That Time Danny DeVito Played Napoleon — Twice!

The Big Picture

  • Danny DeVito technically never played Napoleon in a real-life film, but in the movie within a movie, Get Shorty, he played actor Martin Weir, whose historical epic was marketed like an Oscar contender.
  • DeVito’s character in Get Shorty was based on author Elmore Leonard’s frustrations with working with Dustin Hoffman, and was meant to satirize the self-entitled celebrities of Hollywood.
  • DeVito reprised his role as an actor playing Napoleon in a 2015 Nespresso commercial with George Clooney, continuing the joke and showcasing the recurring image of DeVito in the iconic Napoleon costume.

In the year 2000, Ridley Scott directed what the Academy deemed to be that year’s Best Picture, winning Gladiator the most coveted Oscar. Since then, he has become known for directing similar historical epics such as Kingdom of Heaven and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Gladiator also earned Joaquin Phoenix his first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor, and now, after finally winning the statuette for his third nomination in 2020, the Joker star is returning to his Gladiator director in a full-circle moment. Scott’s newest historical epic Napoleon has had some fans already voicing their concerns over its historical accuracy, given its inclusion of myths such as Napoleon’s shooting of the Giza Pyramids. At least they avoided the most famous myth of Napoleon’s short stature. The same can’t be said for the time when Danny DeVito played Napoleon in 1995.

Get Shorty poster
Image via MGM

Get Shorty

A mobster travels to Hollywood to collect a debt, and discovers that the movie business is much the same as his current job.

Release Date
October 20, 1995

Barry Sonnenfeld

John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito, Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo



Comedy, Crime, Thriller

The 4-foot-10 actor played the 5-foot-10 figure in 1995’s Napoleon, but if you don’t remember DeVito donning the iconic Bicorne hat, don’t worry. It’s not an example of the Mandela effect. In fact, Danny DeVito technically never did play Napoleon in a real-life film, but he did play a character who did. 1995’s Napoleon is a movie within a movie, and that (latter) movie is Get Shorty. In it, DeVito plays actor Martin Weir, whose historical epic is marketed much like the Oscar contenders of the day. A billboard for the fictional movie sees his face looking serious, printed enormously, with the words “Banished, But Not Forgotten…” as a dramatic tagline. The billboard also credits Barry Sonnenfeld as its director in the small print, meaning the Get Shorty director also exists in the world of his film. This plays into a brand of satire popular in self-referential Hollywood movies, but what’s the context of DeVito’s role in Get Shorty, and who is the target of this particular joke?

‘Get Shorty’ Stars Danny DeVito As A Typical Movie Star

Get Shorty is a movie based on the novel by Elmore Leonard and follows Miami gangster Chili Palmer (played by John Travolta, fresh off his career-reviving gangster role in Pulp Fiction). Chili arrives in Hollywood to collect a debt but finds that the movie industry can be just as cutthroat as the mob. The film’s trailer cleverly uses a combination of spoken and written words to contradict each other, heightening the comparisons between these two worlds. “In a town known for fame (fraud), wealth (greed), and glamor (backstabbing), one honest man has come to Hollywood to make a killing.” Chili settles in to work for the movies and comes into contact with some colorful characters along the way, one of them being DeVito’s Martin Weir.

Chili arrives in Los Angeles in search of B-Movie director Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman). He confronts him by turning up at the home of horror-movie actress and scream queen Karen Flores (Rene Russo). Chili then pitches the idea to Harry of adapting his debt-collecting adventure into a movie, but to do so, they need a star attached to help raise the money. Karen, now falling for Chili, secures a producer position by setting up a meeting with her ex-husband, famous movie star Martin Weir. Weir is a parody of the self-entitled celebrities Hollywood is often criticized for producing. His reckless lack of empathy for Karen’s feelings plays into this familiar caricature, but it’s only by showing us his pretentious promos for Napoleon that this idea really hammers home. The novel’s author, Elmore Leonard, even admitted to The Guardian that DeVito’s character was specifically modeled on his own first-hand experience of working with Dustin Hoffman.

Danny DeVito’s Character Is Based On Dustin Hoffman

Danny DeVito Get Shorty
Image via MGM

Leonard’s novels and short stories have led to some of the ’90s greatest adaptations including Quentin Tarantino‘s Jackie Brown and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. However, the author had some less-than-favorable experiences with screen adaptations prior to Get Shorty. Martin Scorsese was, at one point, interested in developing an adaptation of Leonard’s novel La Brava. He told The Guardian how the Scorsese and actor Dustin Hoffman would keep shuttling him to and from New York with fresh script treatments. “Finally, I said to them: ‘Look, it’s OK for you guys, but I’m not getting paid for this.’ Hoffman said: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be paid retroactively’. My agent is rolling on the floor laughing when I tell him this. He said: ‘They’ll never make the picture’.” Leonard’s agent was right, and the project never got off the ground.

According to the interview, a jealous Al Pacino wanted the La Brava project for himself, insisting on getting “everything that had Hoffman’s fingerprints on it.” This certainly didn’t do the process any favors and may have accounted for its result as a non-starter. Leonard’s realization of Hollywood’s constant rivalry and competition inspired his work on Get Shorty, and he admits that his frustrations towards Hoffman were vented through the creation of Martin Weir. How better to illustrate the similarities between mobsters and celebrities than by having Danny DeVito play an actor full of empty promises? As for the choice to have Weir star as Napoleon of all people, this can of course be attributed to the joke about the French general’s height. Napoleon was considered to be a short man, much like DeVito, although historians argue that this was likely propaganda. The joke remains popular, however, as Get Shorty isn’t the only example of DeVito donning the Bicorn.

‘Get Shorty’ Wasn’t The Last Time DeVito Dressed Like Napoleon

Danny DeVito dressed as Napoleon in a Nespresso commercial.

Twenty years after he dressed in head-to-toe Napoleon garb for Get Shorty, Danny DeVito returned to our screens as (potentially) another actor in the role of the historical figure. 2015 saw DeVito team up with George Clooney for one of Clooney’s famous Nespresso commercials. This ad sees Clooney using a Nespresso machine in a studio lot break room with a long line of coffee lovers waiting their turn behind him. In another queue, DeVito wears his Napoleon costume and pours himself a cup of lackluster filter coffee. The line behind him consists of two pathetic-looking background artists. This leads DeVito to reconsider his life. Clooney takes DeVito under his wing, teaching him how to dress and act to become worthy of the Nespresso lifestyle. In the end, the student becomes the master, teaching the next generation of movie stars how to follow in his footsteps.

Behind the scenes, Clooney joked to Entertainment Tonight, “One of us was dressed as a dictator. I don’t want to point fingers, but…” DeVito replied by joking, “I got that part because of the hat. It fit me, it didn’t fit him.” In the interview, Clooney also joked that DeVito himself brought his impressive hat. Could it be that DeVito owned the costume, having acquired it from his photo shoot as Napoleon for Get Shorty? Studying the full-body image from the ’90s shoot, it does look remarkably similar to the one he wore for Nespresso. The reprisal of his role as an actor perfectly suited for a Napoleon biopic continues to be a joke DeVito is happy to champion. But will this recurring image of Danny DeVito in the role undermine this newest outing, as Joaquin Phoenix turns in a serious performance already parodied by a 1995 comedy? Only time will tell.

Get Shorty is available to stream on Max in the U.S.

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#Time #Danny #DeVito #Played #Napoleon

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