WHY Benefit Preview: A Conversation with Host Charles Grodin
The April 30 benefit performance of Neil Berg's 100 Years of Broadway at the Hard Rock Cafe in midtown Manhattan will be introduced by Charles Grodin, onetime star of movies and Broadway who's become an author of books and plays, a philanthropist, judicial activist and news pundit.
Grodin's sixth book, How I Got to Be Whoever It Is I Am, just came out earlier this month. You can read a new piece of writing by him every Monday on the Daily News website. But you're not likely to see him act anymore. He was last represented in a New York theater as playwright of The Right Kind of People, produced by Primary Stages three seasons ago. And he basically retired from movies soon after scoring his biggest hits ever, playing straight man to a Saint Bernard in Beethoven and its sequel, Beethoven's 2nd. The only movie Grodin, 74, has made in the last 15 years is The Ex, a 2006 comedy that reunited him with Mia Farrow to portray Amanda Peet's parents (Grodin had played Rosemary's non-satanist-allied ob/gyn in Rosemary's Baby).
He does frequently make appearances for charity, as he's doing next week at the Hard Rock for World Hunger Year. Grodin is donating all proceeds from his new book to Mentoring USA. His No. 1 cause, though, is getting the U.S. to abolish the felony murder rule—which all other democratized nations have done. Grodin has also campaigned for reform of New York's Rockefeller drug laws. He got involved in both issues when he hosted a talk show on CNBC from 1995 to 1998.
In his new memoir, Grodin writes about his career as a TV commentator—which includes stints on 60 Minutes and MSNBC—as well as his breakout role in 1972's The Heartbreak Kid and his many other films. He also reminisces about his pre-Hollywood days as a New York actor, studying with Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg, performing in television plays, soaps and Candid Camera, and playing supporting roles on and off Broadway. His stage career peaked in the mid-'70s, when he costarred with Ellen Burstyn in the Tony-winning Same Time, Next Year and directed and coproduced his friend Herb Gardner's comedy Thieves on Broadway.
Grodin spoke with BWW by phone last week from his home near Norwalk, Conn. He wasn't familiar with our website because he doesn't have a computer. "I don't even have a typewriter," Grodin told me. "I write everything longhand, and my assistant takes it from there."
Have you ever sat down at a computer?
No, I've never even stood up by one. I know people who have computers, don't get me wrong. My wife and son have one in the house.
Did you make a conscious decision to give up acting?
Yes, I did, when my son was 6. Up until that time, my wife and son would travel with me all around the country, everywhere. And I just thought I should try to stay home. When he entered first grade, that's when I started my cable show. And I've been trying to stay home as much as possible, even though he's now out of school. I kind of got to like it. I do everything from home. I broadcast commentaries for CBS News Radio every day—from home, on a disk that I mail in. I write a weekly op-ed piece for the New York Daily News, and any books or plays or movies that I'm crazy enough to write, I do that from home. My assistant's office is, like, 15 minutes away.
So how'd you get lured back to make The Ex?
There's a story behind that and it has to do with somebody involved. It was, frankly, a personal gesture. I think I spent more money on the car service than I got paid. It was not something I enjoyed doing, because it was so hot—constantly hot, even indoors. It kind of confirmed what I already knew, that I just can't sit there for 10, 12, 14 hours a day. And then they reshot most of the movie. They did all these test screenings and changed it accordingly, and it was in and out of the theaters within a week. So much for test screenings.
What about doing a play?
Oh, no. I've been on the phone lately with Elliott Gould, who I never really knew, and I said, "Oh, I would never do it." I feel guilty even talking to him about doing it because he's 70 years old. I marveled at Alan Alda doing eight performances a week of Glengarry Glen Ross. He's a friend of mine, and he said, "Boy, next time I'm going to keep it to seven." And next time I saw him, he said, "I think I'll just do one."
I really think the theater producers are missing something here: I believe that if they would do a play that was only matinees, you would sell out and you would get a lot of people [actors] to do something who just wouldn't do it at night. You would get people like Carol Burnett and Alan Alda and me. I'm talking about doing the whole run as matinees. I don't know if anybody's ever explored if that's feasible; I personally think it is. I think there's enough people in New York, not to mention the tourists. It's not the worst idea in the world to go out in the afternoon, go have dinner and then go home. The theater crowd are for the most part middle-aged and older.
Have you been turning down film offers?
