Charles Grodin, who has died aged 86, was a likable, adaptable comic actor who enjoyed sporadic success as a leading man in the American cinema of the late 20th century.
Different generations will identify the actor with markedly distinct roles. For those young enough to be coming of age in the early 1970s, Grodin will forever be associated with Lenny Cantrow, the impossibly romantic protagonist of the Neil Simon-penned, Elaine May-directed The Heartbreak Kid (1972).
As May intuited, this was a role that depended heavily on Grodin’s innate relatability. As written, Cantrow is a callow fool: keen to hasten his needy sweetheart Lila (Jeannie Berlin) into bed, he races into marriage, only to spend his honeymoon experiencing the marital equivalent of buyer’s remorse after running into blonde-haired, blue-eyed Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) at the beach.
Yet sharp writing and skilful ensemble playing pried a universal truth – that some people can never be happy – from this vaguely misogynist, borderline farcical scenario. Grodin was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, demonstrating an ease with Simon’s snappy dialogue that bolstered two further collaborations with the writer: Seems Like Old Times (1980) and The Lonely Guy (1984).
Multiplex-goers in the late 1980s, however, will best remember Grodin from the enduringly lively buddy movie Midnight Run (1988), in which his weaselly accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas is offered reluctant protection by bounty hunter Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) after embezzling $15m of Mob money.
Too raucous to ever be as formulaic as it sounded, the film became one of that year’s big summer hits – grossing $81m off a $15m budget – and subsequently passed into circulation as a staple of the post-watershed TV schedules, often with some of its fruitier language overdubbed.
Like its ever-mobile principal characters, the film took a circuitous route into cinemas and cinephile hearts; Grodin only hopped aboard the project late on. Robin Williams, the emergent Bruce Willis and even Cher had been considered for the Mardukas role, and the cast and crew that were finally assembled found themselves pushed to the limits by director Martin Brest’s perfectionism.
Yet somehow it came together, as Roger Ebert noted in his review of the time: “What Midnight Run does with these two characters is astonishing, because it’s accomplished within the structure of a comic thriller... It’s rare for a thriller to end with a scene of genuinely moving intimacy, but this one does, and it earns it.”
Even the generally taciturn De Niro, whose insistence on Method accuracy left Grodin with scars for life from the steel handcuffs bonding Mardukas to Walsh, found praise for his co-star, no matter that it sounded somewhat like a backhanded compliment: “The way Chuck Grodin is, it worked. His character was irritating and Chuck knew how to do that… I felt like that was a good way to go.”
Essentially, Grodin was building on what the Washington Post critic Hal Hinson, writing about the previous year’s Ishtar (1987), had described as “a sort of inspired spinelessness”, a quality that informed many of the actor’s best performances.
Yet he was already 50 by the time Midnight Run emerged: balding, too old to play the action hero for long, and unwilling besides. Anyone too young to sneak into the 18-rated actioners of the late Eighties had to settle instead for watching Grodin as George, the paterfamilias of the dog-loving Newton clan outwitted by a slobbering St. Bernard in the implausibly successful Beethoven (1992) and Beethoven’s 2nd (1993)
These were cheap and cheerful family fare, heavy on the slapstick, laser-targeted at the established global audience of pooch lovers: the first movie gobbled up $150m worldwide, the second only slightly less. The role really demanded no more of Grodin than to settle amiably into knitwear and submit to facefuls of doggy drool on a semi-regular basis.
With his pension thereby topped up, he subsequently took a step back from his acting commitments, retreating to his Connecticut home to write and pursue other interests, not least raising an actual family: “I wanted to be at home. My son was six or seven years old when I stopped doing movies in 1994. I thought it was time to be there.”
He was born Charles Grodinsky on April 21, 1935 into Pittsburgh’s Russian-Jewish community, the youngest of two sons born to wholesalers Theodore and Lena (née Singer) Grodinsky. He studied at the University of Miami, but left before graduating, moving to New York to study acting at the HB Studio under the tutelage of the influential Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen.
He made his screen debut in an uncredited role as a drummer boy in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), but he spent the bulk of his first decade as an actor working in TV. He landed a recurring role in the ABC serial The Young Marrieds (1965), and supplemented it with appearances in such shows as the Western spin-off Shane (1966), and televisual mainstays The FBI (1967) and The Virginian (1967).
