Conducted ~early 2003
One of the great joys about being an interviewer is actually going out and, when the wind is blowing right and the stars align, getting a chance to speak to your childhood idols.
Growing up on the heavy side, one of those idols was Dom DeLuise. Be it a Mel Brooks comedy, teamed with Burt Reynolds, or pointing Kermit the Frog in the direction of Hollywood while deep in a swamp, I couldn’t get enough of him. He was, and remains, one of my favorite screen comedians. Rare is the actor whose very screen presence lights up even the dullest of flicks, and many a piece of mediocre celluloid was redeemed by a little shot of Dom.
He’s played Caesar (”Wash this!”), a hypocritical public watchdog (”Texas has a whorehouse in it!”), an agent (”Alligator!”), a sidekick (”Captain Chaos!”), and even a crow named Jeremy… With over 50 years in the business, he’s done everything from Broadway to TV, nightclubs to movies… And back again.
I got a chance to have a conversation with Dom a few years back, one which lasted many hours and touched on all aspects of his life and career. Like many a great storyteller, a conversation with Dom was rarely linear - you never know when an anecdote or a fascinating tangent will pop up, and I largely gave Dom the reins to recall and relate whatever he wanted to, when he wanted to… With many a gem uncovered in the process.
Unfortunately, the sheer magnitude of the piece meant that its transcription was often put off in favor of smaller, quicker pieces in the intervening years - much to my dismay, as this interview was something I’d desperately wanted to share. Finally, the piece was finished.
I would like to note that, since we spoke a few years back, some of the people we discussed in the interview have since passed away, including the much-missed Anne Bancroft, as well as Dom himself.
After we had finished the interview, Dom remembered our conversation about my Grandmother, who had grown up in the same neighborhood at the same time as him. Dom asked for her address and phone number. A few days later, my Grandmother called to tell me she had just received a phone call from Dom - and the two had reminisced for almost an hour. A few days after that, she received a signed copy of one of Dom’s cookbooks, as well as a signed 8×10 - two pieces of kindness, above and beyond the phone call, that sum up what a charming, big-hearted man he was.
My Grandmother passed away a few weeks ago (at the time of this writing). Here’s the inscription Dom wrote…
For more info on Dom, be sure to visit his official website at DomDeluise.com
KEN PLUME: Am I correct in my understanding that you were born in Brooklyn?
DOM DeLUISE: Yes, I was born in Brooklyn, on August 1, 1933. And my mother was an Italian immigrant, as was my father. They spoke Italian and I learned English. As soon as I was born, I was heard to say, “Is it ready?” And it was pretty good. I had a brother who was 12 years older than me, and he was Nicholas. And my sister was 8 years older than me, and we’re still talking to each other after all this time. My father was quite amazing because he came to this country and he never spoke English and he was illiterate. And the lovely thing about him was that he ended up buying a gigantic house with four apartments in it, which my sister now owns. It was pretty wonderful because my family lived in one apartment and then all the other people were there… we would visit in the hallways, you know, so it was very communal. And there was a gigantic basement that we used to make wine in, and can tomatoes in. When I say can, I mean we would put them in bottles.
I was taken to the movies at about, I think… I don’t know… seven. I was pretty old. And I saw in the movies that first time, when Jimmy Cagney killed Humphrey Bogart. Cagney was going to the electric chair, and Pat O’Brien told him to fake that he was scared - “I want you to scream and yell when you go to the electric chair.” And Cagney said, “I’m not gonna do that.” But he did make believe he was scared for the sake of the dead end kids, so they would straighten out their lives and he wouldn’t be a hero. I think it was Angels With Dirty Faces. And I said, “Ah! That’s what I want to do!” I remember so clearly going to my first film and there was this gigantic picture, and I was so thrilled and I thought, “Oh, wow, I want to do that.” I just immediately knew. I was just able to talk and walk, and I thought, that really is beautiful.
PLUME: Had you shown any inclination towards being an outward person prior to that?
DeLUISE: I was pretty outward, yes, I was… first of all, I was the youngest. And because my mother had lost other children - that’s why my brother was older than me. The reason he was 12 years older was my mother lost three children in between. And then came my sister, and then they lost another child, and then I came… so my mother lost four and then she had the three: Nicholas, Ann, and then Dom. And because I was little, and survived, I have a feeling that they fed me carefully because of the history of my other brothers and sisters that didn’t make it.