Yeah, I always get calls, but I don't read scripts because I don't want people to feel I'm denigrating their work. Ellen Burstyn called me recently—they wanted me for something that she was doing—and I told her to tell them that I won't even read it, because then if I turn it down, I know what that feels like, having done it myself, sent [scripts] to people. Just so they know it has nothing to do with the material. The only exception could be if something were going to be done in New York or Connecticut, like a movie version—a cable movie version—of my play The Right Kind of People. I've got Martin Sheen and Jason Bateman committed to it. I would be in that if it would help get it made.
So this movie is in the works?
"In the works" is an interesting phrase. I don't really know. I've got it out to a friend of mine who expressed interest in producing a low-budget movie of it. We'll see what happens.
What about your play We Three that's had readings in New York?
Judd Hirsch has been in it; at different times Alan Alda has been in it, Richard Dreyfuss, has been in it, Alfred Molina has. I don't send a play to anyone [to produce] unless I've seen it performed in front of an audience. This particular reading we did at Studio 54 in front of a thousand people, and I never heard that kind of response—I would have to go back to when I directed Lovers and Other Strangers on Broadway, or maybe Same Time, Next Year, that I acted in. And it's still not being done. The fellow who runs Long Wharf in New Haven said he was going to put it on, but he switched the dates around so much. I had committed to being in it, which my son accurately predicted I would regret two days later. So the first time the opportunity came for me to get out of it, I got out of it. And now I'm exploring different ways to get a production. I had this meeting with Barry Weissler. I'd sent it to him, and he was really dismissive of it. I just thought: I've seen it in front of a thousand people; you're reading it. You can't go by what you think as the writer; I only go by what the audience thinks. Nothing else really matters, particularly if it's a comedy. All my new stuff, I'm just getting ready to do more readings of them.
I've had three plays done in New York. Way back in the '60s I co-authored a musical that I directed, called Hooray! It's a Glorious Day...and All That. This was in 1966, at Theatre Four off-Broadway. The first play I wrote, One of the All Time Greats, was done in Nyack at the Helen Hayes Center in 1971. In 1992—that's 21 years later—it opened at the Vineyard Theatre. Price of Fame was produced in 1990 by the Roundabout when it was an off-Broadway theater, and The Right Kind of People was on in New York in 2006. It's still extremely difficult to get a play on.
Is it true you don't like going to the theater?
I don't even like going out. I do about 20 charity events a year where I host or emcee or perform. It's not that I'm any good, it's I don't charge a fee. Talk about naive: I didn't even know until recently that that was unusual, that a celebrity wouldn't take a fee. When I learned that was true, it provoked me to do more. Tonight I'm at a fund-raiser for the New York Public Library. This year will be my fourth hosting this black-tie event for the Children's Cancer and Blood Foundation. That's about all the getting out I need.
Did you ever like going to the theater?
I think when I was very young I did. I remember when I was studying acting, an older actor in Uta Hagen's class said, "You gotta see this play with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud." I was making like a dollar an hour as a Pinkerton guard, so I saved up the money and went. Not only did I go to see it, I went back and saw it again, right for the next performance. So in the past I was different.
In the past, I could sit on a movie set for 12 to 14 hours too. As time went by, I was less able to do that—to be somewhere that long. Even now, on the rare occasions that I do go out to dinner...I went to a dinner party at Barry Levinson's—he lives in my area—and before dessert was served, I got up and said goodbye. It had nothing to do with the people; at that point I'd been there three hours. The hostess was shocked, and my friend Julian Schlossberg went over to her and said, "Don't be offended. Don't you remember when he was the host? At his own dinner party, he left." I'm not proud of it. It's just a restlessness that kicks in.
Nothing against the theater; I don't watch television either. I watch news because I do these commentaries. What really happened to me is I got so involved in the drama of life that I'm not really interested in watching television or movies. By that, I mean prisoners' issues—it's more drama than I need. What I do when I'm not doing working on behalf of different people in prison who I don't feel should be there, or trying to get a law changed that is unjust, about the only thing that can get me away from it is watching old SCTV tapes or watching Martin Short in anything. It has to be comedic; otherwise, I just don't have the patience. Obviously, there's brilliant stuff all over the place—I don't mean that. This is all about my failing, not the work.
Do you feel your talk show laid the groundwork for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, since they're also hosted by comic actors who discuss issues?
