Joan Dangerfield: The Warm, Spontaneous & Kind Wife Of Rodney

Joan Dangerfield is a journalist’s dream-come-true. In this special Fan Quarterly exclusive, she opens up about her marriage to the late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, and tells some of the most amusing stories we’ve ever heard! Beyond her life in the spotlight, she talks about her passions — flowers, food, film, and philanthropy.

Joan Dangerfield is a journalist’s dream-come-true. In this special Fan Quarterly exclusive, she opens up about her marriage to the late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, and tells some of the most amusing stories we’ve ever heard! Beyond her life in the spotlight, she talks about her passions — flowers, food, film, and philanthropy.

Fan Quarterly: We want to start with a few questions about your late husband, Rodney, which will be a point of familiarity for all our readers. Tell us about how you first met and fell in love with Rodney. Take us on a slideshow of a few of your favorite moments in those early years.

Joan Dangerfield: I was in high school the first time I saw Rodney on Johnny Carson.  I remember the very moment, as though intuitively – I knew how significant he was going to be in my life.  He was hysterical and I absolutely loved him.

Fourteen years later, he was staying at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica trying to lose weight and curb a few bad habits.  Morning walks were part of their program and Rodney happened to walk past my flower shop just as I was setting up for the day.  Suddenly we were face to face.  I was elated and started gushing about ‘Caddyshack’ and ‘Easy Money.’  I must have seemed like the ultimate fan.  He stopped by every day, his visits got longer and longer, and our romance blossomed.

When we first began dating, Rodney lived in New York. But he took a suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel shortly after we met, and he basically lived there for ten years until we got married. Our dating life was really fun.  There were lots of events held at the hotel, including The Golden Globes – and we would crash them.  We would end up hanging out with Tom Cruise or Paul Newman or other honorees at various charity events.  No one ever thought we weren’t invited – and it was great entertainment for us to just float in and out anytime we wanted.

We’d also drop in at various comedy clubs to try out material.  Then we’d wind up the evening at an all-night deli, usually Canters, often with other comedians in tow.

We were married in Las Vegas in 1993, and our life centered primarily around Rodney’s Vegas shows and TV appearances.  He had a number of health issues in later years, but the boundless fun and hilarity was never-ending.

Rodney didn’t like to fly — and over time, he became too impatient to drive, often speeding or intentionally going the wrong way on one-way streets to get to places faster, or driving on sidewalks in his big Cadillac or my little pink Nash Metropolitan.  So I became the designated driver, until my little driving boo boo.  We were on our way to Vegas where Rodney was performing and I was so wrapped up in our conversation, paying no attention at all to where we were going, that we ended up somewhere near San Francisco!  Rodney loved me so much that he didn’t yell at me, not once; but I knew this put him under terrible stress.  We stopped at lots of gas stations on the way back to make certain we were going the right way and managed to get to Vegas in the nick of time.  After that, we took limos.

For years after we married, I still had my flower shop, and I’d get calls from people saying Rodney was spotted hitchhiking.  He’d go for long walks and not anticipate that he would be too tired to walk back, so he would thumb a ride home.  I was worried he would be kidnapped, but Rodney felt invincible.  I noticed I was enjoying weekends with Rodney more than my weekdays and decided to give my flower business to my sister.  Rodney and I spent every minute together after that.  He would go with me when I got mani-pedis and sing songs to the manicurists.  I would go with him to the dentist and hold his hand through procedures.  We usually stayed up until 4 a.m. and woke up around noon, then went straight to the swimming pool.  After an hour in the pool, we would have breakfast and start our day.

One thing that is true about me in Rodney’s jokes is that I am a terrible cook.  ’The flies chipped in to fix the screen door.  The dog begs for Alka-Seltzer.’ We both missed home-cooked meals.  One Thanksgiving, we went for a walk in Beverly Hills and noticed a beautiful home that had a lot of company and we decided to join the crowd, hoping to get a home-cooked meal.  It turned out to be Monte Hall’s house, or maybe Bob Barker’s – I’m not sure which.  We mingled and enjoyed the food immensely.  Nobody ever asked us what we were doing there.  Rodney wanted to go back the following year, but we couldn’t find the house.  In later years we went to Bob Saget’s for Thanksgiving, as invited guests.

