The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Charles Grodin

Mother Brain

For this latest edition of the Underrated Actors Special, I wanted to examine the career of an actor who had starred in a number of memorable films, but seems to have been off the grid for a long time. Of any actor that came to mind, Charles Grodin was at the top of my list. Baby Boomers remember him best as Lenny Cantrow in his breakthrough film The Heartbreak Kid. Eighties Babies recall him as “The Duke” in Midnight Run or the uptight dad in the first two Beethoven movies. It’s that stick-in-the-ass with the smooth voice persona that made him a standout throughout his career and often times an effortless scene-stealer.

A native of Pittsburgh, Grodin grew up in a blue collar, Orthodox Jewish family. As a child, Grodin was a straight-A student and one time class president. Yet, he had a tendency to annoy his teachers incessantly with too many questions about particular subjects. He initially sought a journalism career until he saw the movie A Place in the Sun. It was Elizabeth Taylor’s performance in the film that gave Grodin the acting bug. He would leave the University of Miami without graduating to study at the world renown Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen and worked frequently in Broadway both as an actor and as an assistant to the award winning stage director Gene Saks.

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Though his film debut was a bit role as “Drummer Boy” in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Grodin’s more prominent acting work started with television guest spots on The Defenders, Shane, and The F.B.I. to name a few. Then in 1967, the unknown actor was offered to play the starring role of Benjamin Braddock in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate; however, Grodin, who was world-weary about Hollywood, balked at the $500 a week salary that the producers had offered him. Another unknown named Dustin Hoffman took the part and became an overnight sensation. Grodin would end up playing the feature role of Mia Farrow’s obstetrician in another late 60s hit, Rosemary’s Baby.

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Mike Nichols still kept Grodin in mind for his next film Catch-22. The dark war comedy saw Grodin play a crazy army navigator who murders a girl he raped. The director’s connection with screenwriter Elaine May (as well as Grodin’s own stage direction work) resulted in Grodin’s first lead role in the dark romantic comedy, The Heartbreak Kid. Conceived by Neil Simon, Grodin played a shallow man who realizes he married the wrong woman when he goes on his honeymoon and falls for a hot blonde played by Cybil Shepherd. Director May gave Grodin the freedom to improvise in spite of Simon’s lack of involvement during the production. The film made him a star and earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Grodin had suddenly become part of a new era of unconventional leading men in the 70s.

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Grodin’s new clout in Hollywood gave him the ability to act as well as work behind the scenes on his projects. He co-wrote and starred in the heist drama 11 Harrowhouse and co-directed the television special Paradise. In 1976, Grodin headlined the big budget remake of King Kong where he played an updated version of the film producer Carl Denham who was reworked into an oil executive. Grodin received good notices from critics for what some consider to be a paycheck job. In 1978, Grodin reunited with Elaine May as a scheming secretary who plots to kill Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait.

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Grodin fell into a bit of a slump during the early 80s and became more of a supporting player. He still had a few stand out films though. One was his role as an assistant DA caught in a love triangle between Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn in Neil Simon’s Seems Like Old Times. In The Great Muppet Caper, he plays a slick jewel thief who seduces Miss Piggy. The latter of the two I fondly remember as a kid and it was my introduction to Grodin. He’s arguably one of the few actors who can make a romance with Miss Piggy come across convincingly. It’s a rare role for Grodin to appear more relaxed and have fun among the Muppets. Another Neil Simon project, The Lonely Guy, cast Grodin in the title role opposite Steve Martin.

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Then there was 1984’s The Woman in Red, a remake of the French comedy An Elephant Can Be Extremely Deceptive. Cast by his friend and director Gene Wilder, Grodin played the gay best friend of Wilder who cheats on his lover. Though he was not the lead character, Grodin’s performance felt colorful and natural at the same time. He has a scene in the film where Wilder comes to visit him in his empty apartment after his lover leaves him due to his infidelity. He expresses his pain in few words and subtle looks to Wilder. At a time when homosexual characters were portrayed as stereotypes, Grodin gave one of the most realistic portrayals of a gay man on film.

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Grodin still remained loyal to his industry friends whether he appeared in Carol Burnett’s miniseries Fresno or Elaine May’s infamous box office bomb Ishtar. But he was not viewed by Hollywood as a box office draw and remained typecast in uptight comedic parts. That changed to some degree when Midnight Run came his way. Director Martin Brest was highly impressed with Grodin’s screen test opposite Robert De Niro, feeling they had a natural chemistry; however, Universal Pictures executives were pushing for a bigger name star like Robin Williams or Bruce Willis in the role of mob accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas. Brest won the conflict which resulted in a comedy classic. Grodin was totally game for a script he considered one of the best he ever read. He and De Niro improvised effortlessly in scene and sometimes in ways that pushed the story along. Grodin was so into his role as the accountant being dragged across the country by De Niro’s bounty hunter role that he wound up with permanent scars around his wrists from the handcuffs he wore. Though De Niro had another hit on his hands, he credited most of the film’s success to Grodin’s talent.

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Midnight Run’s success raised Grodin’s stock in Hollywood again. His next film paired him with Jim Belushi in the Trading Places-esque comedy Taking Care of Business which was co-written by an unknown J.J. Abrams. Then came the runaway hit Beethoven where he played the workaholic husband and father of a suburban family who reluctantly takes in the lovable St. Bernard. As high concept as the film was with the dog as the star, the uptight Grodin was the perfect foil for an enormous hound that created chaos and mischief in his suburban home. He appeared in the less successful Beethoven’s 2nd a year later. In between Beethoven films, Grodin took a lighter turn as a failed singer in the afterlife in Hearts and Souls, played a madman uncle in the Martin Short comedy Clifford, headlined My Summer Story which was the official sequel to A Christmas Story, and made comedic cameos in Dave and So I Married an Axe Murderer.

LOUIE: Season 5, Episode 5 "Untitled" -- Pictured: Charles Grodin as Dr. Bigelow. CR: KC Bailey/FX

By 1994, Grodin decided to walk away from acting to become a stay-home parent. He decided to pursue his first love in journalism when he hosted his own talk show for the remainder of the decade and later became a special commentator on CBS’s 60 Minutes II. Grodin became active in social justice causes and charities for the homeless. 13 years had passed before Grodin’s son talked him back into acting when he recommended the script to a comedy called The Ex starring Zack Braff. It was not a hit, but it was nice to see Grodin back on screen. His sporadic appearances would be on television shows such as The Michael J. Fox Show, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Louie as well as the miniseries Madoff. He also frequents as a best-selling author.
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Now at age 81, Grodin has devoted his life to family and social causes while still maintaining his quiet acting career. He remains something of an enigma when it comes to his on-screen persona whether it’s in film or his moody demeanor on his talk show appearances which he claims is a trademark of his to be a more interesting guest. If there’s any actor in the world that I can consider underrated, it’s this guy that made kids believe that a human being can see Miss Piggy as desirable.

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