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Remembering Charles Grodin, Of 'Heartbreak Kid' And 'Midnight Run' Fame

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, sitting in for Terry Gross. Actor and comedian Charles Grodin, who made his mark in the movies and on TV, died Tuesday. He was 86 years old. Grodin's specialty was deadpan humor - the slow double-take, the droll delivery, the ability to embody and embrace the most unlikable of characters, yet somehow make them very likable and very funny on film. He constantly irritated Robert De Niro's character in the classic comedy "Midnight Run." He had featured roles in "Heaven Can Wait" and "Rosemary's Baby." And his big break came as the star of "The Heartbreak Kid," written by Elaine May. In that film, he plays Lenny, a young man with spectacularly bad timing. On his honeymoon, he meets and falls in love with another woman, played by Cybill Shepherd. In this scene, he visits her parents and is at the dinner table trying to impress them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HEARTBREAK KID")

CHARLES GRODIN: (As Lenny Cantrow) I don't mind saying that this is one of the finest meals that I've ever had.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Thank you, Leonard. It's simple, you know. Mr. Corcoran doesn't really care for fancy food, though I imagine you've tried just about every kind of exotic dish in New York.

GRODIN: (As Lenny Cantrow) Exactly. See, that's the trouble. It's exotic, but it's not honest. I mean, it's fancy, but it's not real. I mean, this is honest food. There's no lying in that beef. There's no insincerity in those potatoes. There's no deceit in the cauliflower. This is a totally honest meal. You don't know what a pleasure it is to sit down in this day and age and eat food that you can believe in.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, what an original way of putting it.

BIANCULLI: Charles Grodin appeared often on television. Many years before Larry David portrayed at exaggeratedly abrasive version of himself on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Charles Grodin pulled a similar stunt almost any time he showed up on TV. He hosted "Saturday Night Live" in 1977 and spent the show pretending not to comprehend that the show was being broadcast live. That same year, he won an Emmy for writing the Paul Simon special, in which he also appeared on camera playing that shows unbelievably obnoxious producer. And Grodin spent several decades visiting Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show," almost always showing up with nothing to plug or being unwilling to plug it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

GRODIN: No, I'm more interested in knowing what you really are - are you interested in anything at all?

JOHNNY CARSON: Absolutely, that's why I'm asking, yes.

GRODIN: Seriously. No, no. No, really.

CARSON: Of course I am.

GRODIN: Do you really care?

CARSON: Yes.

GRODIN: What do you care about? I mean, in life. Do you care about anything?

(LAUGHTER)

GRODIN: I mean, we hope the show goes on forever.

CARSON: Sure.

GRODIN: All right. We hope everybody's happy. But, you know, given that we're all healthy and happy...

CARSON: Right.

GRODIN: ...Is there anything in the world you actually care about?

CARSON: Yes.

GRODIN: What?

CARSON: My health. And I have this terrible pain right now.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke to Charles Grodin in 1989. She asked him about his early career, when he was often cast in TV westerns as the villain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Were you good at being menacing?

GRODIN: Well, you know, after - this was in 1966, '67. By that time, I had so much rejection in show business, I was very good at being menacing.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GRODIN: And the one thing that all the young actors could do was play rage and menace because that's what they felt. We were so shut out all the time that you - and you could only say when they didn't want you, thank you very much. You could never really express what you - all this frustration. So a lot of us were good villains.

GROSS: Have you ever heard - overheard conversations about your looks in terms of whether you would have made it as a good leading man?

GRODIN: You know, I try to get into these rooms where they're having these meetings so I can overhear what they're saying. But they usually catch me. You know, like even today, if I'm out in Hollywood, I try to get around the back door of a studio to see if I can overhear some conversations about my looks. But it's hard to get in there to overhear them.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: My guest is actor...

GRODIN: What do you mean? I go to overhear conversations about my looks - are they having them somewhere? Maybe - would you put that a different way?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I see your point. Right.

GRODIN: Yeah. Have you ever overheard anything about the money you have? No, I've never overheard anything about that. Have you ever overheard anything about your wife? Yes, I did overhear the other day. My wife and my daughter would talk about, is he fat or what? No, he's not. It's just the way he's standing. I overheard that.

GROSS: Well, I figure there's some things casting directors discuss in front of you and said that they don't, but things that you find out anyway - that they discuss it in front of you or not. And people have to be discussing, well, I don't know, is he handsome enough for this role?