PLUME: Lavished more attention on you?
DeLUISE: A lot of attention was lavished on me, right. And then I know that I was fed carefully. And that influenced me… That’s the reason I’ve always been roundish, you know. And I went to school and I was a fairly good student. I was a little dyslex… dyslex… I can’t say it. I have it, but I can’t say it.
DeLUISE: There, you said it. I had problems learning to spell, and my sister didn’t. She was very, very good about that. And to this day, I will call her long distance - she’s in Long Island and I’m in California - and I’ll call her up and she’ll spell something for me. I mean it’s… I mean, I write books and I have written two cookbooks and I’ve written 9 children’s books, but I still call her up and ask her for some help with the position of letters and words. But a lot of famous people who have accomplished a great deal are also dyslexic, so it’s all right.
PLUME: Do you think it’s a sense of over-accomplishing to compensate?
DeLUISE: I’m not sure why it happened, but I know that there was a man named John Kennedy who had it. And a lot of people can… like, my son has it, and has trouble reading the words. His eyes don’t go along the line, and they pop around, and so he has trouble reading. But he performs all the time. And he’s very skilled about looking at a script that’s two or three pages long and then he memorizes it very quickly and will often perform it very well, since he has the skill of pronouncing a lot of words. So he’s very smart about it. I didn’t hit it. I didn’t know what was wrong. You don’t have it, right? You don’t have that…
DeLUISE: Because you have a script and you… it’s not what I do. Not a skill that I have. Especially when you were young, and as an actor you want to read scripts cold and you were hoping to read them well, and that was not a skill that I had. But after I listened to it once to get the gist of it, I had to go over and study what I could read. When I went to school, I had just a block to walk to school, but I remember clearly being a mama’s boy. I was home and my mother left me at school, and I was very, very upset that my mother was going to leave me in this room. I remember saying, “You’re gonna leave???” That was very vivid to me. That day of my life is very vivid. I had an opportunity to go to a high school called the High School of Performing Arts, which was in New York. It meant that I had to leave my house and go about seven blocks, put a nickel in, go down in the subway, travel for about an hour, and go to the High School of Performing Arts.
After I got out of the subway, 46th Street and Broadway, I went to 46th Street and 6th Avenue, which is a block and a half, and there was this wonderful school where I could have voice, diction, and dance, and acting and stage craft. It was a thrilling experience to be focusing on how to perform. And when I was in my junior high school, which is what you go to before you go to high school, I was in a show called The Christmas Carol, and I played Ebenezer Scrooge the first time. A bumbling man who was very sweet, and Scrooge learns how to be a better person by looking at him. And then the next year they did the same play over and I played Ebenezer Scrooge, and I still have the script. It’s a huge part, you know. And I was a young big kid, and I played Scrooge and I also made my own tombstone! It said Ebenezer Scrooge, and I had to make this. And I said, “What name is on there? Ebenezer Scrooge! Oh no! Are these the things that will happen, or the things that might happen? Tell me!” The ghost was played by Anita Calaio - she was underneath that black cloth - and I said, “Oh, please!” And then at the end, we all bowed and they closed the curtain and I came outside, and the whole school screamed with approval, and I was so aware of how nice it was to work really hard and have them cheer for me. It was wonderful.
I had to audition for the High School of Performing Arts because they wanted to see if you could, in fact, carry on and, you know, act a little. So my brother, who was older than me and not as wise as I thought, said the thing that I should learn was Shakespeare. So here I was talking, just barely talking when I was a young person, and my brother said you should learn “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely. They have their entrances and their exits and in their lives they play many parts. The mewing puking child…” And so here I tried to do… can you imagine, a Shakespeare thing? Then they said, “Now we’re going to improvise. Find that book on the table and there’s a piece of paper in it, and just ad lib.” So I looked at the book and looked around and I said, “Oh, a letter!” And I took the piece of paper and I said, “If you don’t pass your…” I was reading the letter. “If you don’t pass your audition, you’ll never get into the High School of Performing Arts.” And you know that I got into it.
