In Depth

DeVito’s ‘Sunny’ TV Return

Veteran Actor-Director-Producer Loving Life on FX in First Regular Series Role Since ‘Taxi’

Actor Danny DeVito is having a great time on the set of the FX comedy series “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Before he joined the show in 2006, in its second season, Mr. DeVito’s only other regular role on television had been as Louie De Palma on “Taxi.” That portrayal catapulted him to fame as well as an Emmy Award in 1981—along with three other Emmy nominations for playing the part.

Mr. DeVito plays Frank Reynolds, who with four twenty-something friends runs a struggling Irish pub, Paddy’s, in the City of Brotherly Love. They play a bunch of ethically challenged entrepreneurs who are always scheming to get ahead, yet never seem to learn from their mistakes. (The youths are played by Rob McElhenney, who created the show, executive produces, writes and sometimes directs; Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton, who are also executive producers of the program; and Kaitlin Olson.)

Mr. Reynolds, who tries to recapture his youth by hanging out with the group, is apparently—although one can never be sure—the father of two of them, Dennis and Dee, and the viewer quickly realizes that the apples didn’t fall very far from the tree.

“I think when I first arrived at the bar knowing that my kids and the people that they associated with were pretty much ne’er-do-well, kind of bottom-of-the-barrel lowlifes, I figured in the very beginning that it was going to be just kind of a place to hide out,” said Mr. DeVito. “And I never thought that I would get so much enjoyment out of it. Frank is the kind of guy who at this point in life wants to stay pretty much in the back alleys and the rooms. He doesn’t want to be in the limelight, had all that stuff and feels like it’s better to just chill and live life, but the guys have a knack for finding or manufacturing some kind of trouble for themselves.”

On the Dark Side

Many of Mr. DeVito’s best-known film roles have darker comedic themes, including “The War of the Roses,” “Throw Momma From the Train,” “Romancing the Stone,” “Ruthless People” and “Death to Smoochy.”

As a principal of Jersey Films and Jersey Television, Mr. DeVito is a prolific producer and director, with credits including “Freedom Writers,” “Garden State,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Out of Sight, “Get Shorty” and the Comedy Central series “Reno 911!”

So what enticed him to go back to acting on series television after several decades away? “I wanted to get away from the kind of a rat race that I’m in,” Mr. DeVito said, laughing. “It didn’t help much, because you go from the frying pan into the fire. And you know, it’s one rat race after another. I thought they were really incredibly talented writers.”

He was also swayed by a pal who just happens to be the president and general manager of FX Networks. “My good friend John Landgraf was the one who was waving the flag, and I know that John’s got great taste. And we always see eye-to-eye, we go to the movies a lot, we hang out and have the same kind of sense of humor and sensibilities about stuff, and so I knew that it was going to be just a joy being over there.

“Of course, without the delivery it’s no good. They really deliver. I mean, Rob and Charlie, and Glenn, and all the writers that they have deliver, and it’s great working with Kaitlin because she’s absolutely one of the funniest women that I’ve ever worked with, and Mary Elizabeth Ellis is the sweetest, and she’s tremendously talented. In terms of performance, you always feel you’re in there with people who care about it. And that’s the main thing. But they have to deliver in the script department. So they have a major task and they’re executing it with high honors.”

Mr. DeVito said he wants his character to get really wild next season—and he wants to pull out all the stops.

“I’m really, really happy that FX is picking us up and putting us on the air again, I’m happy that the fan base is growing, and people are really enjoying a really good show,” he said.

The actor is very appreciative of the network’s support. He still sounds miffed years later that ABC abandoned “Taxi” but grateful that Brandon Tartikoff of NBC picked it up for a final fifth year, allowing it to go into syndication.

“It’s like something that comes along every once in a while. I’ve been very fortunate to be part of ‘Taxi,’ which is historical television, written really well, and we had a great family on that,” said Mr. DeVito. “I feel like [‘Sunny’ is] very similar in that we’re very close, the cast is close, the writing is really top-notch and the people that are behind it, I guess, this time may be a little bit more into it, which is the FX Network.”

(Corrected Mr. McElhenney's first name in 9th paragraph)