The Week (US)

The actor who specialize­d in the droll and deadpan

Charles Grodin 1935–2021


Charles Grodin had a talent for walking the line. Over a six-decade Hollywood career, the actor played a succession of grumpy, prickly, and self-important characters. And somehow, Grodin made them likable. He was the caddish newlywed who falls for another woman while on his honeymoon in 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid—the character is “a despicable guy,” Grodin said, but “my job isn’t to judge it”—and an uptight accountant who’s embezzled millions from the mob in 1988’s Midnight Run. He found his biggest box office success playing a vexed dad opposite a bothersome Saint Bernard in Beethoven and Beethoven’s 2nd. But some of his greatest performanc­es were delivered on late-night talk shows, where his deadpan routine as a petulant, perpetuall­y disgruntle­d guest left many viewers uncertain what was shtick and what wasn’t. “It was a joke,” Grodin said. “Carson and Letterman knew it was a joke, but I don’t think the audience did.”

He was born in Pittsburgh to a homemaker mother and a father who sold “zippers, buttons, and hangers to cleaners, tailors, and dressmaker­s,” said The Hollywood Reporter. He became fascinated with acting after seeing the 1951 film A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor and

Montgomery Clift. “I developed an overwhelmi­ng crush on Elizabeth Taylor,” Grodin said. And Clift made acting look “pretty easy—just a guy talking.” After a period working at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, he made his way to New York City, where he studied acting while supporting himself “as a cabdriver, night watchman, and postal clerk,” said The Washington Post. Grodin landed a smattering of stage and TV roles before being cast in the Broadway comedy Tchin-Tchin in 1962, alongside Anthony Quinn and Margaret Leighton. His movie breakthrou­gh came with The Heartbreak Kid, which “showcased his dry, sometimes bumbling comic style.” “Grodin was a writer as well,” said The New York Times, “with a number of plays to his credit.” He hosted his own talk show from 1995 to 1998 on CNBC and made some 36 appearance­s on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and more than 40 on David Letterman’s shows. After learning that Bette Midler had won a 1992 Emmy for best appearance on a talk show, Grodin mused that he’d missed his best chance for a statue. “I didn’t know you could get nominated as a guest,” he said. “That might have been my category. I would have taken some ads out.”

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