Rodney Dangerfield got no respect? That’s not how Adrienne Barbeau, the comedian’s costar in the 1986 hit Back to School, remembers it. “The first day I showed up on set, there was a line of women outside his trailer,” Adrienne, 73, tells Closer Weekly in an exclusive new interview, on newsstands now. “I said to the producer, ‘Why are they all here?’ And he said, ‘Well, Rod-ney is a real sex symbol!’ They all wanted to meet him!”

Though the self-deprecating funnyman complained ‘It’s not easy bein’ me’ in his act, by the 1980s, he’d joined comedy’s A-list and become an unlikely movie star in hits like Caddyshack and Easy Money. Yet a robust career and love — he married his second wife, Joan Child, in 1993 — were never enough. “He battled depression even when things were going well,” Joan tells Closer. “He wished success in his career and in romance came earlier to him. He wanted to live to 120 to make up for all the years of struggle.”

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Born Jacob Cohen in Babylon, New York, Rodney grew up with an absentee father and an uncaring mother. “His childhood was miserable!” Joan says. “He felt unloved.”

Making people laugh became a lifeline for the youngster. “He got his first laugh at dinner [at age 4] when he whined, ‘I’m still hungry,'” Joan recalls. “His mother said, ‘You’ve had sufficient,’ and he said, ‘’I didn’t even have any fish!’ Everybody laughed and it made him feel great. He never forgot it.”

After working as a singing waiter and a struggling stand-up under the name Jack Roy, Rodney married his first wife, singer Joyce Indig, mom to his children, Brian and Melanie. He quit the comedy circuit after they wed in 1949 and opened up a successful aluminum siding business. “He did well until the accountant cooked the books — Rodney found himself in $20,000 in debt to a loan shark,” Joan recalls. “He returned to comedy at his lowest point, and it changed his life.”

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Reborn under his new stage name, Rodney got his second start in the 1960s with a gig on The Ed Sullivan Show. That led to more than 70 appearances on The Tonight Show, his own NYC club, Dangerfield’s and a string of hit movies in the 1980s. “He said making audiences laugh was like a fix he needed to survive,” Joan says. “He would always try to get booked on his birthday as a little gift to himself. It meant that he was still relevant.”

Laughter continued to be a great emotional salve, but it didn’t cure him. “He seldom laughed himself,” says Joan, “even when watching other comedians he thought were brilliant.”

Still, she recalls their 11-year marriage as happy. “We got weekly mani-pedis and he’d sing love songs to me at the salon,” she remembers. “He was romantic, and left me notes like ‘I’ll never let you down — unless you’re on a ladder.'”

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Rodney never lost his sense of humor, even as he underwent health issues including an April 2003 brain surgery meant to improve his circulation. “The night before his surgery, he was concerned about whether he’d still be able to tell jokes,” Joan recalls. “He said, ‘Honey, if I can’t be in show business,I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m too jealous to be your pimp!'”

When the comedian passed away in October 2004, just a few weeks shy of his 83rd birthday, Joan had the word “respect” written in the sky above his memorial gathering. “He was ethical, compassionate, always reassuring and kind,” she says. “An exceptionally good person.”

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