Charles Grodin Is No Longer Here (and It’s Not Nice)

The title of this post of course comes from Charles Grodin’s best-selling 1990 autobiography It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here. (31 years ago, ugh! The title quotes a remark made to him and Candace Bergen by an Englishwoman when they were on location to shoot 11 Harrowhouse, the 1974 film which Grodin had also written. He felt people were always sending him that signal, that he wasn’t wanted). Anyway, I just got the news that Grodin has left us at the age of 86, another signpost on the treacherous road to oblivion. The cause was bone cancer, but it needn’t have been. 86 is 86 — and then you’re 86ed.

Grodin had been on my mind of late because I finally got to see The Heartbreak Kid (1972) a few weeks ago. I’d gone a lifetime without having seen it. Crterion had it available, so I checked it out and I felt it was a masterpiece — the best screen version of any Neil Simon script, the best Elaine May movie, and a terrific Grodin vehicle, a rare picture of him when he was younger than 40. He’s got a small part in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but it’s just a couple of scenes (that one’s interesting too, it’s one of his rare serious roles). And he was also in the ensemble of Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970). An actor who was loved by BOTH Nichols and May cannot possibly be bad.

Grodin had such an interesting screen persona, a sort of WASPy mid-western Jew (he was from Pittsburgh). Normally he played upper middle class guys, sort of down at the mouth, uptight, mopey, a little whiney, but in a quiet way, clench-jawed, and with a sarcastic wit. The Heartbreak Kid was interesting in that he played a much more obvious kind of shlemiel. Believe it or not I think he would have been a terrific guy to play Jack Benny in a bio-pic. The key would be not to do a Jack Benny impersonation, just be himself. I think it would have worked. There are ways in which he reminded me of Tony Randall, and Albert Brooks seems Grodinesque to me. You may disagree — but really it makes no sense for you to disagree that someone reminds ME of somebody else.

Grodin’s characters were often crooks and scoundrels, but subtle, slimy, cowardly ones, the kind that stab you in the back. So many memorable performances and team-ups: the 1976 version of King Kong, the villain in Heaven Can Wait (1978, with a script by May and Buck Henry, this may have been my first Grodin movie), Seems Like Old Times (1980, with a script by Simon), The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) with Lily Tomlin, The Great Muppet Caper (1983), The Loney Guy (1984) with Steve Martin, The Woman in Red (1984) with Gene Wilder. For better or worse, he reunited with May in Ishtar (1987). Martin Brest’s Midnight Run (1988) opposite Robert De Niro hoisted Grodin up to another level of stardom — not a bad development at age 53. Then came the Beethoven comedies (1992-93), Ivan Reitman’s Dave (1993) with Kevin Kline, and the much maligned Clifford (1994) with Martin Short. At this stage he retired — who could blame him? The movies were certainly getting stupider than when he started. Then he returned for about a decade (2006-2016). I dont think I’ve seen any of those performances.

Grodin was also very hilarious on talk shows like Late Night with David Letterman, where he would pretend to be really difficult — a gag in the Andy Kaufman vein which always made for uproarious television. When he wasn’t acting, he wrote eight books! Grodin studied acting with Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg in his younger years and appeared on Broadway a half dozen times, notably in Bernard Slade’s Same Time, Next Year in 1975 (it’s too bad he wasn’t in the 1978 movie, but the producers went with the then-more-bankable Alan Alda). He also directed Herb Gardner’s Thieves on Broadway in 1974 with Marlo Thomas, appearing in the film version of it in 1977.

The headlines are all leading with Midnight Run and Beethoven today — but the Heaven Can Wait/ Seems Like Old Times Charles Grodin — that’s my sweet spot. Apparently Heaven Could Wait No Longer.