Actor, Author, Director, Talk Show Guest Extraordinaire, Talk Show Host, Political Activist
And a Great Guy to to be around
In the spring of 1972, Charles Grodin was filming The Heart Break Kid, his first starring picture. He had had a great many small parts in TV and two small roles in movies. He played an inept buffon who turns into a rapist/murderer in Catch 22 and he played the doctor who delivers the ‘Baby’ in Rosemary’s Baby’. Hardly roles that foretold his future as a fine likable comic actor.
In that same spring, I had the pleasure of working for a month or so on the film portion of Heart Break Kid that finished the filming in Minneapolis after filming the first half in Florida. Up until then, I only had a little filming experience in a few TV ads, a local documentary, and two days working a car chase in Slaughter House Five. None of which foretold of the fun I had in spite of working the long hours, the exhausting labor, having to work under three jerks from the New York film local… fun because Charles Grodin brought a great sense of humor and reality to the proceedings.
Charles greeted everyone that came on the set the first time, shaking their hand, asking their name; and he never forgot their name, or failed to talk to them. When things got rough, Charles lightened things up, sometimes with intellectual humor, sometimes with a little corn.
For instance, one day after a hard rain, I was laying out heavy electrical cable, slogging through the mud. It was one of those times I wished I was back home at the Guthrie, which was dark for several months, in spite of the big bucks earned working the movie. Charles walked by and stopped and watched for a bit.
‘Just remember, Don’, he said and he burst into singing, There’s no business like show business’.
I flashed him a one finger salute and he laughed and went on his way still singing the song, ‘They smile when they are low…’
He played to a much larger audience when we were filming the marriage scene. It took place in a small church and the actual minister of the church performed the fake marriage. He thought that being in a movie would be fun. The ‘guests’ in the church had answered an ad asking for extras. They thought being in a movie would be fun. The cast and crew knew different; but we were being paid, they were not.
Elaine May, the director, was in a ‘Cut! Take it again from the top’ mood. After a few cuts, the minister looked at his watch and the audience gave a collective sigh of ‘oh no, not again’.
After another cut, Charles spoke to the guests. ‘See, folks, this is how movies are made. Sometimes filming a scene of a movie marriage lasts longer than some real Hollywood marriages.’ The crowd laughed and settled back. The minister looked at his watch. And Elaine said ‘Take it from the top.’
After a couple more takes we heard the welcome words, ‘That’s a wrap.’ The guests began to leave and the minister looked at his watch again. This time he smiled.
But Charles wasn’t through. ‘Folks. Folks,’ he said, and the guests sat back down. ‘I wanted to explain that our minister isn’t an actor but the actual pastor of this church. And the reason he kept looking at his watch is because in a short time he has a rehearsal of an actual wedding that will take place here on Saturday. He was getting nervous we wouldn’t finish up in time and he also realized that if he flubs his lines at the real wedding, nobody is going to yell ‘Cut. Take it from the top.’ The guests laughed.
Oh,’ Charles added, ‘He also wants you to know that you are welcome to stay and watch the real rehearsal.’ That got a big laugh from both the ‘guests’ and the minister.
Charles was a god- sent for Cybill Shepard. This was only the second movie for Cybill. Her first movie, The Last Picture Show, propelled her into a circle that was totally different from her successful teenage modeling career.. Plus she didn’t have her mentor, and current lover, Peter Bogdanovitch, holding her hand like in her first movie. He wanted to come along with her, but Elaine May said no way. It was also Elaine’s second movie as a director and she didn’t need Bogdanovitch interfering.
In her first movie experience, A New Leaf, she was screenwriter, director, lead actress, and had Walter Matthau as her costar and hand holder. It was critically praised and a tough act to follow.
The only true movie vet in the cast was Eddie Albert. Although his acting background was more in TV than films, he had been nominated for an Oscar seventeen years before. (He would receive and another Oscar nomination for his brilliant performance in Heartbreak Kid.)
Eddie was not on the set when he wasn’t in the scene being filmed. During off hours Eddie was busy catching up with old friends from his college days at the University of Minnesota.
Eddie was more than happy to help Cybill with her acting, but she needed someone to help with her insecurity about acting…and life in general. She was only four years removed from high school. This is where Charles and his humor saved the day. He always managed to get her to relax before a scene by cracking jokes. He also found time to listen and advice her.
And Elaine May was no stranger to his method of easing tension. Both Elaine and her former partner in the great improv- comedic duo of Nichols and May, Mike Nichols had been so impressed when they saw Chuck Grodin on Broadway, that they both used him as soon as they could. Nichols in his Catch 22. May in her Heartbreak Kid.
