As might be said for the late and great comedians Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn, it seems that Mel Brooks was the only director on the planet who knew how to best utilize this funnyman’s talents on film. Brooks once quipped that, whenever he hired Dom DeLuise for one of his films, he would instinctively add another two days to the schedule because of the constant laughter Dom provided on the set — especially when the camera started rolling.
The lovable, butterball comedian was a mainstay on 1960s and ’70s TV variety as a “second banana” or comedy relief player. While his harsher critics believed his schtick was better served in smaller doses, Dom nevertheless went on to find some range in a few moving, more restrained projects. Those few glimpses behind all the mirth and merriment revealed a dramatic actor waiting to be unleashed. As they say, behind every clown’s smile, one can find a few tears.
He was born Dominick DeLuise on August 1, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York, to parents John, a sanitation engineer, and Vicenza (DeStefano) DeLuise, both Italian immigrants. A natural class clown, it helped Dom fit in at school, and he started drawing belly laughs fairly young on stage. His very first school play had him portraying an inert copper penny! He later attended New York’s High School of Performing Arts, but when it came to college, he decided to major in biology at Tufts University near Boston. He never got the idea of being a comedian out of his head, however, and the obsession eventually won out.
Dom’s formative years as an actor were spent apprenticing at the Cleveland Playhouse in which he gamely played roles in everything from “Guys and Dolls” and “Stalag 17” to “The School for Scandal” and “Hamlet.” He earned his first professional paycheck playing Bernie the dog in a production called “Bernie’s Last Wish.” Dom also got a taste of the camera in Cleveland appearing on the local TV kiddie’s show “Tip Top Clubhouse.”
Back in NYC, he took over the lead role of Tinker the toymaker in another children’s local program, Tinker’s Workshop (1954), for one season in 1958. He also started making noise on the off-Broadway scene. Appearing in the plays “The Jackass” and “All in Love,” he became part of the featured ensemble of the 1961 musical revue “An Evening with Harry Stoones,” which included 19-year-old Barbra Streisand. More outlandish musical roles came his way in the early 1960s with “Little Mary Sunshine” (as Corporal Billy Jester) and “The Student Gypsy, or the Prince of Liederkrantz” (his Broadway debut as Muffin T. Raggamuffin). While appearing in the light-hearted summer stock spoof “Summer & Smirk” in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Dom met fellow performer Carol Arthur (née Carol Arata). They married on November 23, 1965. Their three sons, Peter DeLuise, Michael DeLuise and David DeLuise all got into the show business act. In 1971, Dom returned successfully to Broadway in a perfectly-suited Neil Simon vehicle, “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers.”
Dom was first noticed on the smaller screen creating the sketch character of Dominick the Great, a magician who tries in vain to mask his ineptness with feigned dignity on Garry Moore’s popular show. The rolypoly comedian truly thrived in this TV variety atmosphere and soon began popping up all over the place (The Hollywood Palace (1964), The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967), The Jackie Gleason Show (1966)). Balding, blushing, dimpled and moon-faced (comparisons of a ripe tomato were not off the mark), he was readily equipped with a beaming, clench-toothed smile that became his trademark. At his best, looking embarrassed or agitated, the laughs usually came at his own expense whether playing a panic-stricken klutz or squirming Nervous Nelly type. Dom took the magician character to the ensemble comedy show The Entertainers (1964), which also showcased Carol Burnett and Bob Newhart, and found more regular employment as a bumbling private eye in puppeteer Shari Lewis’ daytime children’s program and as a foil for Dean Martin on the entertainer’s regular and summer replacement shows. Dom again repeated his Dominick the Great character on Martin’s show and received great reception. He later found himself part of Martin’s “in-crowd” of comedians on his “celebrity roasts.”
Dom’s obvious comic genius was more apparent and succeeded better in tandem with others than it did on its own. Hosting duties for his very first comedy/variety program The Dom DeLuise Show (1968), which featured wife Carol as part of the regular roster, lasted only one summer. The sitcom Lotsa Luck! (1973), which showcased Dom as bachelor Stanley Belmont having to contend with a live-in mother (a harping Kathleen Freeman) and sister (an ungainly Beverly Sanders), was canceled after its first season. He gave it a rest for awhile before trying once again with the sketch-like sitcom The Dom DeLuise Show (1987), but it, too, quickly faded. Another brief stint was as host of a revamped Candid Camera (1991).
