watch. He was throw back to the Borscht Belt one-liners but his material was contemporary, edgy and smart, his delivery was impeccable. Like most of my subjects, I can’t say I really got to know Rodney Dangerfield but I did get to witness him interact with enough people I do know to realize that he was warm, giving and genuine. He was respected by the toughest crowd in the world – his fellow comics, and his generous nature launched many of their careers.
My first encounter with Rodney was not good. I received a call that he was working on a film project and had requested to have my work sent over to the Beverly Hilton. I was given a number to call to make the arrangements and was surprised when Rodney answered the phone himself. This was back in the day when a portfolio was one of the photographers’ most valued and most costly possessions. Before websites and tablets the printed portfolio was the only voice a photographer had and was an extension of their style with each image meticulously hand-printed, matted, laminated and sequenced in a customized case.
I had the portfolio messengered over and he signed for it himself, it was supposed to be returned the following day. It went missing for weeks and was ultimately returned in a brown bag without the case and the images of Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Sandra Bernhard, Mort Sahl, Rosanne Barr, Damon Wayans, all of the comedians had been removed. I placed a call and once again Rodney answered the phone. When I mentioned the missing images he sarcastically suggested that I report it to the police. For the first time ever, I was not amused by Rodney Dangerfield. This is the heartbreak you risk when you meet your childhood heroes. In fairness, I’m sure the book passed through a lot of hands during that time and it’s likely that Rodney hadn’t removed the images. Why would he? I was less bothered by the missing images than his flippant response.
A couple of years later I got a call from a client to photograph Rodney at his residence in Westwood for a PSA. The whole portfolio ordeal was “water-under-the-bridge” and I was excited to finally photograph Dangerfield. To this day I don’t know if he was undergoing a medical procedure or if he had recently had an accident but when we arrived I was introduced to his nurse and it was obvious that he was convalescing. He was gracious and amenable but not at the top of his game. He insisted on doing the shoot without a groomer and wanted to shoot in his bathrobe and slippers rather than his trademark suit and red tie. I only shot stills on a Hasselblad film camera and as we were leaving he said “Send me a tape, but none of that Beta crap.” It was a pretty quick and forgettable shoot.
Some months later I was attending an auction at the Beverly Hilton when to my surprise Rodney approached me and struck up a conversation. He totally remembered our session and really wanted to talk. I’m pretty sure he was stoned and not just because he was wearing pajamas. We sat and talked for a while, I couldn’t figure out if he was there for the auction or just lounging in the lobby, he was hilarious. Before I left to join my friends he suggested an idea he had for a portrait he thought we should shoot.
The following year I was invited to join he and his wife, Joan, for a benefit show that he was headlining at the Laugh Factory on Sunset. Before the show we took just a few minutes to make the portrait he had suggested. During the shoot Rodney was upbeat, sharp, self-deprecating…classic Rodney. We arrived separately at the venue and were seated in a booth just adjacent to the stage, as other comics performed he grew very anxious. After each comic he would ask “Am I next?” I tried to explain his anxiety away as part of his process but he seemed a bit off, certainly not the same guy I had photographed just an hour before. I thought he might just be incredibly stoned, it was no secret that he loved weed and he had been making the press for some erratic behavior around town. Whatever the cause, my confidence didn’t soar when he was finally introduced and seemed a bit confused as he migrated to the mic. When the applause died down there was a beat of silence, typically he would be on his second joke by that point. Just as I was starting to panic he said “I’m alright now but last week…” and suddenly I was watching that guy on the Carson show I would stay up for as a kid. He ruled the stage, rocking back and forth from his toes to his heels. His timing, his expressions, his delivery – it was all there. It was more than muscle memory, it was lucid, fast, and articulate. He received a standing ovation and suddenly seemed lost again as he wondered back to the booth. I leaned over and said, “You Killed!”, “Yeah!” he quipped back with a big smile. As the emcee was wrapping up the show, Rodney leaned over and asked “Am I up next?”, “You killed!” I told him. He lifted his glass for a toast, I lifted mine and he chuckled “Yeah!” as he shot me his signature big-eyed expression. To this day I don’t know if he was just having fun with me, if he was high as a kite or if there was something else in play but whatever it was, it couldn’t derail his set.
Like most photographers I am pretty meticulous about my archives. I can easily reference virtually every photo I have ever taken…almost. There are exactly two shoots that I do not have in my archives. One is a shoot I did for a television pilot that the digital tech never delivered to me and the other is that last session with Dangerfield. When Rodney passed away I got a request for that shoot and the film was misplaced before it ever got published. Like the comedians pulled from my portfolio, from beyond the grave Rodney managed to remove himself from my archives.