The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Steve Guttenberg

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The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Steve Guttenberg
By Mother Brain

When one thinks of the top comedic actors of the 1980s, names like Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Richard Pryor, and even a pre-Batman Michael Keaton come to mind…. and there’s Steve Guttenberg. As a kid growing up in the 80s and early 90s, Guttenberg was definitely one of the few actors I looked up to. Perhaps it was his iconic role as Carey Mahoney in the first four Police Academy movies that made me believe he was one of the coolest guys on the planet. He had undeniable charm and likability which brought him luck and success in the film industry. In recent years, I discovered that his resume is far more extensive than one would imagine. He might be sort of a laughing stock today because he never reached the career heights of his peer, Tom Hanks. But you’d be surprised how close Guttenberg could have gotten to Hanks’ level.

Guttenberg was born in Brooklyn in 1958. He had a Jewish upbringing in a family of five which included his two sisters. After graduating from Plainedge High School in North Massapequa, NY in 1976, Guttenberg began to study and sharpen his acting craft. From acting studies at the Juilliard School, SUNY Albany, and UCLA to studying and performing improvisational comedy with the famous troupe, the Groundlings, Guttenberg became a highly skilled actor and comedian with success in productions on and off Broadway as well as London’s West End.

Just a year out of high school, Guttenberg started landing acting gigs on television. But success came early in movies when he appeared as a doomed Jewish-American student who uncovers a sect of Third Reich war criminals looking to resurrect Hitler though cloning in 1978’s The Boys from Brazil. Then he cast in a different kind of controversial film in 1980’s Can’t Stop the Music. The film, which was a fictional account about the formation of the infamous disco group, the Village People, starred Guttenberg as a songwriter and dee-jay who brings the group together and shoots up to fame. Cashing in on the success of Saturday Night Fever, the movie quickly died at the box office due to the backlash against disco in the early 80s.

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After a few failed attempts in television, Guttenberg gained a bit of notoriety in Barry Levinson’s 1982 directorial debut, Diner. The film was Levinson’s semi-autobiography about high school friends in 1950s Baltimore reuniting for a friend’s wedding. Guttenberg was part of an ensemble of future megastars including Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, and Ellen Barkin. Guttenberg shined as the slacker groom-to-be and the film marked the beginning of the trend in which he took parts in large ensemble films. That trend continued on with the controversial ABC television movie The Day After in 1983 where Guttenberg played a college student who is one of the few lone survivors of a devastating nuclear explosion. Even in the most serious of films, Guttenberg’s charm and likable personality manage connect with audiences.

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Up until 1984, Guttenberg only had two leading roles (the failed 1979 sitcom Billy and the forgettable 1983 comedy thriller The Man Who Wasn’t There which has no connection to the Coen Bros. movie of the same name). But then a low budget comedy called Police Academy was dumped on movie screens in March of 1984. Critics immediately trashed it. Audiences, however, rolled down the isles laughing their asses off. The same audiences that waited in line for R-rated comedy romps of the time like Animal House and Porky’s piled into the theaters and the film was number one at the box office for 5 weeks, grossing over $80 million domestically, launching a long-running franchise throughout the decade, and turning the up-and-coming Guttenberg into an overnight movie star.

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In the Academy’s ensemble cast that included Michael Winslow as the sound effects voice man Jones, David Graf as gun freak Tackleberry, NFL star Bubba Smith as the imposing but lovable Hightower, and G.W. Bailey who would forever be typecast in the role of the disciplined but nasty Lieutenant (and later Captain) Harris, Guttenberg played the lead character, Carey Mahoney, a troublemaking prankster of a cadet who could charm the ladies, humiliate his instructors, and stand up for his fellow cadets and officers. Some may argue his star-making moment was the scene where Mahoney tries to hide a prostitute and let’s just say the payoff is worth not spoiling here (Hint: It involves the prostitute, the academy head Commandant Lassard, and a podium during a big speech)! In winning the iconic role, Guttenberg beat out other future box office stars like Michael Keaton, Judge Reinhold, Bruce Willis, and of course Tom Hanks. He continued to play the Mahoney role for 3 more films before calling it quits after Police Academy 4 in 1987.