Speaking of not finding houses, Ron Jeremy was a friend of Rodney’s (he joked that Ron Jeremy was my favorite actor) and invited him to watch a porn movie being filmed.  Rodney thought how fun!  He asked if it would bother me and I didn’t want to say he couldn’t go, so I suggested he take me with him.  The address was in The Valley and we were on the right street, but the numbers weren’t matching up.  Rodney didn’t want to give up, so we pulled over and started knocking on peoples’ doors.  When they answered, Rodney asked: ‘You filmin’ a porno here?’ Thinking it was a joke or they were on candid camera or something, people wouldn’t say ‘no’ right away.  They would invite us in.  We’d go in, sit down, and chat a while.  Then Rodney would level with them.  ’Look, no offense, you seem like nice people, but we’re here to watch a porno.’ I was mortified, but thought it was hysterical.  We stopped at three houses before we got the right one.  When we did arrive, it was not what Rodney was expecting and we left right away.  He said the mood was all wrong, not hot at all.  He was right.  It was just weird and unseemly.  We often thought back to what the neighbors must have been telling their friends about us.

FQ: Naturally, a wife sees a side to her husband that the general public never gets to see. What do you find are the three biggest misconceptions about Rodney that you’d like to clear up?

JD: (1) Most of Rodney’s wife jokes were true: ‘My wife is attached to a machine that keeps her alive – the refrigerator.’  (2) People believed that every bad thing that had happened to them, had also happened to Rodney, and (3) that Rodney was a tough guy because of his Vegas persona and his wise-guy friends. All three false impressions would often play out together, leaning on each other for validation.

For example, Rodney once had a joke that he wanted to tell on ‘The Tonight Show’ about his wife charging him too much for sex.  I was concerned about the joke, but Rodney thought I was being too sensitive.  That night, he did a joke about Gamblers Anonymous, and that they gave him 2-1 odds that he wouldn’t make it.  The next morning, Gamblers Anonymous called me at my flower shop – to talk about helping Rodney with his gambling problem.  I told Rodney, ‘See, people believe your jokes are true!’

Early in Sam Kinison’s career, he sought Rodney’s advice about some gangster guys who were shaking him down.  Sam was very upset and asked Rodney: ‘You’ve been through that, right Rodney, can you tell me what to do?’  Rodney asked Sam to give him all the details, who the guys were, etc.  After listening intently, Rodney told Sam ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Based on Rodney’s advice, Sam ignored them and he never heard from the thugs again.  For years, Sam thought that Rodney ‘took care of them’ — when really, Rodney just didn’t think those guys were for real.

Rodney was definitely not a tough guy.  He was a real softie, deeply sensitive – and his feelings could be hurt very easily.  Once a woman in a grocery store approached him for an autograph, which he gave.  A few minutes later she noticed her purse had been stolen and she had a discussion with the manager about it.  For a fleeting moment, it was obvious that it crossed her mind that maybe Rodney had taken it.  This affected him for days.  He carried that pain around with him.  Rodney called such instances ‘little pin pricks.’

FQ: You possess the rights to Rodney Dangerfield’s complete body of work. How difficult is it to protect that treasure from capitalistic vultures looking to make a buck off their own spin on his life and career?

JD: I’m honored that Rodney entrusted all of his intellectual property and publicity rights to me, and I have learned a lot about how to protect his work and image.  It is a labor of love and a responsibility that I don’t sidestep.  There is something reassuring about what today’s ‘dead celebrity’ laws are trying to accomplish.  By declaring that our identities legally survive us for decades, we can affirm the existence of an afterlife on earth.  My goal is to build a brand for Rodney that will deepen his impression on the world over the span of time.  I am strategizing with experts about how to best accomplish this.  I looked into creating a hologram version of Rodney performing his stand-up act a few years before Tupak’s ‘appearance’ at Coachella.  The technology wasn’t quite perfected and the Vegas hotels weren’t certain an audience would go to see such a performance; but I am still intrigued by the idea.  Rodney headlined for over 40 years.  There is no reason why this couldn’t continue for future generations to enjoy.

FQ: Often women who date older men are unfairly stereotyped as ‘gold-diggers’ or ‘opportunists.’ What do you see in men like Kirk Kerkorian that critics may not understand?

JD: It’s not the age of the fabric, but its texture and depth.  What I am attracted to most is cleverness, intelligence and masculinity.  Kirk is as manly as Humphrey Bogart and smarter than any doctor or lawyer I’ve ever met.  I could talk to him (and Rodney) for hours on end and not be bored.  For me, affection and physical attraction evolves from a great rapport and stimulating conversation.  I enjoy learning what makes such extraordinary men tick – getting to know their souls.  That is very stimulating.

By the way, when someone inferred a woman might only be interested in Rodney’s money, it hurt him deeply, because that meant they thought he had no other qualities worthy of love.  Certainly not the case.  What an incredible man he was.  I am so grateful we had our 21 blissful years together.

FQ: I read that you’re developing a feature film based on the best-selling autobiography It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me. What do you hope to achieve with this film? Are you having a hard time deciding who will play Rodney in the film?

