CHARLES GRODIN – R.I.P.

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/

HOLY WEEK? 1972

Cubil

Of all the weeks of the year, all of this had to happen on the week leading up to Easter and Easter itself.

Even with the name Ostertag, German for Easterday, Eastertime was always a quiet time for me. More holy day than holiday. Each one pretty much the same as all the others. But not in 1972. Never before. Never again.

It was the Guthrie dark time and I had been working the Minneapolis location filming of THE HEARTBREAK KID, the original, the one starring Cybill Shepard and Charles Grodin, for the better part of a month. Typical movie work. Bust tail for a while followed by doing nothing for a while. Long, boring hours. Sometimes have to get by with four, five hours sleep. Good food. Good money.

We had moved to a new location, heading into the wrap for filming in Minneapolis. After this one, there was only one more left and that one in St. Paul. This scene was the sex scene the cabin. If things went well, we were promised an Easter/Passover break until the Tuesday after Easter.

The log cabin was on an estate by Lake Minnetonka. We were setting up the lighting when Cybill Shepard came in and saw the interior for first time. She screamed for Elaine May, the director, and stormed out, vowing never to set foot in there again.

‘The Diva has returned,’ said the young, easy- to- dislike, gaffer, who, along with his dad and uncle, had been with the film since the start in New York. ‘Her bitching grows old in a hurry, but it makes us good bucks.’

‘Cool it, Abe,’ his dad warned. ‘ If she complains one more time about you, I won’t be able to save your job this time.’

It was Elaine May’s second time directing a movie. It was Cybill Shepard’s second time acting in a movie. May started in show business when she was three. Shepard hadn’t even been in show business a total three years yet.

Elaine May was a successful writer, actress, and a pioneer in women taken as serious comedians. She rose to fame in the improv stand-up comedy of Mike Nichols, and Elaine May. She had just finished the movie, THE NEW LEAF, which she directed and costarred in.

Cybill Shepard was a star teenage model whose cover picture on GLAMOUR magazine prompted Peter Bogdanovich to cast her in a starring role in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, the movie that made Bogdanovich into a major director and Cybill Shepard as a someone to watch, not just look at. The chemistry between the two resulted in the teacher and the student living together.

At the start of the filming Miss Shepard considered her movie fame as a sign she knew the business and tried to contradict some of Miss May’s directions. The first few weeks of filming were done in Miami and very difficult for May. Not only did she have she Neil Simon, the screenwriter, showing up on the set offering his two cents, she had arguments from her ‘star’; but they picked the wrong person to try to order around. Elaine May totally ignored Simon and warned Miss Shepard that getting a rep of being difficult to work with would damage a young career in spite of good looks and influential sleeping partners. She advised her to watch and learn from the pros in the cast, pros like Eddie Albert and Chuck Grodin.

Cybill took that advice from Elaine and caused no more problems on the set. Until the cabin episode and when May walked into the cabin she agreed with Shepard.

It was something out of a Hemingway story, not a romantic comedy. The walls were covered with animal heads, the shelves with stuffed birds, trophies from all over the world. May ordered them to be taken down and stored safely, to be replaced after the filming. Cybill’s refusal to the interior of the cabin was less artistic temperament than just common sense.

But common sense took a back seat concerning the scene to be shot in the cabin. Cybill’s contract, on the advise of Bogdanovich, stated that she would not appear in the nude. He said if she kept appearing nude in movies, it would hurt her career. Funny, he didn’t have the same concern when she was appearing nude in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, the movie he had directed her in.

Elaine said nudity was a must for this scene

They reached a compromise for this film. She would strip down to panties and bra and then a body- double would replace her. It would appear to the audience that they were seeing a naked Cybill Shepard.

Big whoop! If the body-double fools the audience into thinking that it is Cybill naked what’s the difference to Cybill’s career in the public’s mind?

Auditions for the body- double had taken place in New York and Miami as well as the Twin Cities. They were conducted by Erik Lee Preminger, an assistant of May. Preminger only recently took the name of Preminger as his own. He never knew who his father was while his mother was living and she forbade his father, movie director Otto Preminger, to let it out that he was the father of her son. Once she died though Otto claimed the boy as his.

Erik grew up in the wings of theaters watching his mother do her strip routine. It was second nature for him to scout for the body- doubles in strip joints. It was also his nature to brag about his casting couch routine. He had weeded the girls down to four and saw to it they were ready for their turn in front of the cameras.

The action took place in the darkness of cabin, with the two of them lit, supposedly, by the flickering of the flames from fireplace they were standing in front of. In the background the flames flashing against the log wall added to the romance of the scene.

Now the only way the fireplace flames can be controlled to suit the mood and the camera is not to have a real fire. You use a fireplace effect machine. A rotary spit with ribbons of gel filters flipping in front of the glow of a lamp, The spit is a few feet off the ground. The lamp lower. Properly placed it creates the effect of a small fire flickering. The actors stand in front of the machine and are softly illuminated by the false fire from the fireplace.

The spit is hand- turned by a gaffer laying on the ground by the actors’ feet.

‘That’s my job,’ young Adam declared.

‘In your dreams,’ his dad declared. ‘Don, you’re the effects turner!,’ he said pointing at me.