I don't watch them. I was on with Jon Stewart once. The reason I don't watch them is I don't like when things are reduced to laughter. Bill Maher does that too. Not to say that they don't have points, but when everything is spun around in some way that creates laughter, it kind of minimizes it. They're smart and clever and have their hearts in the right place, but if they weren't getting laughs, they wouldn't be successful. I wasn't really somebody who was taking digs. I didn't do things that way. I got into it with Alan Dershowitz, with Senator Simpson of Wyoming, but I didn't begin it. It's not my way to start attacking people.
Based on what you say in your new book, you seem to think acting teachers and acting classes are not particularly useful.
Oh, I think they're very destructive. I thought it was absurd we were spending so much time learning how to carry an imaginary suitcase, or open an imaginary window, in Uta Hagen's class. Lee Strasberg was a big supporter of mine, but you never would have gotten me up there to take an imaginary shower! Or relaxation exercises—literally what you're doing is go up there and try and fall asleep in a chair on stage. Well, that might prepare you to fall asleep in a chair on stage. But that's not how you relax. If you're about to go on in front of an audience, the best way to relax is focus on what you're doing, and not on yourself or the audience. My son said something smart: He said they do it in a way that anybody could do it, but that doesn't mean they could be an actor. You might be a master at carrying an imaginary suitcase, does that make you Montgomery Clift or Marlon Brando? That's good if you're going to a school of mime or something. Michael Chekhov, he was very big on the "psychological gesture." The psychological gesture? I don't know... I remember there was a teacher at the Berghof Studio, where Uta Hagen taught, named Anthony Mannino. I walked by his door and I heard him screaming at someone from the closed door "An action is an action!" They would have you define what the character wanted, what his objective was. I mean, you read the piece—it's pretty obvious. You don't have to sit down like it's a chemistry test or something.
Doing scenes, that's where the classes helped me. At least then you're getting up and performing. I think it's a big mistake to open up the comments to the class. They invite the other students to comment. That's not appropriate. The students aren't qualified to comment—the teachers barely are. I also really don't like when teachers tear down students, and there's a lot of that. Look, there are people in charge of things all over the place who shouldn't be there. They're hurting us in every way, probably in every field.
I've worked with people who really had no idea what they were doing. Before they would say "action," they'd be chatting away about what they saw on television last night. You can't do that. Most of the people I've worked with—two big exceptions were Robert De Niro and Ellen Burstyn—there's no stress at all on the incredible importance of knowing your lines. That seems pretty obvious, but I've directed stuff, written stuff and been with people who don't know their lines. They don't want to learn them because they feel like they're going to start interpreting them too soon before they go through the process of figuring out how to say them. I've seen people studying their lines waiting to go on stage. You can't do that. You're just not prepared. I never heard anyone [in acting class] mention that.
Let's talk about some of your most popular movies...like Beethoven.
They asked me to do it. I thought it was good. The head of the studio at the time, Casey Silver, told Ivan Reitman, the producer, he didn't think I was likable enough to play the father in Beethoven. Ivan Reitman, without even knowing me, said "He's plenty likable." The reason Casey Silver thought I wouldn't be likable enough is he was around the set when we were doing Midnight Run and in something like that, with that kind of demand, I'm not a schmoozer. I'm not on the set kibitzing or joking around with people.
You made Beethoven's 2nd, but why not any of the four additional sequels that followed?
They didn't offer me any of the other ones. I think I might have left the movies by that time. But they wouldn't want to do one with me because it would cost them too much money. Those two movies grossed $1 billion, the two of them. Kids come up and ask me "You don't seem like you like dogs. Do you have a dog?" I really do like dogs. The reason I don't have a dog is I'm a very light sleeper. I'd be up every minute.
Care to tell the story of beating out Cher for the part in Midnight Run?
Somebody at Paramount, I think—I don't know who it was—wanted Cher to play my role in Midnight Run. They didn't want to make it with me, but they would make it with her. The director didn't want a woman playing the part. He just went to Universal, and [they] said we'll make it with him. [Pause] Look, I was Sonny's original choice. It wasn't Cher. It was going to be Sonny and Chuck. But I turned it down and that's how you got Sonny and Cher. We look the same, we sing the same, and if you saw us in a room together, it'd be very hard to tell which one was Cher and which one was me. A lot of people think I am Cher and they think Cher is me. We have to deal with that all the time.
Was Midnight Run the first time you'd met Robert De Niro?
