In Praise of Charles Grodin
I’m sorry to report on the passing of my good friend, mentor and frequent benefactor Charles Grodin. Most only saw his public persona, over the past 40 years I had a rare glimpse of his private person as well as generosity of spirit.
For example, not many are aware that he overturned the Rockefeller Laws in New York State. Charles asked me to help produce segments for his show on CNBC. Along with his daughter Marion Grodin, his long time friend John Gabriel, and his chief executive assistant Clay Dettmer, we scoured the streets of Manhattan on behalf of Chuck.
|The kind of look he'd give if you asked if |
he was going to finish his french fries.
Our mutual friend Luana Anders had passed away, and Chuck called me up and asked what I was doing. I said I was working on directing my next feature film. He said "Come and work in my show and create segments, man on the street interviews." I said "I can't."
But after hanging up the phone I remembered when I called him to appear in my film "You Can't Hurry Love." He could not because he was doing a film "The Couch Trip." But after saying no, he called back and said "Will this help the film get made?" I said "It will." He said "Let me know what day I need to be there."
So I called him back and said "Will this help you and your show?" He said it would. I said "I'll be there Monday, but I can only give you six months." He said "Great."
So for six months, me and an NBC camera crew would talk to students outside Columbia University, tourists in Times Square, people in front of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, or in Grand Central Station (if it was raining.)
I often would stake out Grand Central Terminal on inclement days, Times Square on sunny days – and was surprised to say that for the 6 months I worked on the show, got to know all the security folks in both venues. I’d show up with a camera crew and we’d do segments like “Ask Chuck” – where I’d stop people on their way to the trains and have them ask Charles a question.
“Chuck, why are there so many potholes in Manhattan?” People played along – asking him a host of unusual questions, sometimes comedic, sometimes not. "Chuck, is OJ guilty?"
At the beginning Chuck had the idea to have me appear as a "Hollywood correspondent." (Note the tie). But in the segment that was supposed to be filled with gossip, I never had any. Chuck hated gossip, hated vanity in general, and considered it to be a lower form of discourse. So the joke was that this Hollywood rube would go to movie premieres and report... nothing.
Some viewers thought he was mean to me on camera. Elaine May told Chuck she thought it was hilarious.
Sometimes I would appear on the show in a comic segment before the first guest. I had been doing it for a number of years, different topics, when Jerry Seinfeld complained that I was on "before" him - which ended my appearances altogether.
One day Chuck asked me if there were any programs in the prison system that were helping prisoners. It sounded like an interesting topic, so I reached out to the head of state prisons in New York to see if there were any programs that helped people to get back into society. That took me up to Wallkill, NY where they have an eyeglass factory inside the prison, and a farm behind it which took care of thoroughbred racing horses “put out to pasture.”
In a series of shows, I had one prisoner say to me “In a few months I’m going to be sitting next to you on a subway. Let me ask you, would you prefer someone who learned how to be a better human or a better criminal?” Then while filming a man taking care of a racehorse in a barn, he said “I’ve never been responsible for any other living thing in my life. This horse depends upon me to live, it’s given me the will to live as well.”
Charles was incensed by the Rockefeller drug laws in the state that incarcerated wives or girlfriends of drug dealers for “transporting drugs.” He worked tirelessly to end them, and was cited by Governor Pataki for doing so.
After I left the show, to return to Cannes with our film "Cannes Man" (which I took over directing; Francesco Quinn, Seymour Cassell, and Rebecca Broussard and myself are in it). I told Chuck the following story and he invited me and Rebecca onto the show to retell the story. Rebecca has two children with the actor Jack Nicholson, and was the celebrity in Cannes, and worked on three films with me ("Point of Betrayal" "Cannes Man" and "Camera - Dogme #15").
His show moved the show to MSNBC, and I still made contributions when I could from Santa Monica.
Initially, I had suggested James Van Praagh come on the show after seeing him on Larry King - and see if we could chat with our mutual friend Luana Anders, who was subsequently no longer on the planet (and for fans of the Flipside movie and books, was the inspiration for my research into the flipside).
In this segment, Chuck had me call in from my home in Santa Monica. James Van Praagh didn't know I was going to call in, but Chuck arranged the producer to give a direct line, so he could take my call.
The idea was that both Chuck and I knew Luana well, and it was a live experiment on TV. No one has ever explained how accurate it was - but the key moments are when Van Praagh mentions a photo on my fridge and a "cocktail glass collection."
People give me Martini glasses all the time - and she was showing them to him, but also referring to a photograph on the refrigerator. That photo - when I put it up, I said aloud "Oh, look, the essence of our relationship - cappuccinos and cookies."