JD: I want to expand his reach and keep him relevant in today’s world.  There is an entire generation that has never heard of Rodney, and that’s a shame.  He was likened to ‘The Beatles of comedy.’  He had a powerful influence on most of today’s most popular comedians.  His humor is as current today as it was when first presented.  It tells the story of relationships as they have always been, and makes people realize that their shortcomings, problems, and insecurities are acceptable and normal.  Rodney also had to overcome a lot of abuse and coped with extreme depression his entire life, yet still became a celebrated and most-loved man.  I think his story will inspire many lives and perhaps even save a few.  A movie about Rodney is the ultimate way I can honor him.

Russell Crowe, Paul Giamatti, Nicolas Cage, Tim Allen, Kevin James, Jay Leno, Jim Carrey, and Steve Buscemi have all been suggested over the years.  I heard Jamie Foxx wants to play him too.  I don’t know who it will be, but I can say that I have seen many celebrities and fans do impressions of Rodney and it’s always fun to watch.  Rodney was truly larger than life and this role will prove that to a watchful public.

FQ: China has become the second-largest overseas market for American films. According to the UK Guardian, Chinese cinema-goers could add $50 million to a Hollywood film’s gross and China’s box office is predicted to overtake America’s by 2020. Tell us about the company you founded, Opus 73 Group, to promote Hollywood to Chinese executives.

JD: China is now the largest movie-going market outside of North America (the box office there reached 2.7 Billion in 2012), and imports from Hollywood accounted for over half of that.  We are also seeing a larger and larger number of critically and financially successful co-productions between the two countries, like ‘Looper’ (Bruce Willis) and ‘Cloud Atlas’ (Tom Hanks).

The Chinese government recognizes that entertainment is a huge market, and wants to work with Hollywood to close the gap by making sure that China has the highest quality facilities and talent for all aspects of production.  They are also aware that in order for Chinese films to be viable overseas, the mainland film industry needs to open up.

Opus 73 works with different municipal governments in China to help them implement their initiatives in the media/entertainment industries for long term growth, and build their local industries to be attractive to the international community.  This includes not just facilitating relationships between Chinese and American companies, but also advising what areas to focus on, how to market themselves overseas, and what kind of production incentives or media funds to form in order to attract foreign business.

Ultimately our goal is to make our clients’ brands synonymous with the film industry, in the way Hollywood is, and to make them a premiere destination for all facets of production.

FQ: Before Opus 73 Group, I understand your Beverly Hills floral shop was the place to get flowers – and not just any flowers, but large, Amazonian roses. Some of your past clients include everyone from Kelsey Grammer, Madonna and Steven Spielberg, to John Travolta, Hugh Hefner, and Dan Aykroyd. Do you have any memorable stories about working with a celebrity client you’d like to share?

JD: I owned three different flower shops in the Los Angeles area over the years: Jungle Roses, Fleurs du Jour, and Childs of London.  One of my favorite customers at Jungle Roses was Andrew Dice Clay.  He would come in personally and hand-select every flower.  He spent lots of time writing, re-writing, and re-writing until he had the perfect message on the enclosure card.  He seemed very loving and caring.

Billionaire Mark Cuban appeared on Oprah’s show and demonstrated the range of luxury items you could buy on the computer when online ordering was new.  He bought an airplane… and Jungle Roses!

One day a beautiful girl with a big-hearted smile came in to Fleurs du Jour and selected a bunch of bright yellow acacia flowers.  She had the most delicate, beautiful face I had ever seen.  She was breathtaking.  I was about to ask if she was a model when she gave me her credit card.  Her name was Julia Roberts.

Tommy Lee was a ‘big’ customer.  He sent Jungle Roses to Pamela Anderson a lot.  One of our special packages was a giant box of rose petals meant for the bed or bath.  In their famous sex video, Pamela is surrounded by our sexy roses – or so I hear.

I saw the Ted Turner /Jane Fonda romance blossom right in front of my eyes.  From the first ‘Looking forward to meeting you’ arrangement, to date bouquets, right through to the engagement.

Rodney and I met Bill Clinton when he was staying at the Beverly Hilton, where Rodney lived, so I presented him with Jungle Roses.  He liked them so much that he took them back to Washington on Air Force One for Hillary.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was a big spender.  He would pull his Porsche up to our front door at Fleurs du Jour, come in, and clean us out.  He was always in good spirits.

We were surprised when Bruce Springsteen came to my Santa Monica shop and bought a bountiful bouquet.  It was the only time he ever came in, and we were excited.  We later heard his wife had just given birth.

My celebrity clients were great, but I loved my ‘regular’ clients too.  Often I would help them with their first-date flowers, courtships, then wedding, and babies.  It brought me a lot of joy.

FQ: In your professional opinion, what does it take to put together a truly stunning floral arrangement?

