Danny DeVito is My Muse

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Danny DeVito. What’s not to like? He’s tiny, and affable, and never afraid to be a little bit (or a lot) gross. I mean, have you seen The Gang Goes to a Waterpark episode of Always Sunny in Philadelphia? Or, Frank’s Little Beauties? And he’s been in everything, from the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the longest-running live action sitcom of all time (Always Sunny).

Still, Danny DeVito isn’t Jeff Bridges or Jack Nicholson. We all like Danny DeVito, but no one puts him in Oscar bait.

So, maybe it sounds strange for me to say that when it came to writing Neighborhood Watch, which by a series of extremely unlikely events is being traditionally published in April of 2024, Danny DeVito provided a primary source of inspiration.

First of all, when I was about ten years old and already knew I wanted to be a writer, my favorite movie about writers was Throw Mama from the Train. God, I love that movie.

In it, Larry (Billy Crystal), a writer whose ex-wife somehow stole his novel and used it to get herself famous, teaches creative writing at a community college. He suffers from writer’s block and daydreams about his wife’s demise. Owen (Danny DeVito), lives with his horrible mama (Anna Ramsey), and gets under Larry’s skin with his hack writing (“The man with the hat killed the other man with the hat”) and random usages of phrases Larry himself employs in his writing attempts (“The night was humid”). During a conversation, Owen misconstrues advice Larry is trying to give him about establishing motives in crime writing as a veiled request to kill his wife, in exchange for Larry killing Owen’s mama. Owen then embarks on meeting his end of the “deal,” and hilarity ensues. It’s a comic homage to Strangers on a Train, clips of which are shown in the movie.

There’s so much to love about this movie. (Anna Ramsey, who played Owen’s mother and was also in The Goonies, got an Oscar nod for her role). Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito are at their best, and they’re absolutely complementary in their personalities and demeanors. Danny DeVito is a would-be murderer, and he comes across as the sweetest guy ever. And Larry is crotchety, but he’s also kind and funny.

And the writing aspect! “A writer writes, always.” That was Larry’s mantra, despite the evil ex-wife, the writer’s block, and being dropped by his agent. He still wrote, because he had to. Because a writer always writes.

I have NEVER forgotten that expression, and in fact think of that often, because it’s true! I know it is because, despite eight books over ten years, three agents, and only one disappointing traditional publishing experience (NOT Neighborhood Watch), I have never stopped writing. Because, a writer writes, always.

Second, there’s Drowning Mona. Drowning Mona, alas, is a much better concept than it is an actual movie. Danny DeVito plays a small town cop investigating the murder of Mona Dearly (played by Bette Midler, who is mean as a snake in that role), a task complicated by the fact that no one gives a crap that she’s dead and everyone has a different version of events that preceded her murder. Also, everyone drives Yugos for reasons unexplained. Still, despite an awesome cast –including also Casey Affleck, Neve Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Melissa McCarthy in an early role–Drowning Mona isn’t as fun as it could have been. Something in the execution doesn’t stick the landing, and I always dreamed about writing a book that did Drowning Mona right. A black comedy thriller where everyone’s version of events differs. Where the victims are such terrible people it’s fun to see them go.

Third, there’s Ruthless People. Also starring Danny DeVito and Bette Midler (a random coincidence), Bette Midler is kidnapped and ransomed by two people Danny DeVito screwed over in a business deal. Unfortunately for the hapless kidnappers, who are actually nice people, Sam (DeVito) is delighted at the idea of someone getting rid of his wife (Midler) for him. Ransom, shmanson. Go ahead and kill her! (The scene with him giggling over a bottle of bubbly and mumbling, “Bye, bye Barbara!” low enough so the cops can’t hear is classic). Ruthless People is fun for lots of reasons, but also because of how the good folks stick it to a bad egg by committing a crime. It’s forgivable, because he deserves it.

When I had my first call with my editor, to discuss publication (!!!! It’s been a year and I’m still not over it), he asked me about my writing background, and how I got the idea for Neighborhood Watch. As I told him, I realized that several major sources of inspiration led back to one little man with a huge presence and career. To him, I say, “THANK YOU, DANNY DEVITO!”