Wednesday, May 6, 2009

R.I.P. Dom DeLuise

The very first thing that came to my mind when I learned of actor-comedian Dom DeLuise’s passing at the age of 75 is an image of a holy man who frantically runs straight up a hill to elude a pair of con men searching for one of twelve chairs containing a cache of stolen jewels…and then when the two men depart, discovers to his consternation that he can’t climb down. If “the twelve chairs” part hasn’t already given it away, this scene is from Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs (1970)—one of the filmmaker’s most underrated efforts and a particular favorite of mine (despite the fact that its plot is incredibly similar to that of It’s in the Bag! [1945]—I know, I know…it had been filmed several times before Bag as well.)

Every obituary and tribute I’ve read about DeLuise is pretty straightforward: he was a very, very funny man with a gift for making people not only laugh, but from the gut…which is the crème de la crème of the funny, I should add. He was known primarily as a supporting actor, and though my favorite film of his is probably The Cheap Detective (1978), in which he plays the Peter Lorre-inspired Pepe Damascus, he was also great in films like Fail-Safe (1964), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), The Busy Body (1967—one of the best things about this odd film, I hasten to add) and The Muppet Movie (1979). After his appearance in Chairs, Mel Brooks made ready use of DeLuise’s talent for generating mirth—casting him in projects like Blazing Saddles (1974), Silent Movie (1976), History of the World: Part I (1981) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). DeLuise also teamed up as comedic sidekick to Burt Reynolds in several of the actor’s “comedies” like Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981) and Cannonball Run II (1984)—movies that had the novelty of featuring the funniest parts of the film (the outtakes) over the closing credits while subjecting audiences to two hours of boredom at the beginning. (However, the black comedy The End [1978]—with DeLuise in a hysterical role as Reynolds’ sanitarium pal—proves that The Blind Squirrel Film Theory™ applies even to Burt’s movies.)

DeLuise had the starring role in two films released in 1979 and 1980; the first, Hot Stuff (1979) was an interesting if not entirely successful comedy about a group of cops who decide to run their own fencing operation as a sting set-up and soon discover that such a venture yields lucrative dividends. Co-starring with Dom were Jerry Reed, Susanne Pleshette, Ossie Davis and Luis Avalos in a funny vehicle that—even if it can’t quite deliver on its intriguing premise—treats its characters as people, and not “types.” DeLuise also played the title role in Fatso (1980), a seriocomic turn that tells the tale of a “big-boned” man who resolves to lose weight after the sudden death of his brother and manages to do so by getting involved with a new girlfriend (Candice Azzara). Directed by Anne Bancroft (who also appears in the film), the movie is very uneven but certainly worth a look to get a full appreciation of DeLuise’s talent.

DeLuise was also well-known for his television work, notably a short-lived sitcom in 1973-74 entitled Lotsa Luck! which apart from its theme song isn’t remembered too much today; it was based on a popular Britcom frequently discussed here on the blog, On the Buses, and while it could be very funny it lacked the family touch present in Buses. His other TV contributions included a self-titled comedy-variety series seen briefly in 1968 and a recurring role as “Vinnie Piatte” on the 1994 revival of the classic cop series Burke’s Law. A frequent favorite on talk shows, DeLuise would often show off his culinary talents, which led to a successful “second career” as amateur chef and cookbook author.

Arriverderci, Dominic. You will be missed.


Chris Riesbeck said...

I'm with you on The Twelve Chairs. (I'm also a fan of It's in the Bag.) I was the only person in the theater not that impressed with Blazing Saddles because there was so much more going on in Brooks' earlier movies. And DeLuise had some great bits in TTC.

Anonymous said...

A hilarious TV bit (on what show, I can't recall) featured DeLuise as a bumbling magician (Dominic the Great) with his assistant Shegundela (Ruth Buzzi). His catch phrase after each misfired illusion was "No applause, please! Save for the end!")

Bobh said...

Dom's complete single season "Lotsa Luck" series can be had on DVD for $12.95 plus shipping at for those interested. There are a few interview segments with Dom on the discs. Ruth Buzzi does appear in one of the episodes in "Lotsa Luck" but not in the bit as described above by Anonymous. If I recall correctly, Ruth is a corporate executive who only has eyes for Dom.

jimkitt said...

Anonymous, I think you saw om doing his egg in the glass trick on the Johnny Carson show which I think I saw on Youtube. It is funny, especially when Dom and Johnny go after each other with the eggs.

Brent McKee said...

There seem to have been a lot of variations on the "Dominick The Great" thing, but the clip with Johnny Carson isn't one of them. The "Dominick The Great" clip that Mark Evanier posted when Dom died apparently came from one of his first appearances on the Dean Martin Show, where Dom was a regular (not that most of the obituaries actually mentions his work with Dino). That was were Mark and Dom became friends, and it was seeing Dom that persuaded Mark to undergo gastric bypass surgery.

One interesting thing: Mark Berman, who does the "Programming Insider" column for Mediaweek, mentioned that he was inspired to get involved with TV by appearing a live taping featuring Dom Deluise in the early 1970s. Unfortunately the show he named as starring Dom was Calucci's Department. Yeah, he mistook James Coco for Dom Deluise.