HB Kid.jpg

So late afternoon of Monday of Holy Week I found myself on the cabin floor turning the fire spit while a few feet away Chuck Grodin and Cybill Shepard rehearsed their lines and movements. There was a lot of laughing and joking between the two. At first they only pretended to take their clothes off; but once they got the lines delivered to the satisfaction of the director, they hastily undressed, or partially undressed, stopping at boxer shorts and panties and bra. Over and over. A few short breaks and then a long break for dinner while Elaine watched the video rushes of the scene. She would watch the film dailies later in the evening.

Back on the floor for me. More of the same. Finally a wrap was called and we were told the time of the call the next day.

The day started with a few lighting touch-ups for electrics while the actors got their notes from the director and then back on the floor for me. Only now when Cybill got down to panties and bra a time-out was called and a naked body-double took her place – a few feet in front of me. Over and over. Down to panties and bra. Exit Cybill. Enter the body-double.

Eventually a lunch break was called; but before we left the cabin, Cybill had something to say.

‘Elaine,’ she said loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Do you know why all these people are in here? Some aren’t working. Just staring. If they are not needed I don’t think they should be in here. We’re not putting on a strip show for their benefit. I don’t want any gawkers in here!’

Elaine agree and gave the order only the essential workers would be allowed in the cabin. The others would be close to a radio in case they were needed.

At lunch I sat next to Hollywood, the other gaffer from our Local. We compared how are our day was going. He told me, doing nothing, except playing poker in the costume designer’s RV. He said he was tired of losing. I told him what I had been doing and I told him I was bored working the scene, over and over. He asked if I wanted to change places. I jumped at the chance. He smiled.

At supper break he said he wasn’t bored in the least and gave me some baloney about how much he was learning about movie making. I said told him I was more than happy to go back to the poker game. I would not want to disrupt his education. And I was expanding my education also. I was learning when one of the players was serious, bluffing, or just hoping. And I was ahead of the game.

 

I now more than got out of the mess tent when I heard someone calling my name. I turned and Cybill was behind me, chewing her bubble gum. There was a lot of smoking by the cast and crew but Cybill chewed bubble gum instead. She played with her gum. She snapped her gum. She blew bubbles with her gum. Her gum was ever present when she wasn’t in front of the cameras.

‘When I said I didn’t want all those people in the cabin, I want you to know, I didn’t mean you,’ she said. ‘I mean… you were working.’ She laughed. ‘And your face was so red. I don’t think it was from the FX. Trying so hard to be a gentleman and not peek. See,’ she pointed out, ‘Red just like now.

‘But I hollered because that turkey from New York was in there. Just watching. What a pervert! We caught him peeking in the window when we were doing the motel scene. I wanted him canned at that time, but his dad promised that the creep would behave.

‘Anyway, you coming back to work in there?’

‘No,’ I told her. ‘Not unless they tell me to. I got a hot seat in a poker game. But thanks for the clarification.’ I turned to go but she stopped me.

‘You’d rather play poker than watch me in the sex scene!’

I shrugged my shoulders. ‘Only when I am winning.’

‘Wait! Wait!’ she said holding up a finger. She started to blow a bubble. And continued. And continued. It was an impressive bubble. The kind that would win a ribbon at a county fair. It hid almost all her entire face.

Then she stepped forward, right into me. And she made sure the bubble hit my glasses…and burst. She laughed, stuck out her tongue, and ran away, leaving me to clean up the mess she made on my glasses.

As much as I wanted to be mad at her, I couldn’t. I had to admit it was a good prank on me. Bet it wasn’t the first time she played it. I was just thankful none of it got in my hair.

When we broke for the day, it was very late. We knew the four body-doubles were finished and thought the next day would be just putting everything in the vans and trucks until the next week. But Elaine had other plans though. She had one more body-double. It was Cybill Shepard’s stand-in.

The stand-in had been hired locally for the Twin City filming. Nice girl. Quiet. Somewhat shy. A student the U of Minnesota. When she waiting to be used, she always had a text book in her hands. She had politely hinted to Cybill that she would like a chance at the extra work. It would pay a full semester of school for her.

The stand-in had been present for all the cabin work and knew exactly what to do. It took only three takes. One for practice. One for the shot. One just in case. She was selected as the body-double. Preminger was left with four angry women on his hands.

We wrapped everything as fast as we could. That four day break sounded like a short trip to heaven.

I had called home before I left the location and my sweet wife had a steak dinner ready for me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t so much hungry as I was tired.

When she poured me a second cup of coffee she set the pot down and took my glasses off my face. ‘There’s something stuck on the frame’ she said.’ Looks like gum. How did you get gum on your glasses?’ she asked removing a small spec with her fingernail.

‘Long story,’ I answered.

She felt my forehead after she replaced my glasses. ‘You don’t feel hot, but your face is sure flush. Better get some rest. You’ve been putting in a lot of hours.’

‘Good idea!’ I said.’ Finished eating and headed for the bed; but on the way, I stopped off long enough to get wet in the shower, promising myself to do better later.

No problem getting to sleep. Bam! I slept twelve hours straight. Woke up and ate some pancakes. No meat on Good Friday, the holiest day of the Church year. Those twelve hours of sleep were such a pleasure, that I went back to bed and got ten hours more. But not before I took a long, long shower.

The first four days of Holy Week!

Panties and bra. Cut. Bring in the nude.

See you and raise you a buck.

The fifth day was indeed a day of rest for me. And a long, long shower.

Two more days to go in Holy Week 1972. No way would the last two compare with the first four.

But- if there is one fixed rule in Show Business, it’s this: The show must go on, but everything else is Subject To Change.

Wrap for now. More to come.