Now, three years of my life was spent at the High School of Performing Arts, and it was a wonderful experience. Every day getting on the train. Every day going to school. And every day having some lesson in voice and diction. So I was saying ‘earl’. I mean, I was saying “cup of ‘earl’.” And they said, “Oil.” “Oil? Really?” And then they said, “It’s correct to say ‘bahth’.” And I was saying ‘baath’. And I said ‘bahth’. “I’m going to take ‘bahth’.” So for a long time I said, “I’m gonna take a ‘bahth’, and if you don’t want me to take a ‘baath’, I won’t.” I was learning to speak eastern standard speech. Oh, it was difficult. It was new to me, you know?
PLUME: What was your favorite aspect of performing? Was it acting or voice or singing?
DeLUISE: Assuming the other characters was thrilling to me. It was so exciting to not be me. You have to be other people. We had an exercise at school where we had to be an old person. I only knew people who were old and had an accent. So when I started to do an old person, other people got up and they spoke correct English. English correctly. And when I spoke as an old person, I got on the telephone and I said, “Make-a sure you come-a home, and don’t-a be afraid in-a New York, and take care and goodbye and God blessh.” And so I spoke with an Italian accent, and they said, “Why did you speak in an Italian accent?” And I said, “I don’t know!” And it was because, of course, everybody I knew… my mother was-a talked-a like this, “Dom-a, please,” you know? My father said, “Dom-a, come over here.” Everybody had an accent.
PLUME: It was your frame of reference.
DeLUISE: I had no idea that an old person could speak without an accent. And it was so odd because I remember clearly it’s one of the things I did and then I figured it out. I said, “Wait a minute! Everybody I know who’s old does that!” I mean, it wasn’t apparent. And I met some wonderful people who I still am friends with. There’s a guy named Bob Ellison, who became the writer/producer of Cheers, Taxi… he’s just amazing. We didn’t see each other for a while. In fact, he became friends with me when I was young. We were all young. And damn you for asking me to tell you my life story.
PLUME: How can I make it up to you?
DeLUISE: Are you recording this?
DeLUISE: Oh, I’m so glad. Maybe you could play it back to me and I can find out what I left out. I would sit with him - and I’m jumping ahead - I needed some scripts, and we wrote eight pages of sketches where I did a character called Dominick the Great, a magician that speaks with an Italian accent. What a surprise. And then I did interviews and I interviewed a werewolf. I paid him $200 for each sketch, and he now is a producer for television.
PLUME: Is this the character you would perform on the Gary Moore Show?
DeLUISE: Exactly, exactly. And that… the strange thing is I was doing that when I was 18 years old. And later, when I performed for Reagan at the Ford Theater where Lincoln was shot, I performed the same jokes I had written when I was 18, and I was older, and the people from the White House were laughing. They said it… you know, I mean it was an amazing thing to think that I made up a joke… I held up a ball and I said “I’m gonna make-a this ball disappear. I’m gonna say tree, and the ball is gonna be gone. One two tree. Ladies and gent…” and I let go of the ball, and it was on an elastic, and as I let go of it, it went over to my left and popped over my right shoulder, and then it would recoil and then pop again on my left side, and then it would pop again… so you’d see the ball go bong, bing, boom, boom, and then it was hanging in back of me. So that’s the same thing I did at the White House, and they laughed. I said, “They’re laughing at my 18 year old creation of a, you know, joke.”
And anyway, so what happened was, I also noticed that there was a man named Dan Melnick. And he was a guy who had a low voice and was very good, and he became the president of MGM. And then I went to school with another girl named Suzanne Pleshette, who became the wife of Bob Newhart, and we’re still friends, and we went to high school together. And uh… it goes on. Joseph Wishy, who became an impresario, and would bring Russian dance companies to this country… Have touring companies. So it was very sweet to see people that I went to school with becoming accomplished. When you’re young and you go backstage, and you say, “May I see Danny Thomas?” or some person and they say, “Stand over there at the moment. Keep the door clear.” And now, I say, “Can I see Anne Bancroft?” - who’s one of my best friends… or Mel Brooks or Carl Reiner, or anyone who does a show, they say, “Come in, come in. Get out of the way. Make room for Mr. DeLuise.” And it’s so wonderful to have the ability to go backstage and have somebody say, you know, “come in,” because you know the star of the show. All because of the fact I knew a lot of people who were interested in the theater.
PLUME: Did the high school prepare you for life after high school?
DeLUISE: Ha ha! I’m not sure about life so much as um… as just the idea that you wanted to be in a theatrical… you know, my interest was theatrical.
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