Both of these roles were great risks to him because of the dark character he portrayed and could have poisoned him with the public and future producers. He took them both in gratitude to Nichols and May for believing in him.
Elaine May soon discovered that not only did he have the talent needed to create his character, Lennie, as a jerk, who would not alienate the movie goers, he was also a wonderful friend to work with. He always seemed to know what to say and when to say it.
The key grip had been involved in the Florida filming. He told me how in the first few days, the screenwriter, Neal Simon, a celebrated veteran of stage and screen, thought he was the last word in this film and tried influence May’s decisions and methods. And also, Peter Bogdanovitch, via phone to both her and Cybill, tried to influence how Cybill should act in her role and how Cybill should be treated.
Elaine stood up to both these men and told them to butt out. And Charles spoke up and backed her ultimatum to these two pests. His actions against these two influential men could have hurt both his movie and his stage career. But he did what he thought was right.
Mission accomplished. Elaine was left to direct her movie and guide Cybill in such a way as to get a fine performance from her, and helped the young actress develop confidence in herself.
Charles Grodin went on to a successful career in movies. Robert De Niro, his costar in Midnight Run, praised Grodin, not only as an actor, but as a funny intellectual person that improved the movie with his suggestions and ad libs. He credited Grodin for making the film a success. And the two became life long friends. I imagine a great many who worked with him agree with De Niro.
Charles excelled in many more fields in the Arts and as an advocate for Human Rights. Sad to say I never had the pleasure of working with him after Heart Break Kid. I would have jumped at the chance to work with him again.
And now we have lost another fine human being who enriched our lives, but left us a fine legacy of his accomplishment… and for lucky ones like me, good memories of having known him.
R.I.P. Charles Grodin.
You can read more about the filming of Heartbreak Kid, in my blog post https://donostertag.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/holy-week-1972/
I wish some of our politicians had as much integrity to stand up for what is right as Charles Grodin did.
Don, this was a delightful story of Charles. Your words painted a wonderful picture of him. I feel like I know this intelligent and funny man who did the right thing and cared about his fellow workers. Thank you for the real, behind the scenes story. Clearly he was one of the best. I’m glad you two got to rub elbows.
Thanks, Jeannie. He was so much fun to work with. There’s a lot of ‘seriousness’ by people in the business and it gets to you, especially in long tough hours. I am sure your little ‘students’ enjoy your smile much more than a frown.
The Charles of the world make a big difference. Fun and humor can be powerful because they pierce the heart. There are so many hearts out there that need to be pierced. Sometimes all it takes is a big smile. I learned that long ago in teaching. That’s another great story. Yes, they enjoy my smile, and they need it. Growing up is hard. Thank you, Don.
He sounds like a great chap Don, that’s a lovely tribute.
I am so glad I got through my feelings about the man. Thanks, Fraggel
Your stories add humanity to people we only see as faces on a cinema screen. I always liked to imagine Charles was a nice person, so it is extra special to have that confirmed. Thanks, Don.
Best wishes, Pete.
Your perception of Charles were right on the button, Pete.
Thanks, Don….I have always enjoyed reading the stories behind the stories. Grodin was a fine actor and a funny guy….one of those who could put a little salt and pepper into a scene, movie or talk show, and get a laugh that lightened the moment. DeNiro is one of the great American actors of all time, in my humble, especially his latest film with Scorcese, “The Irishman.” To be one of DeNiro’s friends is to be a “made” friend 🙂
Yup, Tom, I certainly agree with you on both Grodin and DeNiro. I confess I have not watched all of Grodin’s film, but I make it a point to watch all of DeNiro’s.
Very interesting post, well expressed. Beyond that, I have nothing to add to the previous quality comments, so I’ll close with thanks.
And thank you,
RIP Charles. Good narrative asusal from you.
Thank you, Saree
I like this guy. He seemed like a really fun person to around. But I never knew any of his history.
“Rosemary’s Baby”!!?? This is off topic Don, but I have funny story about that movie. It was showing on a Double Bill in town with another movie called “If”. I really wanted to see “If” and didn’t care about “Rosemary’s Baby” at all – which I thought was a Love story. So I talked a buddy of mine into going – hoping that “If” would be showing first and then we’d just leave. No such luck. “Rosemary’s Baby” was up first. So we’re sitting watching this … and after a while I’m thinking ‘This sure is an odd Love story. AND it just got odder and odder. LOL! After a bit I’m just about crapping my pants and I’m really embarrassed for talking my friend into going to this thing. It finally finished and had to apologize to him. Then we watched “If” – still a favorite movie of mine.