While Dom made an unlikely film debut as a high-strung flier in the gripping nuclear drama Fail-Safe (1964) starring Henry Fonda, it was in zany, irreverent comedy that he found his true calling. Appearing in support of others such as Sid Caesar and Mary Tyler Moore, respectively, in the so-so comedies The Busy Body (1967) and What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968), he proved a delight as an inept, dim-witted spy in the Doris Day caper The Glass Bottom Boat (1966).
Mel Brooks first cast Dom as the miserly Father Fyodor in his film The Twelve Chairs (1970), and found plenty of room for the comedian after that — as campy director Buddy Bizarre in Blazing Saddles (1974), the silly-ass director’s assistant in Silent Movie (1976), Emperor Nero in History of the World: Part I (1981), the voice of the cheese-oozing Pizza the Hutt in the “Star Wars” parody Spaceballs (1987), and as Sherwood Forest’s very own puffy-cheeked Godfather, Don Giovanni, in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993).
A very close friend of action star Burt Reynolds, Dom romped through a number of Reynolds’ freewheeling films as well, including Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981) and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). One of his finest scene-stealing film roles, in fact, was as Reynolds’ schizo pal in The End (1978). Dom went on to direct a number of stage productions for his close friend at the Burt Reynolds Theatre in Jupiter, Florida — among them “Butterflies Are Free,” “Same Time, Next Year” (starring Burt and Carol Burnett), “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (starring son Peter), and the musical “Jump” (featuring wife Carol). Still another comic buddy, Gene Wilder, handed Dom the roles of the indulgent opera star in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) and perturbed movie mogul Adolf Zitz in The World’s Greatest Lover (1977). Dom later joined Wilder once again, along with Wilder’s wife Gilda Radner, in the unfunny comedy Haunted Honeymoon (1986), a lame, creaky-house spoof that even Dom in full drag could not salvage.
Change-of-pace roles were few in the offering. One occurred for Dom as the compulsive-eating protagonist in Fatso (1980). Directed by and co-starring Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft, Dom managed to draw both comedy and pathos. Obesity was also a chronic, real-life problem for the comedian and, at one point in 1999, it was reported that he had tipped the scales at 325 lbs. On a positive note, this passion for food actually fed into a more lucrative sideline — as a respected chef and culinary author (“Eat This” and “Eat This Too”) in which he appeared all over the tube cooking and demonstrating his favorite recipes. He also wrote children’s books on the sly.
Dom tackled broad comedy films with great abandon — a wallflower he was not — but it was a hit-and-miss affair. Some of his biggest misses were the Mae West disaster Sextette (1977), the Dudley Moore showcase Wholly Moses! (1980) (although Dom was arguably the best thing in it), Loose Cannons (1990), in which he appeared as portly pornographer Harry “The Hippo” Gutterman, Driving Me Crazy (1991), which filmed far away in Germany, and The Silence of the Hams (1994) [aka The Silence of the Hams], a parody on the horror genre in which he played Dr. Animal Cannibal Pizza.
Films could also be a family affair. True to life, Dom played a sympathetic kiddie show host in the moving TV-movie Happy (1983). Also the executive producer, he was joined by wife Carol and all three sons in the cast. In addition, Dom offered a cameo in Between the Sheets (2003), a film that was written by Peter, was directed, edited and executive-produced by Michael, and featured roles for the rest of the family.
Dom’s voiceover skills did not go by untapped either, which included the animated feature films The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986) and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), plus all of their offshoots. The heavily-bearded DeLuise even displayed scene-stealing antics on the operatic scene, once playing the speaking part of Frosch the Jailer in the operetta “Die Fledermaus” at the Metropolitan Opera.
Suffering from various physical ailments in later years, some of which were exacerbated by his chronic obesity and diabetes, Dom’s health declined, and he died in 2009 at age 75. His wife and three children survived him, as did three grandchildren.
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