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Now on the a-list in Hollywood, Guttenberg was suddenly in demand. His next big hit was the Ron Howard sci-fi classic, Cocoon. Like Carey Mahoney, Guttenberg’s boat owner character, Jack Bonner, is big into fortune and women when he unknowingly helps a group of aliens recover cocooned members of their race known as the Antareans. The Jack character and his romance a sexy Antarean named Kitty (Tahnee Welch) was clearly written to bring younger audiences to the theatre so they were not totally turned off by the A-plot involving Florida retirees regaining their youth in a swimming pool full of cocoons. But once again, Guttenberg came across as that sweet-natured guy we love to root for and he nailed another franchise when he appeared in the sequel, Cocoon the Return, in 1988.

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Guttenberg was on a roll. He hit the jackpot again as the robotic scientist and creator of Johnny 5 in 1986’s Short Circuit which led to a Guttenberg-less sequel in 1988. He had an even bigger hit as part of the three man ensemble alongside Tom Selleck and Ted Danson in 1987’s Three Men and a Baby which went on to become the number one hit of the year and also spawned a sequel three years later. He even appeared as himself riding a police bike in the Liberian Girl music video for Michael Jackson from his Bad album. Although he was riding high on the comedy front, Guttenberg began to find it difficult for audiences to take him seriously in dramas. Among one of those underrated gems was Curtis Hanson’s 1987 thriller, The Bedroom Window. It was one of Guttenberg’s most darkest films of the 80s in which he witnesses a rape from his window while having an affair with his boss’ wife. Unfortunately, his character is played with an uneven mix of being a straight leading man and being the typical charming and goofy leading man that made him successful. Most critics felt that he was completely miscast and while Curtis Hanson went on to become a respected director, Bedroom Window marked the downslope in Guttenberg’s career. His next few films, High Spirits and Don’t Tell Her It’s Me, both flopped at the box office. By 1991, Guttenberg disappeared from movies all together.

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In the late 1990s, Guttenberg resurfaced in a few mediocre family movies like The Big Green, Zeus and Roxanne, Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays, and a made-for-TV adaptation of the Disney ride, Tower of Terror. His biggest hit of the decade was the Olsen Twins’ romantic comedy, It Takes Two, in 1995. In 2002, he made his directorial debut in the adaptation of the James Kirkwood Jr. stage-play, P.S. Your Cat is Dead! At that point in his career, Guttenberg took a chance to revisit his stage roots while challenging himself to play a struggling actor who questions his sexual orientation while bonding with a cat burglar who tries to break into his apartment. He took another chance in playing against type in the second season of Veronica Mars as the ruthless wealthy citizen, Woody Goodman. In more recent years, Guttenberg has been known more for his appearance on Dancing with the Stars as well as his Funny or Die videos including “Steve Guttenberg’s Steak House” and the infamous jogging semi-naked in Central Park video which ended up circulating on TMZ and other media outlets as a real incident. He also operates his own production company, Mr. Kirby Productions, which is named after his high school drama teacher.

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Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes in Guttenberg’s career was turning down the lead role in 1988’s Big which shot Tom Hanks into megastardom. Up until that point, both actors were interchangeable in the roles they played and while Hanks went on to become an American icon in cinema, Guttenberg played it safe in comedies until his a-list status dwindled down in the early 90s. But whereas Hanks chooses his film projects carefully year after year, Guttenberg since the day he landed his first television role has been working more consistently (minus the gap in the early 90s) and steadily, often doing 2 to 3 projects a year:

“I just want to do good stories. That’s the trap. When people say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this again’ — well, if they’re good at it, why not do it? I don’t care about switching from comedy to drama — I just like to be able to jump from work to work. I just like to be doing good work — that’s all I want to do. I just want to work.”

There is some hope in the near future as talks of a new Police Academy movie are in the works with Guttenberg possibly returning as Mahoney as well as a third and final entry to the Three Men and a Baby series. Until then, he’ll be surfing, taking care of his dogs, and contributing to various charities and youth programs.

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