GRODIN: There was - yeah, they discuss everything. And, you know, one of the blessings is that you don't hear all the things that they're saying. I mean, I have an agreement with the people that represent me is I really only hear if they want me. I mean, they definitely know not to call me every day and tell me all the things that they don't want me for. You know that movie with Paul Newman, that one with Clint Eastwood, that one with Ryan O'Neal and Robert Redford? They don't want you for that. Thanks for being in touch. Thanks. There's one coming up they want Jack Nicholson for. They don't want you for that. Oh, good, good. Good to know that. You know, and Michael Keaton, that Batman thing? They wanted him. They didn't want you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GRODIN: Oh, really? Yeah. I kind of assumed it when I saw the movie because we hadn't heard anything about it. Yeah, well they definitely didn't want you. They didn't want you for the Nicholson part in that either. Right. OK, good. Well, thanks. I like that. I like to hear all this. No, I don't. I really try to - not to think about it. That's why I think I spend so much time thinking about sports.

GROSS: Oh yeah, right.

GRODIN: 'Cause I'm afraid of what I might think about.

GROSS: Well, how did you get from being like the bad guy and auditioning for action series to specializing in comedy, which it seems is what you've done over the past few years?

GRODIN: Well, I was really trained as a serious actor. And Elaine May, really with "The Heartbreak Kid," knew me socially and just was intending to star me in whatever movie she was going to direct. She just felt that she had this guy, that she was going around telling everybody how good I was. And everybody said, if he's that good, why don't we see him? And she says, well, when he has a chance, you will see it. But show business is so much about opportunity that, you know, as I've said, if Dustin Hoffman hadn't been in "The Graduate," nobody would know what he was doing because he was about heading out of the acting profession around that time. He was really - he'd actually done some off-Broadway shows. But just before that, he was - he had about given it up.

And I really lost interest in it too right around 1965. It just was too difficult. You could be in a success and not get anywhere. But I was really put into "The Heartbreak Kid" as a comedy player and then totally perceived that way. Before that, it was just, you know, whatever you could do. I mean, comedies - I never wanted to be in a sitcom. I just didn't like that kind of rhythm playing. I was doing something different, and I wouldn't have fit in. So that's an extremely murky answer to your question.

GROSS: Well, explain what it is that you feel like you do different from, for instance, the acting in a sitcom.

GRODIN: Well, a sitcom is based a lot on rhythm. There's a setup, and there's a punchline, a setup and a punchline. And I don't really do that. I just basically try to be alive in a situation. And I'm not really wanting to do jokes. Most of the humor that comes out of me has nothing to do with a funny line. It has to do with just being there. So I'm not - somebody said to me once, do you practice these looks in front of a mirror? I don't even know what I'm doing. I just know that I'm alive there in the situation. And that's what - if you ever - when you saw "Candid Camera," these people weren't actors, but they were alive in a situation, and their normal, honest responses were funny. And that's basically what I'm doing.

I've really been trained to be able to be as though I were in life on the screen. And that's what I'm basically doing, just existing there. And then whatever is going to come out of me now, you know, if somebody like who is not maybe a humorous person in life did that, it wouldn't necessarily come out funny. But if you took a person who was humorous in life, and they could do that, it probably would come out.

GROSS: So you're trained in the method. You studied with Uta Hagen and with Lee Strasberg. Do you feel like you use the method in doing comedy roles?

GRODIN: Well, to the extent of basically what it is, is that I function as an actor the way I'm functioning right now. I'm listening to what you're saying, and I'm responding personally to you. That's basically at the heart of it. It's a personal response. Now, the difference is I'm making up - I mean, these are not written lines that I'm saying to you. Well, most everything I say is written. I actually wrote down all these things in hopes you'd ask some of these questions.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GRODIN: That's the difference. And then the skill is to be able to take the lines of the script and make it your own and make it come out of you naturally. But it's - yeah, so you do apply it all the time.

GROSS: When you were making "Midnight Run" with Robert De Niro, can you compare how you each prepared for your roles?

GRODIN: Well, in terms of the background of the part, Bob does a lot. He will like to live the life of the character. He actually went on drug bust with a bulletproof vest because his character did this kind of thing. Even though he didn't do it in the movie, this was part of being the character of Jack Walsh, who he played. I don't really do that. I - my focus is much more on what's going on right there at the moment. I just accept the fact that I'm an accountant who embezzled money from the mob and gave it to charity. I just accept that. And then I'm there with this - I just accept the situation. But I don't really go around embezzling money from the mob in preparation for the role.

GROSS: So what kinds of differences does that make for when you're actually doing a scene together?

GRODIN: None whatsoever because what he does is - it just brings him to the point where he can be alive in the moment. And what I do brings me to the same point, that we're both doing the same thing. If there's one thing unique about us working together that I found different than a lot of other situations that he - I believe in something I learned from Paul Muni in a book that Paul Muni wrote years ago, that you should - if you have a scene and say it's three pages long, for example, you could learn those lines, but there's learning the lines and there's learning the lines. And I believe in learning the thing so you could do it one, two, three, four, six, seven, eight, nine, 10. You could say - just as tools that you could say these words so fast. So I believe in going over the thing and running it just as the words, not how you're going to do it, not the interpretation, not the meaning, nothing like that. Just the tools, the words themselves, I would do that an unending amount of time to get it so solid with me that I know it just as quickly as I know the alphabet or counting to 10 or my own name. And Bob agrees with that.