Yes, that was the first time I met him. I went through a long audition process, which I hadn't been doing in movies. But I thought this one was worth it. So I knew him from that. The relationship developed offscreen around the same way it developed on screen, and by the end of the movie we were good friends. We would even debate—I would take the position of my character offscreen: If you stole money from the Mob and gave it to charity, it's not exactly the most serious felony in the world. And he took the position that stealing is stealing. So we'd have these conversations as though we were in the movie.
A lot of the scenes were just outlined—they weren't written. So they were improvised. The one I most remember is the boxcar scene. He hates my guts at the beginning of the scene; by the end of the scene, somehow—it wasn't written—he has to like me. So [director] Marty Brest said, "Just get him to like you." This is all improvised. De Niro, I had to charm and make him laugh. I tried a couple of things, and then I found a way to do it. Those kind of challenges are okay with me. It's just the stuff that doesn't make any sense that I have a real antipathy [for].
At one point the whole crew quit because the director was so demanding. Which didn't bother me at all, nor did it bother De Niro. It bothered the cinematographer—they walked off the movie, about 50 people. I'd never seen that before. They just brought in another crew. He was very demanding, but that's okay with me. He wasn't saying carry an imaginary suitcase; he was just asking us to do it again, do it better.
Which of your movies are your favorites?
I like Midnight Run and Heaven Can Wait the best.
Why Heaven Can Wait?
Julie Christie and Warren Beatty. The romance in that movie was breathtaking to me. The scene at the end where she says "Oh, you're the quarterback"—I mean, I'm choking up right now. I just thought they were so good.
When was the last time you were in L.A.?
About fifteen years ago. I have no plans to go back. The only way I will go anywhere outside of New York and Connecticut [would be] like to Washington for the felony murder rule. I was able to get a meeting with the attorney general, Eric Holder, and I went to Washington for that. Took the Acela—which I won't do again. As much as I don't like to fly, counting the time to get there [to the train], it's like 10 hours.
I get lost in my own area. I was always like this. As a kid, I would go to the local movie theater and come out and just stare in every direction: "Now which way is home?" Yesterday I had my godchildren here, and we dropped the mother and the kids off at a playground and I went off with the dad to get food for them and got lost! I felt so bad I had messed up. When we finally got to a place and got food, I sat in the car and the only thing that could make me feel okay about it was putting on the Mariah Carey song "One Sweet Day." It is the single saddest song I've ever heard in my life. It has a line in there, "And all the friends we've lost along the way"—terribly upsetting. I had to go there to get my mind off, that there are bigger things in life. Then my friend went into a mock sobbing, which really helped me a lot.
What can you tell us about the April 30 benefit?
I'm one of the hosts. World Hunger—that's one of the organizations that I'm always involved in. They auction me off for things, like lunches and dinners. It's an odd thing to be auctioned off. I got Regis Philbin and Alan Alda to join me and be auctioned off for a lunch to benefit the Robert Kennedy Foundation.
Did you ever consider going into politics?
One of the smartest things I've ever done was I chose not to run for office when I could have. Over the years, some people have approached me. Aaron Sorkin, who created West Wing, was going around telling people I should be president. First of all, I don't want to go around asking everybody for money. I'm not qualified. And I don't like to travel. I can't believe there's all these people that want to be president. My overall impression is that [for] most people who hold elective office, their re-electability seems to come first. Abraham Lincoln had that great quote: "Most men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." I think that's largely true.
Do you feel you've changed as you've gotten older?
A lot. I have much less patience, in terms of going places. And I'm trying not to become cynical. I'm so optimistic, I thought people just recently started to not do what they say they're going to do, and just be fake, but I've become more aware that it was always like that. I'm afraid I've become cynical: I don't believe when people say something that that will necessarily happen. And that's sad as hell for me, frankly. You really would be better served if you just do what you say and don't lie. Too many people don't even think of it—they're not aware they made a commitment and then don't do it.
Photos below book jacket: Grodin returned to film in The Ex with (from left) Mia Farrow, baby, Amanda Peet and Zach Braff; with his friend and former costar Ellen Burstyn at a 2006 party; (from left) Edwin C. Owens, Evan Thompson, Doris Belack and Robert Stanton in the 2006 production of The Right Kind of People, written by Grodin; tempted by Cybill Shepherd on his honeymoon in The Heartbreak Kid; in Beethoven, alongside the title character; with Robert De Niro in Midnight Run; in Heaven Can Wait, with Dyan Cannon. [Burstyn photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images; Right Kind of People photo by James Leynse]