There are certain actors whose appearance in a film or television show – no matter how brief – prompts an immediate sense of not just delight, but relief. Charles Grodin was one of those actors, and the relief came from the knowledge that whether what you’d seen before was good or bad, it was going to get better for however long he was there. He was, in many ways, a throwback to the personality-driven character actors of the 1940s; he could have been a member of the Preston Sturges company, alongside Franklin Pangborn or William Demerest. Over the years, whether on stage, film, television, or talk shows, he developed and perfected a specific persona, and it was so well defined that all he had to do was appear, and you’d laugh. His glare was uproarious. He got bigger laughs with his pauses than his lines.
Few knew that the Pittsburgh native, who died Tuesday, was classically trained, studying for three years under Uta Hagen in the late 1950s, or that he first came to fame on the Broadway stage during the Kennedy administration. His big break was alongside Anthony Quinn in the 1962 Broadway comedy “Tchin-Tchin”; he also originated the male lead in “Same Time, Next Year,” and directed two Broadway productions as well (“Lovers and Other Strangers” and “Thieves.”) He did episodic television, TV movies, and specials (winning his only major award, an Emmy, for co-writing “The Paul Simon Special” in 1977, alongside Lorne Michaels, Lily Tomlin, and several “Saturday Night Live” vets), and spent several years in the mid-1990s hosting a political talk show on CNBC. He spent much of his time after that show’s cancellation in semi-retirement, though he continued to pop up on David Letterman and Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk shows, where he played the crank so convincingly that some wondered if the line had blurred.
For many of us, he’s just always been there, a constant presence in popular culture, wielding his dry wit and deadpan delivery as his most potent comedic weapons. And yet his presence wasn’t that constant, particularly with regards to his film career, which veered from prolific to erratic; he’d headline one film and take a scene-stealing supporting role in the next, and moved unexpectedly from ubiquity to scarcity, appearing (for example) in eight studio comedies between 1990 and 1994, and then disappearing from the cinema altogether for a dozen years thereafter. But he left behind a handful of unforgettable screen appearances, all of which are worth noting and celebrating.
“The Heartbreak Kid” (1972)
His pronounced prickliness makes it hard to think of Grodin in terms of sexiness, but he did have the looks – particularly at this point, in the early 1970s – to plausibly play the leading man. Yet there was always something slightly unhinged about him, lurking just under the surface, that made him an odd fit for those conventional roles, and that’s what made him perfect for the title role in Elaine May’s magnificently uncomfortable comedy; you genuinely can’t imagine anyone else in the role, much less anyone else pulling it off. “I was to play a young man who meets a beautiful blonde on his honeymoon and leaves his wife for her, and it was supposed to be funny,” he wrote in his autobiography “It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here.” “Well, it could be funny to a lot of people, but I felt that to many others – mostly young women – it could be something other than funny. How about scary or hateful?” And yet Grodin, May, and screenwriter Neil Simon resisted the urge to pull their punches, embracing this most unsympathetic of characters and using Grodin’s connection with the camera to make him… well, not sympathetic, exactly. But he communicates a slight edge of menace and unwavering impatience with his new bride so effectively that you almost understand where he’s coming from, and the things he’s doing in his face and eyes during the wedding night post-coital scene, realizing the giant mistake he’s made, make this some of the most slyly effective acting of his career. (He hits similar notes, with equal aplomb, in Albert Brooks’ “Real Life.”)
“Heaven Can Wait” (1978)
Few actors were as good at swooping into a comedy and stealing scenes by the handful with their mere presence; witness what Grodin does with a few scant seconds of screen time in “So I Married an Axe Murderer.” Better yet, watch his uproariously funny turn in Warren Beatty and Buck Henry’s “Heaven Can Wait,” a remake of “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (co-written by his “Heartbreak Kid” director, Elaine May). The picture is ostensibly an angelic romantic comedy with Beatty as a quarterback snatched too soon by an overzealous angel, and therefore dropped into the body of a millionaire – but whenever Grodin is onscreen, as a lackey having an affair with the rich man’s trophy wife (Dyan Cannon) and plotting his death, it’s like we’re watching an altogether different movie. And it’s a funnier one too, a zany screwball comedy in which his nervous sleaze is a perfect comic match for Cannon’s broad charms. (He performs comparable hit-and-run miracles in “Seems Like Old Times,” “Ishtar,” and “Dave.”)
