In 1961, Jacob was forty years old and flat broke. Broke is an understatement. He was destitute. Owing over $20,000 to an aluminum siding company, with a wife who was ill, two small kids at home, and his mother dying of cancer, Jake had officially hit rock bottom. It’s not as if he hadn’t had ambitions. He had. In fact, he’d wanted to be a famous performer when he was younger, but those dreams faded as they often do. At twenty-eight, he had already resigned himself to an ordinary life, lowered his head, and pressed on.
From the very beginning, Jake had it kind of tough. His life story reads like a Greek tragedy, or more accurately, a Hungarian one. The son of immigrants, Jake started his life in the tough suburbs of Queens, New York. His father remained absent, and his mother withheld any kind of affection from the poor kid. At four years old, he later recalled that his best form of entertainment was sitting in his apartment windowsill watching drunks stumble out of a nearby bar for a brawl in the alleyway.
Cruelty was commonplace in Jake’s life, especially coming from his own family. His mother, whom he remembers being “coldhearted” never gave him a hug, a kiss, or a birthday card for that matter. Once, when he was only four, his aunts Pearlie and Marion were getting ready to go to a picture show. Excited at the prospect, little Jake asked if he could go. When his aunt told him that she would, in fact, drag him along if he went upstairs to wash his hands and face, he jumped up at the opportunity. He came down moments later, just in time to see through the window the image of his aunts barreling away from him down the street and around the corner.
When Jake was only ten years old, the Great Depression hit the world. Growing up in already austere circumstances, things only got worse from there. Thankfully for Jake, by the time he was old enough to get a summer job, the economy had started to turn around. When he’d managed to save $100, his mother made sure to promptly put it in the bank for him. Weeks later, when he checked the books, he discovered she’d promptly spent it, as well.
Although the work kind of stunk, he delivered fish for a local grocer for a while, and then he moved to driving a truck for a laundry service. Jake also learned to keep his mother’s mitts off his bank account. As the years went on, he tried his hand at performing on stage. It was hit or miss, mostly miss. He married a singer named Joyce, but after about a decade, things turned sour. Jacob got a divorce, and he trudged along. Nothing seemed to be going right for him, and he started to take notice.
“I sold aluminum siding for twelve years. I made a decent living, but I wasn’t living.” – Jacob
According to Jake, he hired the wrong accountant, one of those shady guys who advertised in the back of a magazine and who never answered the phone on the first eight rings. Of course, for our friend Jake, the first clue he had that anything was wrong was when several FBI agents came busting into his home to arrest him. After getting out on $3,000 bail, the judge let Jake off with a fine and a stern warning to use only above-board bookkeeping practices from now on.
The drudgery of aluminum siding sales began to get to Jake. He started doing what a few middle-aged men think they might do in similar circumstances. Like other guys who find themselves with expanding waistlines and shrinking future prospects, he started writing. Of course, Jake did this quite a lot. He didn’t take a passing interest in it as a hobby. He wore out pencils with reckless abandon. He wrote jokes mostly, and he saw a future in show business that no one else could have guessed for him in a million years. He thought that he’d perhaps take his act on the road, so he went to a club up in the Catskills, a casino town north of New York. At the end of the night, one of the workers said to Jake, “Why didn’t you tell me you were funny?”
Jake was a bit hardheaded. He admitted as much himself on numerous occasions. In fact, being seemingly oblivious to the world around him and resigned to the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of it became a staple in his act. If you want real proof of his hardheadedness, it’s in his second marriage. Two years after divorcing his first wife, he remarried her. They, of course, split up again a few years later. What the heck else was gonna happen? But that hardheaded nature also turned into perseverance. Jake knew he was funny. Deep down, he knew he could perform for audiences. His false start earlier in life only made him work harder at his material. Several years later, after honing his skills as a stand-up comedian, he had the chance to return to a nightclub in his hometown, a place where he’d bombed night after night.
Jake, who was going by Jack Roy at the time, asked a friend of his working the microphone if he couldn’t do him a favor and just call him by a different name, any name at all other than his. It had been quite a while, and he’d hoped to avoid having people remember his previous poor performances.
That night, as the curtains pulled back on the smokey room, with the smell of whiskey sours and martinis wafting in the air, our friend Jake got ready to take the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the emcee started, “here’s Rodney Dangerfield!”
Jake was stunned. Where had this ridiculous name come from? He shrugged it off. He had, after all, told the guy any name would do. He gave a stellar performance, and the rest is, of course history. The man who made fun of the lack of respect he received throughout his life is immortalized as an icon of comedy throughout the world. Manhattanville College, in 2014, posthumously awarded Rodney Dangerfield, the man who had once portrayed an uneducated but streetwise businessman in Back to School, with a doctorate degree. Plaques, statues, and other shrines to the greatness of Dr. Dangerfield’s comic styling are in abundance. Now, that’s something that commands a great deal of respect.