Actor and comedian Jacob Cohen was born on November 22, 1921, in Babylon, New York, the youngest of two children. His father, Phil Roy, was a comic and juggler who toured the vaudeville circuit. Roy abandoned the family shortly after Dangerfield’s birth, leaving Dangerfield’s mother to raise her children alone. To help the family scrape by, Rodney began selling ice cream on the beach and delivering groceries after school.
Dangerfield struggled through a difficult childhood. He was frequently the focus of torment from anti-Semitic teachers, and more affluent students. To cope, he began writing jokes and, at 17, he started performing his act at amateur nights in various clubs. By the age of 19, Dangerfield was performing his act full-time under the stage name Jack Roy, which he later made his legal name.
Dangerfield landed his first big gig telling jokes at a resort in upstate New York, where he performed for ten weeks. He earned $12 a week, plus room and board. Though he continued to land jobs at various comedy clubs, Dangerfield began driving delivery trucks and working as a singing waiter to make extra money. Despite bringing in as much as $300 a week, comedy didn’t pay well enough, and Dangerfield struggled financially. In 1951, after meeting singer Joyce Indig, Dangerfield decided to give up show business. He and Indig married, moved to New Jersey, and had two children. To provide for his new family, Dangerfield became an aluminum siding salesman.
Dangerfield continued to write jokes for the next decade, however, even as he was gripped by clinical depression. His marriage also deteriorated and, by 1962, the couple finally divorced. They remarried again in 1963, but after years of struggle the relationship dissolved permanently in 1970.
In light of his troubled personal life, Dangerfield continued to feel drawn to comedy. In the early 1960s, he started working toward rehabilitating his career, still working as a salesman by day but doing stand-up at night. Afraid of more rejection, he began performing under the pseudonym Rodney Dangerfield, a reference to a joke by early comedian Jack Benny.
Dangerfield finally got his big break in the early 1970s, when The Ed Sullivan Show tapped him to perform. His act was a hit with audiences, and his “No Respect” bit became his signature. This led to regular appearances on the late-night show circuit, including performances on The Dean Martin Show and the Tonight Show throughout 1972 and 1973.
After Dangerfield’s former wife died in the early 70s, the comedian opened the comedy club Dangerfield’s in Manhattan to be closer to his children. The club was a success, and Dangerfield was generous about providing a stage for unknown comedians. Jim Carrey, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Roseanne Barr were among the many comics who performed at there.
Around this time, Dangerfield also began an acting career, making his debut in the film The Projectionist (1971). The movie performed poorly at the box office, and it was nine years before he returned to the big screen—this time in the comedy Caddyshack (1980), starring Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. The hit film led to starring roles for Dangerfield, including the lead in Easy Money (1983) and Back to School (1986), for which he also wrote the screenplays. In 1994, he took on his first, and only, dramatic role as an abusive father in Natural Born Killers, starring Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson. The performance was highly-acclaimed by critics.