So we would sit there and maybe do that 100 times, which is a lot. I mean, it takes a very long time to run a three-page scene a hundred times. But we would - there would be no limit because he understood that once you do that and you go in front of the cameras, you're completely free to come alive and do anything. You're never thinking about your words. And too many actors, they think they've done the work, but they haven't done it. And it affects their work. And I've seen friends of mine, they say, what do you think? And I say, I don't think you know the lines well enough. And they say, no, I know them. I knew them at home. This is different, though. There's cameras. There's 50 people around. The distractions are tremendous. You've got to be so solid before you can really be free and be creative. And that's something I think he understands, and it's what I do. And it had a lot to do with the freedom you see in the playing.

BIANCULLI: Charles Grodin speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURINDO ALMEIDA'S "RECADO BOSSA NOVA")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Actor and author Charles Grodin died Tuesday at age 86. He was famous for his deadpan delivery and delighted in playing abrasive characters in scenes that were full of awkward moments and silences. He won an Emmy for writing such scenes for "The Paul Simon Special" in 1977, where he played a TV producer who gave the show's star some very unwanted and uncomfortable words of advice.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "THE PAUL SIMON SPECIAL")

GRODIN: Now...

PAUL SIMON: OK.

GRODIN: ...There is something I'd like to say to you, and it's been on my mind. And I think that I know you long enough that you're going to take it in the way I mean it. And it just - I'd just like you to put it in the back of your mind and think about it when there is time to think about it.

SIMON: OK. Shoot.

GRODIN: The sound of you and Artie singing together is so much better than either of you singing alone. That whatever petty differences you might have had in the past, I strongly urge that you take a long, hard look at them. Just think about it.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke to Charles Grodin in 1989.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You played the gynecologist, the first gynecologist, in "Rosemary's Baby," which was directed by Roman Polanski. And you tell a really funny and also very interesting story in your book about a pause that you wanted to put in a line. Would you tell that story and explain the significance of the pause to you?

GRODIN: Yes. Mia Farrow comes to me for help and says that she feels that these witches and demons, whatever it is, are pursuing her. And at the end of this long tale, which sounds insane to me as a doctor, I'm supposed to say you may be right. And then I'm supposed to make some phone calls to help her. Well, I felt if she told me that whole story and I said, you may be right, the audience would say, like, why - it's very unlikely he'd just believe that. So when she finished the story, I looked at her for a long time as though I was considering what she'd said. And I very slowly said, well, you know, you may be right.

And then Roman Polanski, the director, leaped up and says, take out that pause. And I explained my point, that which I just made here. And he says, no, no, no, no. It's not more believable if you have a pause. It's less believable. So I really didn't agree with him. It was my first picture. And he was a famous director at the time. And I kind of did it with less of a pause. At the end of the day, I went up to him and I said, you know, Roman, I was thinking about what you said, what you told me this afternoon and, you know, something. And then I took the longest pause you can imagine. And I said, I think you're right. He says, good. That's right. That's what I'm saying. I said, did you just believe me? He says, yes. I said, but I'm lying.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GRODIN: That's what I wanted to do in the scene. And he looked at me and he - you could see he was trying to figure out whether he hated my guts or admired me. And he decided he admired me. And he threw his arm around my shoulder. He says, come with me, watch the film from the previous day. We go in, and the next day after he had time to sleep on it, he realized that he hated my guts after all. And for the rest of the movie, I said, Roman - he says, I don't care what you do, no matter what I would want to ask.

GROSS: Well, this must be a constant source of anguish for an actor deciding whether you should go with your own intuition on how to play something or go with the director's advice.

GRODIN: It doesn't really come up for me. What I - my relationship with directors that I work with - and it's been true for several years - is I like them to see what I'd like to do. If they don't like it, that's fine. But I don't really have - that was a unique problem. Generally speaking, I can't really think offhand of anyone asking me to do something that I thought was inappropriate. There was a play I was in once where they wanted me to - when the woman opened the door, they wanted me to fall into the room as though I was leaning against the door. I said, gee, I really would rather not do that. And the director said, I know that's going to get a laugh. I said, well, I know it's going to get a laugh from some people in the audience, too, but it's going to really take away the credibility that this is an actual person. It will look like an actor doing a bit. And he took my point and I didn't do it.

