The wonderful Dom DeLuise will be remembered as a great second banana, whether it was as part of Mel Brooks’ stable of zanies, making cannonball runs with Burt Reynolds or trading quips with Johnny Carson.
But in one small, underrated classic he got the role that few funny fat guys ever have the chance to play: a leading man with dignity.
In 1980’s “Fatso,” DeLuise portrayed Dominick DiNapoli, a loveable fortysomething Greenwich Village store owner with a heart as big as his appetite. Dom can't stop taking comfort in food, even after his obese cousin dies. The idea of food as love is so ingrained into Dom's DNA that he struggles to deal with the real thing when the woman of his dreams waltzes into his shop.
Love inspires him to reluctantly diet. But when he mistakenly thinks his girlfriend has left him, he goes on a Chinese-food bender. In the film’s most memorable scene, he calls two humongous pals from his weight loss support group – called the Chubby Checkers – to help him get through a hunger spell.
They start by sipping warm water, as the conversation slowly turns from support-group platitudes to various uses for chocolate: “Did you ever suck the jelly out of a jelly doughnut and then fill it with chocolate swirl ice cream?” one of Dom’s would-be saviors asks. The trio becomes obsessed with getting some honey for the water, haranguing Dom’s brother, Junior, (played by Ron Carey) to give them the key to the kitchen cabinet he’s locked in chains.
“Get the honey, Junior!” they take turns thundering, building to a comic crescendo that ends with the largest of the three ripping the cabinet doors from the hinges, prompting an all-night gorgefest.
This could be played for laugh – and is. But DeLuise also brings out the heart in his character, a tribute to his acting talent – and to the movie’s writer, director and co-star Anne Bancroft (born Anna Maria Italiano in the Bronx).
“How you loved to feed me!” Dom cries to a picture of his late Italian mama. “Look at your chubby baby now, Ma. I'm a fat, fat man, a damn fatso. I can't stop the fat!”
Funny fat guys, from Oliver Hardy to Chris Farley, are a staple of movie comedy. But seldom are they much more than the butt of the joke, with little or no dignity left by the time the credits roll, even if they win in the end (exceptions include the much-missed John Candy in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and “Only the Lonely”).
In Dom DiNapoli, DeLuise gave us a rare character who is well-rounded in more ways than one, making us laugh – and cry – with him.
So check out this clip from "Fatso," and see what made DeLuise, who died Monday at 75, the kind of actor who was more like a member of the family.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.