So many great anecdotes Don, and some of them so funny to read as you giving the finger, to Grodin, as something I haven’t told you, I worked for sixteen years at a shop in Santa Monica,CA that was a heaven for props crews, and many actors will come by to shop for gifts, met many of them, and talked with not a few, and have not a few anecdotes of my own about my encounters with actors, directors, or the many big shots who used to patronize our business, before the old owner died, and their successors did not kept the business going after for too long, it was a shame, the place was unique, I may not have retired if the place was not closed for good.
Great fun to read you as usual, Don. 🙂
Wow, sixteen years in what sounds like a great prop shop. I bet you do have some great stories to relate. Not what I would have thought of you after reading your great blog. I would have thought you were a college professor.
In fact I studied a Bachelor of Science, I never worked on anything related, because I did it abroad, I needed to accredit those studies here, and I did not have the time, or the money to do it, already with a family to support.
Although I have many friends who teach at college.
So I did all kinds of jobs, some not so much to my liking, this last one I really enjoyed, and met many actors, and famous people, maybe not as many as you did, since I only worked there for the last sixteen years , before I retired, possibly I still would be there if the business wasn’t closed for good.
The business was a kind of a gift, and antiques business, combined with the sale of expensive novelties, and luxury items for collectors, by people of means, and we had a repair shop for antique objects, and that is why the props crews, of the film studios were visiting us frequently, looking for objects for the sets, according to the period of the film, or for getting something repaired.
As for the actors visiting us. a lot of them live in the area, and they have the money, to buy the expensive items we used to carry.
Also the place was a place where people liked to hang around, just to chat, or be seen.
Yes, I have some great memories of the place, it was nice to work there. 😊
I know about accrediting college credits. I took a good many classes from several colleges and one professor figured I had earned a Masters; but like you things like supporting a family got in the way.
I just watched the trailer twice. How hilarious! “The current temperature in Minneapolis is 2 degrees below zero”. Haha, probably true. And the cabin clip is in there too. I love the way at dinner Grodin is trying to pitch himself to her father and all the while Shephard is chewing on a toothpick. She probably had her gum in there as well.
It takes talent to come across inept and comedic. I only did acting in school, and all comedies, and the first rule was “believe that what you are doing is totally serious and rational”. It’s the audience’s job to laugh, not you. Not always easy!
It is a very funny movie.
‘Don’ Don, you have so many beautiful stories, and it’s always lovely to know that some of those stars were kind and good people – walking angels who never allowed fame to alter who they were.
I chuckled about you working in the mud; I remember digging out an old canal once – by hand with a shovel, and a neighbor drove by, paused and suggested, “I can throw you a rope and drag you through a mud hole and it might be more fun.”
Another neighbor scowled at me and stated, ‘Lisa. That’s what we pay people for,” and I replied, “Yes, but I LIKE doing this!”
Bet the neighbor scratched his head over that remark.
I am glad you enjoyed my post, Miss Z.
It is so wonderful to hear these stories. The Heartbreak Kid is a classic im yet to see but of course I know Grodin from so many films later on. Very special you were on that set with so many talents early in their careers. Of course I adore Midnight Run, just a perfect movie. Grodin is so good in it.
Glad you liked it, Lloyd. Heartbreak Kid is fun to watch. I never watched the Ben Stiller film of the same name.
The only thing noteworthy about that is it kicked of Making Akerman’s career.
Although to be fair I haven’t really seen that one either.
I like read this ages ago but have finally gotten around to commenting. 🙂
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Fabulous post I loved reading it. Charles sounds like fun to be around. Coincidentally I did an online evening course last week ‘clowning’ sounds odd for a singer but I have plans for the acting, mime and movement. It was even better than I thought it would be, if I’m not thinking about it I make people laugh in general conversation, if someone asks me to be funny or tell a joke 😬 freeze!
Love the idea of you studying other aspects of presentation. While singing is the basis of opera, good acting enhances the production.
The acting profession comes with all types. Some are smoldering-eyed heartthrobs like Brad Pitt, and some are fine dramatic actors like Jack Nicholson. The comic actor sits uncomfortably between them, never really getting his due. This is unfortunate, as the ability to laugh is one of the hallmarks of what makes us human.
Another fun read from you, Don, with all those interesting inside details. I smiled at the NY jerks part, having lived in the city for many years. You wrote a fine tribute to Grodin!
Thank you Miss Blue.