The Unique Energy of Charles Grodin

The Daily — May 19, 2021
Charles Grodin and Robert De Niro in Martin Brest’s Midnight Run (1988)

Staring down a drooling St. Bernard in the two Beethoven movies in the early 1990s, Charles Grodin, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of eighty-six, somehow simultaneously conveyed the unquenchable fury and exhausted defeat of a family man who knows that this bear-sized dog is in his life to stay. Lovesick and swooning with unrequited desire for Miss Piggy in Jim Henson’s The Great Muppet Caper (1981), Grodin never for a moment lets on—not even a hint of a suggestion of a wink—that he’s aware that she’s made of foam rubber and felt.

In his appreciation of this “uncommonly intense and all-around uncommon performer” for RogerEbert.com, Dan Callahan writes that Grodin’s “eyes burned with need and lust and outrage, and he never needed to do all that much on screen to get across what he was feeling and thinking.” Grodin “could be hilariously rude and nasty on screen and flagrantly insincere without ever losing audience sympathy.”

Raised in Pittsburgh by Orthodox Jewish parents, Grodin flirted for a while with the idea of a career in journalism, but as Neil Genzlinger notes in the New York Times, he switched to acting when he saw Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951). He moved to New York and studied under Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg and landed a crucial role in the Broadway comedy Tchin-Tchin, costarring Anthony Quinn and Margaret Leighton.

Small roles on television and in two movies followed before he played Dr. Hill in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). “His glib, confident obstetrician is usurped early on by the far more avuncular Dr. Sapirstein—played by Old Hollywood nice guy Ralph Bellamy, yet!—but this is a classic casting switcheroo, in which it’s the doctor you like who turns out to be in league (spoiler alert!) with Satanists,” writes Glenn Kenny at the Decider.

Mike Nichols came close to casting Grodin as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (1967), the role that made Dustin Hoffman a star, but Grodin instead wound up playing Captain Aarfy Aardvark in Nichols’s Catch-22 (1970). It was Nichols’s former partner in comedy, Elaine May, who well and truly launched Grodin’s career in film when she gave him the lead in The Heartbreak Kid (1972). Lenny Cantrow is a sporting goods salesman who dumps his bride (Jeannie Berlin, May’s daughter) on their honeymoon in Miami Beach for a Midwestern blonde (Cybill Shepherd). “The character is hardly ‘relatable’ (one would hope), utterly unlikable, and practically repellent,” writes Kenny. “But Grodin makes him completely compelling, in part through utter brazenness. You just can’t believe the chutzpah of this guy.”

Talking to Nathan Rabin at the A.V. Club in 2009, Grodin said that he, too, considered Lenny to be “a despicable guy, but I play it with full sincerity. My job isn’t to judge it. If it wasn’t for Elaine May, I probably would never have had that movie career.” With Warren Beatty, May cowrote Heaven Can Wait (1978), featuring a tightly wound Grodin as a personal secretary to a millionaire (Beatty) he’s just murdered with his lover, the millionaire’s wife (Dyan Cannon). To outstanding comic effect, all of Grodin’s energy is directed inward as he suppresses his alarm and stifles the wife’s when they discover their victim alive and kicking.

Grodin had a great run playing flustered husbands and fathers in Albert Brooks’s Real Life (1979), Jay Sandrich’s Seems Like Old Times (1980), and Joel Schumacher’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981). He “excelled at playing self-involved,” writes Variety’s Peter Debruge, “but it was often in service of making his costars look better—see the park-bench banter between him and The Lonely Guy lead Steve Martin—which would make it the greatest kind of generosity. While most people would prefer not to acknowledge human weakness, Grodin made it possible to smile at how it looks on others.”

In 1988, Martin Brest paired Grodin and Robert De Niro as an accountant who has embezzled millions from a mobster and the bounty hunter hired to bring him in. Midnight Run did fairly well at the box office but played like gangbusters with the critics. “De Niro is often said to be the best movie actor of his generation,” wrote Roger Ebert. “Grodin has been in the movies just about as long, has appeared in more different titles, and is of more or less the same generation, but has never received the recognition he deserves—maybe because he often plays a quiet, self-effacing everyman. In Midnight Run, where he is literally handcuffed to De Niro at times, he is every bit the master's equal, and in the crucial final scene it is Grodin who finds the emotional truth that defines their relationship.”

After the Beethoven movies, a nice turn in Ivan Reitman’s Dave (1993), and a daringly goofy one in Paul Flaherty’s Clifford (1994), Grodin stepped away from acting for quite a long stretch. He carried on writing plays and a good number of books about his life and career, and as a regular on late-night talk shows, he “cultivated a character that remained consistently and endearingly brash, a sort of persnickety, both-sides-of-the-Odd-Couple bipolar personality by turns attention seeking and insult slinging,” as Samantha Pitchel put it in New York magazine in 2011. He hosted his own show on CNBC in the late 1990s, often addressing the need for criminal justice reform, and as his son, Nick, tells Michael Ordoña in the Los Angeles Times, Grodin was particularly proud to have been instrumental in the release of a few prisoners whose sentences, he believed, had been unfair.

In the mid-2010s, Grodin began reappearing on television and in few films, reteaming with De Niro again, for example, in Taylor Hackford’s The Comedian (2016). As Dr. Bigelow, Louis C. K.’s doctor and mentor on the comedy series Louie, Grodin delivered one the most movingly underplayed performances of his career. “Misery is wasted on the miserable,” says Bigelow when C. K. asks him what to do now that the loss of his girlfriend has left him hurting. How lucky he is to be feeling this pain, insists Bigelow. This is love. This is the good part. “The bad part is when you forget her.” We won’t be forgetting Charles Grodin.

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