It was around this time that he was approached by director Mike Nichols with an eye to playing Benjamin Braddock in the upcoming screen adaptation of The Graduate (1967). After serious consideration, Grodin passed on the opportunity, believing himself not quite right for the role – and consoling himself with the thought he could earn more money in television than he ever could making movies.
Nevertheless, the movies continued to court him. His turn as the concerned obstetrician Dr. Hill in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – inadvertently placing Mia Farrow’s heroine in the care of a Satanic coven – and his deft work as the socially climbing creep “Aarfy” Aardvark in Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970) finally landed him on the Hollywood radar, and he was travelling in good company.
While filming Catch-22, Grodin was introduced to Art Garfunkel, who asked the actor to direct the Simon and Garfunkel TV special Songs of America (1969). Blending musical numbers with newsreel reflecting on the ongoing Vietnam War, the show was both a controversy – causing sponsors AT&T to withdraw their support, and block subsequent reruns – and a ratings success. (In later years, Grodin would win an Emmy as part of the writing team on 1977’s The Paul Simon Special.)
Established as a polymath of sorts, Grodin managed to resist typecasting in the wake of The Heartbreak Kid. He made a splash on the chat show circuit as an (intentionally) irascible presence, displaying comical contempt for Johnny Carson’s questions, starting amusing rows with David Letterman, and making a funny show of sinking a 1977 episode of Saturday Night Live by acting completely ill-prepared.
On the big screen, he was the nefarious oil executive in the remake of King Kong (1976), attempted something more naturalistic as one half of a separating couple in the talky dramedy Thieves (1977), and was happy playing second fiddle to Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait (1978).
His strongest role in this period came as the vet who grants a camera crew all areas access to his family’s home in Albert Brooks’s ahead-of-its-time satire Real Life (1979). Less auspicious was the action-comedy Sunburn (1979), where his seedy private investigator was comprehensively outshone by then-ascendant co-star Farrah Fawcett-Majors, modelling a range of skimpy costumes.
Grodin’s Eighties output remains fondly remembered. He started the decade with The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), Joel Schumacher’s genderswapped riff on the Richard Matheson novel, featuring Lily Tomlin in the lead; he was the villainous jewel thief romancing Miss Piggy in The Great Muppet Caper (1981); and he made a rare onscreen appearance without his toupee as the suicidal schlub Steve Martin befriends as The Lonely Guy (1984).
Loyalty to May and Beatty was the motivation behind signing on for Ishtar (1987), a notorious flop at the time – recouping just $14m of its $55m budget – although one subsequently reassessed by critics as a sporadically inspired misfire. Some of the dissatisfaction Grodin came to feel with Hollywood around this time fed into the genial trio of memoirs he penned in the years leading up to his early retirement: It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here (1989), How I Get Through Life (1992) and We’re Ready for You, Mr. Grodin (1994).
Nevertheless, he was eventually tempted out of seclusion, popping up in the Zach Braff vehicle The Ex (2006), an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2012), as a droll doctor on Louie (2014-15) and as father-in-law to Ben Stiller – who succeeded him as the Heartbreak Kid in the mid-Noughties remake – in Noah Baumbach’s wry culture-clash While We’re Young (2014).
More books followed, the titles getting longer and more self-deprecating – Freddie the Fly (1993, an offshoot of his parenting duties), I Like It Better When You’re Funny (2002), If Only I Knew Then (2007), How I Got to be Whoever I Am (2009), Just When I Thought I’d Heard Everything (2013) – as did the satirical play The Right Kind of People (2004), described by The New York Times as “a portrait of the pettiness of the rich defending their real estate”.
He remained busy to the last, assuming new roles as a CBS radio commentator and a humorous columnist for the New York Daily News. In a 2005 interview, he maintained “My number one goal is to be helpful… the other one is to amuse.”
He is survived by his second wife, the author Elissa Durwood, and their son, the actor Nick Grodin; and by a daughter, Marion Grodin, from his first marriage to Julia Ferguson.
Charles Grodin, born April 21, 1935, died May 18, 2021.