We lost actor Charles Grodin on Tuesday. He was never a big star, maybe because he played his roles without bringing his own baggage along. His gift was an ability to present resentment and superiority with an air of placid understatement. In his best performances, Grodin would seem poised and sophisticated, but the joke was how quietly rattled and rancorous he could become. He appeared flat and serious; if he smiled it was impatient or insincere. He never seemed impressed.
For me, his best performance is in The Heartbreak Kid (1972) as a man who falls for another woman while on his honeymoon. He is convincingly conniving and cruel. He finally reached star status in the comic thriller Midnight Run (1988). He was 52 years old at the time and he beat out Robin Williams for the role of the gentle mafia accountant escorted across the country by a bounty hunter played by Robert De Niro. Their chemistry helped make the film special.
Born in Pittsburgh, Grodin studied acting at the University of Miami but left without graduating. He received a scholarship to the Pittsburgh Playhouse School and then moved to New York City where he studied at the famed Actors Studio while working as a cab driver. His career began with small roles in theatre and television and at one point he became an assistant to director Gene Saks.
He made his Broadway debut in Tchin, Tchin (1963), a bittersweet comedy about a pair of betrayed spouses attempting, ineptly, to gain their revenge by having affairs of their own. It ran 222 performances and was nominated for a Tony Award (it lost to Edward Albee‘s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). He worked on Broadway for the next decade, including the lead in the original production of Same Time, Next Year (1975) opposite Ellen Burstyn. Grodin was also a writer; his own plays include Hooray! It’s A Glorious Day … And All That (1967), a satire on Broadway musicals that he also directed, and The Right Kind of People (2004), a comedy about a Manhattan co-op board.
After starring for six months in the television soap The Young Marrieds, Grodin began writing for Candid Camera, a television show where members of the public were drawn unwittingly into pranks. In 1967, Mike Nichols offered him the lead in The Graduate. He turned it down because it paid $500 a week, when he was making $1,000 a week on the Western series The Guns Of Will Sonnett.
He did work with Nichols soon after in Catch-22 (1970) where he became friends with musician Art Garfunkel, one of his costars. Grodin wrote and directed a rather radical television special, Simon And Garfunkel: Songs Of America; introducing into that staid television convention a big helping of political protest. Beginning with the duo singing Paul Simon’s America, he cut from images of the country’s splendid beauty to footage of race riots and anti-Vietnam protests. The sponsor AT&T removed its name from the program, and it became one of the lowest-rated entertainment specials in television history.
Grodin had a small, but pivotal role as Mia Farrow’s kindly obstetrician in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The Heartbreak Kid briefly made him a star of sorts. He wrote he had “no personal relationship at all” with his costar Cybill Shepherd, and Neil Simon, the screenwriter, wanted to fire him. Grodin worried about being replaced after seeing Hoffman on the set. Yet his complex, confounding performance proved to be a masterclass in the comedy of embarrassment. Still, the film’s director, Elaine May, cast him as a CIA agent in her underrated, misunderstood satire Ishtar (1987)
The next chance at stardom was squelched by the failure of his next film, 11 Harrowhouse (1974), which he wrote and where he plays a jewel thief; the film was panned by critics and was a bomb at the box-office. Grodin: “Nobody wanted me. All calls stopped immediately.”
He did work again; as the villain in King Kong (1976), a dissatisfied school principal in the romantic comedy Thieves (1977), which he had directed on Broadway, and best of all, as a scheming secretary in Warren Beatty’s fantastic Heaven Can Wait (1978).
He also became noted for his spiky talk show appearances. Johnny Carson liked him so much that he put Grodin under contract as a guest in 1973. He appeared once a month, to the exclusion of all other talk shows. Their manufactured mutual hostility was so convincing that The Tonight Show received thousands of letters complaining about Grodin’s treatment of his host. On one show, he sneered: “Look at you, you don’t really care what I have to say, do you?” Carson replied: “No. I gotta do an hour a night. I’m looking for warm bodies, that’s all.”
Later, he took this act over to Late Night With David Letterman, where he would ignore Letterman before taunting him. Grodin told Letterman that this shtick originated when he appeared on Carson’s show after Diana Ross had sung a medley of her hits. Not knowing how to follow that, he went to the other extreme and affected disdain. Grodin:
“I haven’t stopped doing it. I’m doing it right now.”
He worked for Neil Simon again in Seems Like Old Times (1980), followed by The Great Muppet Caper (1981), where he has a love scene with Miss Piggy. He also appeared that same year opposite Lily Tomlin in The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and then The Lonely Guy (1983) with Steve Martin. Inexplicitly, he became known for family films Beethoven (1992) and Beethoven’s 2nd (1993), hit comedies about a St. Bernard dog. He plays the accountant to a man impersonating the president in Dave (1993) opposite Kevin Kline.
Grodin had a popular radio talk show in the mid-1990s, and he became a political commentator on 60 Minutes II. He published a memoir, It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here: My Journey Through Show Business (1989). But his acting appearances became rarer. He did play a veteran documentary maker in the delightful While We’re Young (2014) starring Ben Stiller (who plays the Grodin role in an unnecessary 2007 remake of The Heartbreak Kid). He was memorable as a pitiful, philosophical doctor with a three-legged dog in the now canceled Louis CK comedy Louie (2014). He portrays philanthropist and defrauded investor Carl J. Shapiro in the miniseries Madoff (2016) based on the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme debacle. His final film performance is in An Imperfect Murder (2017), a drama directed by James Toback, opposite Sienna Miller and Alec Baldwin.
Grodin had a sort of inspired spinelessness. Many comic actors have been popular for their overreacting and mugging, but Grodin belongs to the Bob Newhart school of wry comedy that depends on understatement and subtlety.
In 1977, Grodin hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live, where the entire episode revolved around his forgetting that the show was live, as he proceeds to ruin his sketches because of his failure to prepare accordingly. Funny, anarchic stuff.
Grodin was taken by bone marrow cancer. He was 86 when his final credits rolled.