The Lost Roles of Rodney Dangerfield
Lost Roles is a weekly column exploring “what might have been” in movie and TV comedy, as we take a different actor, writer, or comedian each week and examine the parts they turned down, wanted but didn’t get, and the projects that fell apart altogether. This week, we’re looking at Rodney Dangerfield, one of the most revered stand-up comedians of all-time and someone who was good about sending the elevator back down to help younger comedy types – many of whom are household names today. Dangerfield got a late start in the movie world, taking his first starring role at the age of 59, but he managed to have a nice run as a comedic actor in the ’80s with Caddyshack and Back to School both becoming wildly successful, while later ventures couldn’t live up to the popularity of those two films. Rodney Dangerfield didn’t love movie and TV acting, though, taking large breaks from acting to focus on his true passion: stand-up. Dangerfield explained these feelings, “Too much waiting around, too much memorizing; I need that immediate feedback of people laughing.” As with any actor, Rodney Dangerfield had several roles he didn’t get and projects that escaped him, including a Caddyshack sequel he got sued for bailing on, a sitcom about a pre-teen boy who can magically conjure up Rodney whenever he wants to give him advice, and a Marvel animated special about a disco singer superhero.
Dazzler (1979, unfilmed)
Comic book writer and publisher Jim Shooter wrote on his blog last year about a strange Marvel movie project in the late 70s that was set to involve Rodney Dangerfield. Marvel had created a super-heroine/disco singer character called “Dazzler” as a tie-in with a record company, hoping to produce and market both music and comics based around the same character. Shooter was asked to write an animated special based around Dazzler, with characters to be voiced by Robin Williams, Cher, Donna Summer, Rodney Dangerfield, Lenny and Squiggy, the Village People, and KISS (you can read the script treatment here). Dangerfield would have voiced four characters, named Dewey, Cheetham, Howe, and Lord Chaos. Based off the strength of his script treatment for the TV special, Shooter’s bosses told him they wanted to make it into a movie instead, but the record company folding forced the folks at Marvel to put the project on hold. Here’s the original cast list for a taste of what things might have looked like:
Cher, as the Witch Queen.
Donna Summer, as the Queen of Fire.
KISS, as the Dreadknights.
Robin Williams, as Tristan.
Rodney Dangerfield, as Dewey, Cheetham, and Howe, and as Lord Chaos,
The Village People, as the Stompers.
Lenny and Squiggy, as the Jesters.
Sledge Hammer! (1986-1988)
Before finding its home at ABC, creator Alan Spencer’s cult hit police comedy Sledge Hammer! was in development as a made-for-TV movie at HBO. Network executives wanted a comedic actor in the leading role, suggesting Rodney Dangerfield or Joe Piscopo for the part, but Spencer resisted and brought the project to ABC because of this and numerous other disagreements with HBO. The part ended up being played by David Rasche, who played things pretty straight in the absurd show, which was a key part to its success. If a stand-up like Rodney had been cast instead, it would have drastically affected Sledge Hammer!‘s tone.
Caddyshack II (1988)
Rodney Dangerfield signed on to reprise his role as boorish loudmouth Al Czervik in the sequel to Caddyshack in 1987. Here’s Harold Ramis, co-writer/director of the original Caddyshack explaining what happened to The A.V. Club:
With Caddyshack II, the studio begged me. They said, “Hey, we’ve got a great idea: ‘The Shack Is Back!'” And I said [moans], “No, I don’t think so.” But they said that Rodney really wanted to do it, and we could build it around Rodney. Rodney said, “Come on, do it.” Then the classic argument came up which says that if you don’t do it, someone will, and it will be really bad. So I worked on a script with my partner Peter Torokvei, consulting with Rodney all the time. Then Rodney got into a fight with the studio over his contract and backed out. We had some success with Back To School, which I produced and wrote, and we were working with the same director, Alan Metter. When Rodney pulled out, I pulled out, and then they fired Alan and got someone else [Allan Arkush]. I got a call from [co-producer] Jon Peters saying, “Come with us to New York; we’re going to see Jackie Mason!” I said, “Ooh, don’t do this. Why don’t we let it die?” And he said, “No, it’ll be great.” But I didn’t go, and they got other writers to finish it. I tried to take my name off that one, but they said if I took my name off, it would come out in the trades and I would hurt the film.
Warner Brothers sued Rodney Dangerfield, who was also supposed to serve as a writer on the movie alongside Ramis, for $7 million for backing out of his contract. Dangerfield backed out of the movie because Warner Brothers wouldn’t grant him the option to approve final cut or additional royalties that he was requesting. Sliding Jackie Mason into Rodney Dangerfield’s place didn’t really work, and Caddyshack II ended up being a huge disaster, so it was probably good Dangerfield sidestepped this one – even if it left him with a hole in his movie schedule.
Where’s Rodney? (1990, unsold pilot)
Rodney Dangerfield starred as himself in this unsuccessful NBC pilot about a pre-teen boy who idolizes Rodney Dangerfield and gains the ability to magically make him appear to give him advice. Where’s Rodney? was a co-production between Aaron Spelling and Hanna-Barbera and also starred Jared Rushton, Soleil Moon Frye, and Breckin Meyer. Check out the pilot below and look for clues as to why NBC didn’t pick it up:
The Scout (1994)
In 1983, Peter Falk signed on to star in the baseball comedy The Scout, playing the role that would go to Albert Brooks a decade later when the movie finally got made. In between Falk and Brooks, Rodney Dangerfield was briefly attached to the lead role in 1989 with his buddy Sam Kinison as his co-star. Things didn’t come together for the Dangerfield/Kinison version of The Scout, which probably would have been way different from the Albert Brooks/Brendan Fraser version.
The Aristocrats (2005)
Rodney Dangerfield was invited to appear in Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza’s documentary, which features dozens of comedians all telling their own version of the same dirty joke, but he was in too poor of health at the time and passed away during the film’s production.
Respect, a Rodney Dangerfield Documentary (2007, unfinished)
In 2007, Rodney Dangerfield’s widow Joan sued producer David Permut to stop him from releasing a documentary about Rodney Dangerfield called Respect that he was working on at the time. Permut had over 200 hours of video of Rodney and was editing it into a documentary, but Joan Dangerfield claimed the material was “highly private, extremely sensitive and very personal” and that it showed Rodney in poor health in the final days of his life.