He was born Jacob Rodney Cohen in Babylon, New York to Jewish parents. His father was a vaudevillian performer and were both descendants from Hungary. His dad abandoned his family when Jacob was very young. His mother moved to Queens, New York and Jacob attended Richmond Hill High School. Jacob took on several jobs to support his family that included selling newspapers, ice cream, and delivering groceries.
When Jacob turned 15, he began to write for standup comedians and would soon perform his own standup at the age of 20 under the name of Jack Roy. For several years, Dangerfield struggled to make ends meet and took jobs as a singing waiter and performed as an acrobatic diver. He soon gave up his entertainment career to become an aluminum siding salesman.
In the 1960's, Dangerfield decided to give comedy another shot and returned to the stage by performing in hotels in the Catskill Mountains. He decided he needed a unique image and style if he was to be successful. It was then that he took on the name Rodney Dangerfield (came from a character of Jack Benny) and his character was one of never doing anything right. Dangerfield gives Jack Benny credit for encouraging him.
Following Dangerfield's appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, Dangerfield began headlining shows in Las Vegas and continued to make appearances on the Sullivan show. He also made numerous appearances on television including "The Tonight Show" 35 times as well as "The Dean Martin Show" He traveled on the road most of the time until he decided to build the Dangerfield Comedy Club that allowed him to stay home. The club became very successful and hosted many television comedy shows that included many up and coming stars.
He won a Grammy Award for his album "No Respect" and a television special featured the song "Rappin Rodney" that became one of the first Hot 100 rap records. His career began to peak in the 1980's when Dangerfield was featured in comedy movies that included "Caddyshack" "Easy Money" and "Back to School" He also was featured in advertising campaigns for Miller Beer. He took on a serious role as an abusive father in "Natural Born Killers" Another film was "Little Nicky" with Adam Sandler.
Over the years, Dangerfield helped the career of several entertainers of comedy including Jim Carrey.
In 2001, Dangerfield suffered a mild heart attack while backstage of the Tonight Show. He also began experiencing other health problems While in the hospital, it is said that someone asked him how long he had to stay in the hospital. Dangerfield replied "if all goes well about a week. If not, about an hour and a half."
It was reported that in September of 2004, Dangerfield was in a coma. On October 5, 2004, Dangerfield died at the age of 82 from complications from surgery.
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Academy Award producer Al Ruddy said of Dangerfield's funeral "It couldn't have been a better funeral if I had produced it. For a man who didn't get no respect, Rodney's funeral certainly made up for it.
Dangerfield was laid to rest near several other actors and entertainers that include Carroll O'Conner, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Dangerfield's monument includes his engraved epitaph "There Goes The Neighborhood"