I mean, when people say they got a laugh, and you hear performers say this sometimes, they count it a laugh if somebody laughs. But if you have 800 people in an audience and three people laugh, I consider, like, 797 people were just bored by what you did. That's not a laugh. So the demands that I put on what's a laugh are different. But generally, my understanding with directors now is I'd like - I will have things to say. I like to try this and do this and whatever. And you be in charge and you choose and you make the judgment. And all I want you to do is to see it. And it works very well that way. Everybody - as long as it's very clear that they're in charge, the director is comfortable. And I'm comfortable because he has to be in charge. I don't want to try to be in charge. If I'm in charge, then I'll be in charge. But essentially, it's the director who's in charge.

GROSS: There have been times when you were unable to stop yourself from laughing. You tell the story in your book of when you were playing with Ted Knight, who played Ted Baxter, the newsman, on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"...

GRODIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In a soap opera, an afternoon soap opera. And you had a lot of scenes together. And every time you'd be on the set together, you just break up. Was that because of the knowledge of the absurdity of the whole program that you were doing?

GRODIN: Well, we were very good friends off screen, and we really had a lot of laughs off screen. But the real problem was that we were playing, as you do in many soap operas, a variation on one scene. And the scene was that he was my boss and I would constantly come in and ask him if Irene Forsythe, who was my mother-in-law in this show - the character's name was Irene Forsythe - if she had anything to do with me getting my job here at Forsythe Industries, which of course she did, you know. And this scene, we must have played this scene - I don't know - what? - 12 - a dozen times over a period of time. So when I'd come in and I'd say, you know, can I have a word with you? (Imitating Ted Knight) Yes, Matt, what is it? Did Irene Forsythe have anything to do with me getting my job here at Forsythe Industries? (Imitating Ted Knight) Now, Matt, we've discussed this before - and you know - and we had discussed it many times. And Ted kind of used, like, an English accent on the show. (Imitating Ted Knight) Now, Matt, I don't think this is anything we should be discussing.

And we couldn't do it. We just couldn't do it. I mean, here we are, like, two weeks later. Ted, can I have a word with you? (Imitating Ted Knight) Yes, Matt, what is it? I just was thinking this afternoon and I was wondering if - did Irene Forsythe have anything to do with me getting my job at - (Imitating Ted Knight) now, Matt - we couldn't do it. We'd just like look - oh, please don't ask me this question again. (Imitating Ted Knight) Yes. She got you a job. You stink. You couldn't get a job on your own. All right. Leave me alone, you know? But we never said that. We just kind of, like, made it another scene.

But the hardest time I ever had in a movie is something I didn't write about in the book. But you can almost see it in the movie of "The Heartbreak Kid" when I have a showdown scene with Eddie Albert and he tries to buy me away from marrying Cybill Shepherd. And I somehow get into a speech about how I was in the service and during the war and that I - to show what a tough guy I am. I say, you know, when I was in the armed forces of our country and I fought every moment for three years and I fought every moment of those three years. And the line in the script was not overseas, unfortunately, because of a minor back condition.

(LAUGHTER)

GRODIN: And I couldn't get through that scene because I was so - I fought for our country for three years, not overseas, unfortunately, because I - and I couldn't get through it. And even now, if you look at the movie, you'll see, like, at that moment, I'm like staring at the floor, like, biting my tooth off, you know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HEARTBREAK KID")

GRODIN: (As Lenny Cantrow) Look, Mr. Corcoran, I didn't come out here to negotiate for Kelly. I came out here to fight for her. I spent three years in the United States Army. I fought every damn minute of those three years, unfortunately, not overseas because of a minor back injury. But in the small Army towns of this country...

GROSS: You say that sometimes you tell a joke with such a straight face that people take you seriously. Has that gotten you into any trouble recently?

GRODIN: I think it's always gotten me into trouble. It's something I've tried to rectify. I don't know. I mean, I make an assumption about things sometimes, that what I'm saying is so absurd, it couldn't possibly be taken seriously. But, you know, people read expression more than they do content. And I've learned that. And I really don't like that. I mean, I really don't like to mislead people or to fool people or anything like that. I mean - and it's happened many times. In fact, you know, many people, you know, have been uncomfortable. I remember Warren Beatty, who's a pretty smart guy, saying to me, I don't know what - if you're kidding or not. Well, when he said it to me, it really struck me because he's very quick. He's a very hip guy. And if he couldn't tell, then, you know, what am I trying to do? I'm not trying to put something over on people. I'm trying to amuse people. If they really don't know what I'm doing, then I have to do something differently. And I do - I have in recent years attempted to not have that happen.

GROSS: Charles Grodin, thanks so much...

GRODIN: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: ...For talking with us.

BIANCULLI: Charles Grodin speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. The actor and author died Tuesday at age 86. After a break, we remember record store owner and producer Bob Koester, who died last week at age 88. Also film critic Justin Chang reviews "The Killing Of Two Lovers." And I review two new sci-fi TV series, "Solos" and "The Bite." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE MASON TRIO'S "LEMON TWIST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.