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A Steady Intensity: Charles Grodin, 1935-2021

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Charles Grodin in a still-frame image from "Midnight Run" (1988). Universal Pictures

If the best comedy is essentially very serious, or has a very serious basis, then that explains the career of Charles Grodin, an uncommonly intense and all-around uncommon performer who had his own unsettling point of view and style. His eyes burned with need and lust and outrage, and he never needed to do all that much on screen to get across what he was feeling and thinking. Grodin always seemed to be smirking, but this also felt like a protective measure, and he could be hilariously rude and nasty on screen and flagrantly insincere without ever losing audience sympathy.

Grodin is a figure of and for the cinema of the 1970s. Like Alan Arkin and the recently departed George Segal, Grodin had a manner that matched the neuroticism and self-obsession of that decade and also the breaking down of limits and prejudices that could allow an unambiguously Jewish sensibility to be the center of films without any softening for the WASP masses.

The son of Orthodox Jewish parents, Grodin grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and as a young man he went to New York to study acting with Uta Hagen at the HB Studio and later Lee Strasberg. Grodin began working in the theater as an actor, a director, and a writer, and he also began to gravitate toward comedy and the improv world. He claimed to have turned down playing the lead in “The Graduate” (1967) and came to prominence instead as a doctor in “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) who at first seems like he is going to help the embattled heroine. This was an initial sign of Grodin’s ability to suggest decency and weakness struggling against each other, and he was never vain about showing just how weak he could be.

He worked with Mike Nichols, the director of “The Graduate,” in a role in “Catch-22” (1970), and then he collaborated with Nichols’s former improv partner Elaine May for the lead part in her “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972), a great and extremely disturbing movie with a script by Neil Simon that was transformed by the way May emphasizes unexpected things in the narrative and controls the performances of Grodin, her own daughter Jeannie Berlin, and Cybill Shepherd. 

Grodin’s Lenny Cantrow has married Berlin’s Lila because he wants to sleep with her, an old-fashioned convention that leads to what that old-fashioned convention so often did: remorse. Grodin excruciatingly charts Lenny’s rising panic as he realizes that he cannot stand Lila’s behavior, and May makes Lila just obnoxious enough so that anybody might identify with Lenny’s feelings of being trapped every time Lila mentions how they are going to be together for decades. So when Shepherd’s blonde dream girl Kelly starts talking to Lenny on the beach, we can all feel his excitement at this opportunity and his go-getter American attitude that allows him to do some very fancy moral math to win Kelly and extricate himself from Lila while he is still on his honeymoon.

Simon had wanted to cast Diane Keaton as Lila, which of course would have made for a very different movie. May could have made it easier for her audience and for Grodin if she had portrayed Lila as more appealing and given Kelly some more obvious hard edges and flaws, but May really wants to sink a deep knife into this classic comedy plot so that we can feel just how ghastly it is while also never losing sight of the fact that Lila is not someone you want to be guilted into spending your life with.

At the conclusion of “The Heartbreak Kid,” Grodin’s Lenny has dared and dared as recklessly as possible and by most American standards he is a winner, so why does it feel in the end that he has lost everything, even if May is also a brutal enough realist to make us realize that it is also well lost? The sadness of “The Heartbreak Kid” is all there in Grodin’s desperate energy and rising bravado and then that letdown when he gets everything he wants and finds himself trying to talk to small children and justify his own total lack of character. If Grodin had done nothing else, he would be remembered for the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t Lenny in “The Heartbreak Kid.”

There were gaps in Grodin’s film work after that, but he played an exploitative oil executive in the remake of “King Kong” (1976) and co-starred in a treasurable TV movie written by Louise Lasser called “Just Me and You” (1978), in which he listens to Lasser’s steady drizzle of absurdly neurotic chatter and looks as if he is about to explode at any moment; he gets big laughs when he starts to tease her many foibles in a way that is so gratuitously mean that it feels exhilarating and also somehow deeply romantic. A movie like this about an epic female bumbler and her seething male straight man would have had no other chance of being made or released in any form at any time except the 1970s. (This key Lasser movie is not readily available, unfortunately, but can and should be found if you look around a bit.)

Grodin’s steady intensity then turned up in the most unexpected place: as Nicky Holiday in “The Great Muppet Caper” (1981), in which he plays love scenes opposite Miss Piggy that are so filled with what feels like real anguish and need for her that his desperation has a memorable force, especially in a sequence at a fashion show where he confesses his love to her and Miss Piggy folds in her snout as if genuinely taken aback. Grodin kisses Piggy on the neck and then holds her in place and says, “Don’t put a door between us” in a voice so low and impassioned that it feels like he is ready to do a lavish sex scene with her if only Kermit didn’t come on the scene and interrupt them.

Grodin’s second most notable credit in the 1980s was a two-hander opposite Robert De Niro in “Midnight Run” (1988), a movie in which the rather similar tension and anxiety of the two main actors somehow added up into a kind of chemistry. Grodin also worked for May again as a CIA agent in “Ishtar” (1987) as a support to Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, and he began to get moved into these types of supporting roles just like Alan Arkin and George Segal were at this time.

But Grodin kept up a steady presence on television and played around with what he could do as a mock-angry talk show guest on “The Tonight Show.” In the 1990s, he even hosted a talk show himself, and this felt right because it seemed like there was never a moment when Grodin was not somehow playing the role of Charles Grodin, and that role could travel practically anywhere, even into the sentimentality of the “Beethoven” movies, which revolved around a sad-faced St. Bernard as deadpan and Dostoyevsky-an as Grodin himself.

In the 2000s, Grodin decided to be mainly a stay-at-home father to his children. He wasn’t seen too often after that, but Grodin is one of the more worrying and unaccountable figures of the 1970s because he always played everything exactly the same: with the sort of aggrieved, dead-ahead beta-male strength that can only have been borne from deep disillusionment, rage, and helplessness.

Dan Callahan

Dan Callahan is the author of "Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman" and "Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave." He has written for "New York Magazine," "Film Comment," "Sight and Sound," "Time Out New York," "The L Magazine," and many other publications. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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