JD: I am swept away by flowers.  I draw them when I doodle.  I buy them, send them, and dream about them.  When watching a movie, I am distracted by the flowers and could do a review based on them.  Woody Allen movies are always well flowered.  And Adam Sandler’s version of heaven – with all those hydrangeas – thrilled me in ‘Little Nicky.’ Another floral standout was the Whitney Houston movie, ‘The Bodyguard.’  Maybe they should give an Academy Award for Best Florals!

Since flowers are so beautiful and works of art themselves, not much is needed to make a stunning arrangement.  I prefer monochromatic arrangements of fragrant flowers, in full bloom, and like to use them to delight a room in unexpected places and ways.  An orchid on a bar of soap.  Floating blooms in the tub during a party.  Edible flowers in salads are a treat to the senses.  I prefer one flower instead of a mixture, but it really depends on the occasion and what you’re trying to say.  I like to first select a flower that I feel the beauty of, that moves me. Then I let the flower do the dancing!  My favorites are scabiosa and water lilies.

FQ: Tell us about the philanthropic work that you do, and what prompted you to choose each of these particular causes to support.

JD: I donate to a number of charities which are meaningful to me.  Two which are closest to my heart are UCLA and American Hebrew University.

UCLA: Because they gave Rodney and me an extra year together when they made the right decision to perform brain over heart surgery in 2003.  It was a great call because the other hospitals didn’t want to ‘risk’ the brain surgery, but as it played out, it was the heart surgery that was too much for him to ultimately survive. At UCLA, there is a new state-of-the-art operating room in the Neurosurgery Department named after Rodney.  He would be disappointed to know that it doesn’t have a hot tub, bar, and scantily-clad nurses, though!

American Friends of Hebrew University: Rodney had a passion for Israel and its people.  He was concerned about anti-semitism still existing today.  We would spend nights researching the subject online, especially reports compiled by Vidal Sassoon.  We visited Tel Aviv one year and didn’t make it to Jerusalem because of a health problem.  Rodney was sad to have had to return home, so I made it a point to go after he passed away and was very moved by the experience.  I was invited to be on the board of American Friends of Hebrew University in 2005, which supports Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  The university was founded by Einstein and Freud, two people Rodney greatly admired.  I visited a number of times and met with professors, learned about research programs, and was very impressed.

FQ: What can you tell us about your childhood that contributed to the person you are today? Do you have any favorite memories you can share?

JD: I grew up in a small Utah town, in a Mormon family, surrounded by love.  We had snapdragons, pansies, roses and a giant lilac tree in our yard that would be weighed down with a waterfall of lavender blooms.  The aroma was intoxicating and I still remember the wonder and joy in my heart playing in the yard and making mud pies.  As a child, I would draw flowers on my pillowcases at night.  My grandmother embroidered the drawings so they wouldn’t wash away.  How sweet was that?

I always preferred flowers and books to dolls.  I read every book in the children’s section of the library and always asked for books for Christmas.  But childhood wasn’t all a rose garden.  While I was a well-behaved and diligent student, always the teacher’s pet, I became the target of bullies after being skipped a grade in elementary school.   I was routinely beaten up on my walk (usually run) home from school.  Dirt and rocks were thrown at me and I was wrestled to the ground by underwear thieves.  To solve the problem, my parents moved our family to a new house in a different school district.

I played the cello and was the youngest member of The Golden Spike Senior Symphony, lugging that big instrument on the school bus.  Uggggh.  Truth told, I didn’t enjoy playing it.  I really just wanted to listen to the music.  I am a great audience!

Later in high school, I was a straight-A student, but I was perpetually self-conscious.   Boys would whistle and do catcalls when I walked down the halls and it made me shy.  I never went to prom or anything like that… never had a boy walk me to class and never felt school spirit.  I was voted ‘Most Likely To Become Miss America’ as a senior superlative.  I should have been voted ‘Most Likely To Marry Rodney Dangerfield.‘  

FQ: When you’re not working, what hobbies and pursuits do you most enjoy?

JD: I used to love hanging out with Rodney, reveling in all the adventures, but work is my hobby now.  I do like going to Hawaii to just relax though.

FQ: What would people be most surprised to learn about you?

JD: That I’m a consultant to the Chinese Government and love medical research.

FQ: What 5 people, past or present, would you invite to a dinner party?

JD: Rodney, my dad, my mom, Farrah and Larry David.

FQ: If we were in your town for 24 hours, what would you recommend we do?

JD: Get up at noon.  Lunch at Shutters on the Beach.  Red velvet cake, butterscotch pudding.  A walk on the beach.  Drive up Rodeo Drive, but land at Maxfield’s on Melrose.  Hollywood Tour.  Come to my house.  Dinner at Mastros – the shrimp cocktail, crab legs, creamed corn, and butter cake are not to be missed!  Return to my house for massages by the pool.  Perfect day!