- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2006

LOS ANGELES

As Louie De Palma on the TV comedy “Taxi,” Danny DeVito embodied the guy audiences loved to hate — a crude, obnoxious boss who would torment his employees at the Sunshine Cab Co. with sadistic glee.

Some 23 years since “Taxi’s” curtain call, Mr. DeVito, 61, returns this week as a TV-series regular, playing another loathsome-yet-lovable role on the second-season premiere of the FX comedy “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” It airs tonight at 10.

Just how bad is his new character, Frank Reynolds, compared to Louie? Don’t ask Mr. DeVito.

“I don’t think Louie was a creep. And I think Frank is a really honorable man,” the actor says as he deadpans before busting into a laugh that says “Gotcha.”

Apart from a memorable cameo doing a striptease on “Friends” or appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” Mr. DeVito has stayed away from regular TV series work since “Taxi” and concentrated on movies — acting, directing and producing.

His screen credits include roles in “Romancing the Stone,” “Twins,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Batman Returns.” He also executive-produced “Pulp Fiction” and directed “Hoffa” and “War of the Roses,” among other films.

Yet all the while, Mr. DeVito says, he has been craving a return to a sitcom.

“I was always looking for something that was exciting, something to give me the juice to be with actors on a stage,” he says.

“Sunny” centers on four self-involved friends pushing 30 — Mac, Dennis, Charlie and Sweet Dee — who run a dive bar in Philadelphia and often fall victim to each others’ chronic misguidedness.

Episode titles from the show’s seven-episode first season last year offer a clue: “Charlie Gets Molested,” “The Gang Gets Racist,” “Charlie Needs an Abortion,” “The Gang Finds a Dead Guy.”

“These guys always manage to find the lowest common denominator in any choice that they make in terms of their lives in the bar or trying to get over on people,” Mr. DeVito says in a heavy New Jersey accent.

He enters the fray as Dennis and Sweet Dee’s estranged father, Frank, who barges into the foursome’s lives after announcing that he and his wife (Anne Archer) are getting divorced.

Frank wants to bond with the adult children he all but ignored for 30 years. He wants to give away all his money to charity and live a simpler life. Most of all, it seems from the first few episodes, he really just wants to hook up with young, hot women — often at the expense of the younger guys.

“The Danny character was an expansion of these characters’ world. You get to see a little bit of where these people came from and, unfortunately, a sense of where they’re going to end up,” says Rob McElhenney, who plays Mac and, along with co-stars Charlie Day (Charlie) and Glenn Howerton (Dennis), also works as executive producer and writer on the show.

Kaitlin Olson, 30, rounds out the cast of regulars as Sweet Dee.

Having Mr. DeVito on the show has been the latest stroke of fortune for Mr. McElhenney, 29, and Mr. Howerton and Mr. Day, both 30, who landed the series on the strength of a pilot they shot for less than $200 — or so the story goes.

“We have come a long way from a home movie that was shot with a couple of friends,” Mr. McElhenney reflected at a recent screening of episodes from the show’s upcoming season.

Mr. DeVito came across “Sunny” last year when John Landgraf, FX president and general manager, and a longtime associate of Mr. DeVito’s, sent the actor copies of the show. Mr. DeVito loved it, and soon Mr. McElhenney was at his door, asking him if he would consider joining the cast.

“I said I would do it like if the character was organic and didn’t feel tacked on,” Mr. DeVito says. “Once I heard what they wanted to do and that they were going to write this character of Frank Reynolds and how it was going to fit into the mix, I was sold.”

In its first season, “Sunny” averaged 1.1 million total viewers with little marketing. Now, with the addition of Mr. DeVito, the show’s marketing has received a considerable boost, which should bring in more viewers.

“It never hurts to have a big star,” Mr. Day says.

However, unlike “Taxi,” “Sunny” airs on a cable channel — and its edgy style and profanity-laced dialogue require that it carry a warning advising viewer discretion.

Yet the racier approach and the fact that the show is not taped before a studio audience, but shot like a short film, with much of what ends up on screen improvised, had Mr. DeVito licking his acting chops.

“They are free, open, inventive, talented, creative, everything,” Mr. DeVito says of his co-stars. “They think about story, they think about character, and they like to have a lot of fun. And those ingredients are exactly what I’m looking for.”

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