“The Great Muppet Caper” (1981)
Countless stars have played opposite The Muppets over the course of their 40+ years of films and television shows, but few threw themselves into it with as much reckless abandon as Mr. Grodin. Co-starring in the felt troupe’s second feature film as Nicky Holiday, the ne’er-do-well brother of a fashion icon (Diana Rigg) who is secretly a high-tech jewel thief, Grodin plays the role absolutely straight, never tossing the audience a wink, even though he’s sharing the screen with a frog, a bear, and whatever the hell Gonzo is. But plenty of their human guest stars did that; Grodin tops them all by playing Nicky’s lust for Miss Piggy to the very hilt, conveying with every longing look and strangulated line reading that he is absolutely, positively horny for his swine co-star. Grodin was so committed to the bit, in fact, that he continued it 30 years later, penning a sweating valentine to Piggy for Vulture (“The hell with society’s standards, this woman was attractive!!!”). And perhaps this is just a testament to the potency of his early training. No matter how ridiculous the situation or silly his co-star – Piggy, “Beethoven,” “Clifford” – Charles Grodin was always present, and always committed.
“Midnight Run” (1988)
Grodin’s most substantial film role since “Heartbreak Kid” came in a film that was a bit of a miracle: a late entry in one of the wheeziest sub-genres of the 1980s, the buddy action/comedy, opposite Robert De Niro, a great actor who was (at that time) not exactly known as a laugh riot. But these things all came down to chemistry, and surprisingly enough, Grodin and De Niro had it in spades. Grodin is quietly perfect as Jonathan “the Duke” Mardukas, a Mob accountant turned government witness who skips bail to save his own skin; De Niro is Jack Walsh, a former cop-turned-bail-bondsman who scoops the Duke up and has to haul him across the country, dodging hitmen, feds, and competing skip tracers while exhausting all available forms of transportation. “Midnight Run” hit theaters about six months after the similarly travel-impaired “Planes, Trains, & Automobiles,” and hits many of the same beats: an ‘Odd Couple’ comic dynamic that gives way to an unexpected warmth and mutual respect. In his rave review, Roger Ebert wrote that Grodin “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.”
“While We’re Young” (2014)
Grodin’s quiet return to acting after his self-imposed exile was mostly confined to television guest shots and brief supporting roles; this turn in Noah Baumbach’s generation-gap comedy/drama was probably his most substantial. Appropriately enough, he plays a bit of a legend: a widely respected, Wiseman-style documentary filmmaker puzzling out his complicated (okay, tortured) relationship with his son-in-law (Ben Stiller), himself a documentarian of notably lesser stature. Grodin’s performance is a small model of dramatic tension; he’s never trying to be cruel or discouraging, but everything he says just comes out that way, wrapped in a thin sheen of shrugging disapproval. (Or maybe Grodin just saw Stiller’s “Heartbreak Kid” remake.) In that role, as in the best of the work in this late period – which also included a recurring role as a no-nonsense doctor on “Louie” and a memorable turn alongside Al Pacino in Barry Levinson’s “The Humbling” – he conveys the kind of ingrained wisdom that can only be acquired over a lifetime, but since we’re talking about Charles Grodin, a resolute impatience exists right alongside it.
A few more Grodin treasures worth watching as well: his fine work in the all-but-forgotten “A Christmas Story” follow-up “It Runs in the Family”; his delicious villain turn in the 1976 “King Kong” remake; his lovely supporting performance in the high-concept tear-jerker “Heart and Souls”; and his blistering appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and David Letterman’s NBC and CBS shows – all as much a performance as any of his film work, and often just as funny.