Caught by the River

Caught By The Reaper – Dom DeLuise

13th May 2009

Dom DeLuise: August 1, 1933 – May 4, 2009. by Karen Krizanovich

“Dom DeLuise is on!” That was a typical cry from American living rooms throughout the 1960s, when dinners would be delayed just to see what silliness Dom DeLuise was up to. Deluise, who died at the age of 75, was a big man with a giddy laugh. If in his later career, DeLuise became a more OTT comedian who committed some serious scenery chewing, the earlier DeLuise was a very focused performer whose enthusiasm was pitched just so – never crass, obscene or unseemly but unpredictable, fresh and lively. DeLuise could waltz into the most ridiculous roles and tiptoe along the bounds of taste, gathering laughs as he went. He got away with things other comics could not – who else could hump a leather chair in Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother or fart as Nero in The History of the World – Part 1 and make it seem all part of the circus?

As outrageous and energetic as he was, DeLuise’s greatest appeal was to be egoless – and that made him all the more lovable. If it was happening, DeLuise was there, He could take a punch from Mohammed Ali, joke with Dean Martin or cajole Johnny Carson and never upstage the “star”. But DeLuise would upstage them anyway by simply playing along. To call him “chubby and likeable” (The Independent obit) may be accurate but it does not capture DeLuise’s unique quality – a wholesome joy that the camera loved. He wasn’t here to show off really; he only wanted to make everyone laugh.

DeLuise became known as a scene stealer, his boyish energy bringing with it something unforeseeably funny. His professionalism allowed him to play the ideal platform for ensemble scenes. Grossly scratching himself, falling from his emperor’s couch and childishly taking a ‘treasure bath’ as Nero in Mel Brooks’ History of the World – Part 1, his hammish performance actually holds the entire scene together, despite director Mel Brooks’ halting ancient stand-up routine and clumsy side plots. As the very Italian magician Dominick the Great , he was a confidently sneaky magic man, bossing both audience and volunteer, as he disguises the fact that he can’t do magic. (In fact, he could do magic perfectly well, as evidenced on this episode of The Johnny Carson Show).

Born in Brooklyn of Italian immigrant parents, DeLuise’s father was a garbage collector who never learned to speak English. (According to some sources, directing his father’s temper was one reason DeLuise learned to be funny.) After graduating from Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts, DeLuise went on to study biology at Tufts University, with the aim of being a teacher. Showbiz beckoned and soon he was appearing on daytime TV shows like Tinker’s Workshop and the Shari Lewis Show in the late 1950s. After a Broadway debut in 1963, DeLuise’s career alternated from big screen to small. He was a natural comedian given few serious roles (1964’s Fail-Safe) but in love with drama, saying, “I’m actually a thin serious person but I play fat and funny, but only for the movies.”

DeLuise is best known to most as a stalwart of Mel Brooks in The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie, History of the World – Part 1 and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. DeLuise also worked with Burt Reynolds, who was a fan and a friend, in Smokey and the Bandit II, Cannonball Run and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Yet DeLuise’s career spanned an enormous range of entertainment, from directing two feature films, TV production and authoring seven books for children to doing voiceovers for animated features and performing in operas. He contributed to a syndicated radio programme about home improvement. But his overwhelming love from an early age – “When I was 14 years old, I decided I could cook. It was either that or puberty” – was for cooking and food, becoming well known as a celebrity chef with cookery programmes and books.

DeLuise was a common man’s Zero Mostel – rarely sophisticated but always hilarious. His intellect focused on broad comedy, on displays of physical mirth that used his bulk, which increased with age, as a comedy implement. Popping and locking with The Jackson 5 for a snappy rendition of That’s The Way I Like It DeLuise’s physical grace belied his size. As he grew older, his weight became a health concern. Ballooning to 325 lbs (23 stone), he had to lose 100 lbs in order to safely have his hip replaced in 1993. DeLuise openly talked about his battle with weight, once quipping, “When I was a kid, if I had a fever, had a cold, had a fight, had a fall, had a cut, was depressed, had a disappointment, fell off a truck, woke up with a headache…no matter what the situation, my mother’s solution was always, ‘Eat this, it’ll make you feel better.’” His mother’s solution became the titles of two of his cookbooks.

With a well-deserved star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, DeLuise’s career is remarkable, but it is his unstoppable sense of joy that was his trademark.

[Dom DeLuise died in his sleep after complications of cancer. He is survived by his wife, actress Carol Arthur, and his sons, actor, writer, director Peter DeLuise, and actors David DeLuise and Michael DeLuise.]