I never told anyone I said that. And here he was saying essentially the same thing. Live on camera.
It was in that moment I realized beyond any shadow of doubt I might have had, she still existed.
My journey to Chuck began when I began dating his long time pal Luana Anders. They’d appeared in a movie “Sex and the College Girl” with Chuck’s also longtime pal John Gabriel.
Some years later, after Luana and I were dating, Chuck was doing a film in Mexico when Luana went down to see him and mentioned she was “dating a film student at USC.” He was surprised that someone would leave a new dating partner to see an old friend. "That's what friends do, Chuck." He never forgot that and mentioned it often.
She explained to me that Chuck was a very private person, that I shouldn’t be offended by not being invited to meet him – he only had a coterie of close women companions. (Ria Nepus, Luana, Frances McCain).
Then one day Luana and I were dining at the restaurant above “Pink Taco” that used to be the Player’s Club in the 40’s, a trendy nightclub Roxbury in the 90’s, but “Imperial Gardens” in the 1980’s. Chuck sauntered over to our table and said something funny – like “Oh, so this is the man you’ve been hanging out with behind my back?” To which I replied, “That’s funny, I was about to say the same thing.” And whatever he said, I repeated back to him as a comic challenge. He must have enjoyed the repartee because he invited me over to their soirees.
Which included things like “shooting hoops” in a trashcan with rolled up paper for two hours. Chatting about whether or not hordes of invaders could rapidly climb the Hollywood hills, and whether saving the life of a drowning fly was important. (That turned into a children’s book he wrote “Freddy the Fly” after he saved one in the pool.)
That began a 40 year friendship. He and Luana and I traveled together - stayed at Steve Martin's home in Santa Barbara, stayed at Chuck's summer rentals in Amagansett, which included trips to see his pal Paul Simon. Later after Luana's passing he would fly my family to a resort he was staying with his family - and it was more laughs until the wee hours.
Once he asked if I would mind escorting his wife and son on a trip to Rome. He was concerned someone who spoke the language was on the trip - but for me it was just another amazing gift of generosity from Chuck - we stayed at a ritzy hotel, dined at fancy restaurants, and it was truly the trip of a lifetime.
He called me up one afternoon and invited me to Morocco. He flew me over first class to the set of the film Ishtar where I spent two weeks hearing Warren Beatty do killer imitations of Roman Polanski, got to hang on the set with Elaine May and Vittorio Storaro (who I met via Luana at her frequent Thanksgiving trips to the Coppola family home in Napa) and even helping Chuck find antique Moroccan rugs that are still in his home.
He loved to tell the story of the negotiations - where I would grab hold of the rug dealer's leg and not let go until he gave me a discount after begging "pleeeeeze." (Don't knock it until you've tried it.) In fact; allow me to let him tell the story:
Here's the introduction he wrote for me for my second book "It's a Wonderful Afterlife."
Wow. That's some foreword. Thanks Chuck.
|Our frequent trips of nirvana in Chuck's backyard|
pool in CT. Olivia, Sherry and RJ
Chuck was whimsical. At one point, he put statues of animals hidden in the woods behind his house. He had a drive built so one could take a golf cart and spend 20 minutes tooling around the yard, and run into these exotic animals. Then he added voices to them - so when one drove by and clicked a clicker, his voice would come out in various accents.
An English Elephant. Irish Monkeys. (Jason Bateman did a guest spot as the monkeys). A giraffe. A talking horse (sounded a bit like Wilbur). Chuck would delight in his nephews, nieces holding on for dear life, then stop abruptly in the woods and an animal, barely visible would speak to them. Shock. Awe. Laughs. Tears. Just one of the most whimsical things I've ever seen or heard. Dave Patlak and I worked on painting the giraffes - I did my Mondrian version of a paint job, was promptly fired and replaced by someone who knew what a giraffe looked like.
Never a cross word between us. Cross words for those who used their power over others, who abused office, abused people, made fun of people or even told off color jokes - wouldn't have it, never catered to it - and he dropped people like a hot potato if they ever insulted, mocked or abused someone he loved.
Chuck was generous, hilarious, a lightning fast wit, and the idea that I could make him laugh was pretty much my career credit for a number of years.
When I started directing feature films, I wrote a part for him in my first film - the comedy “You Can’t Hurry Love” – and the studio Vestron leaped at the opportunity to "put give him an upfront screen credit." (Along with Sally Kellerman and Kristy McNichol) Then when it came time to film his scene, he said he could not, as he was in the midst of filming “Couch Trip” with Walter Matthau and Dan Aykroyd.
But a few minutes after saying he couldn’t, he called me back to ask if it was "important to making the film." "Is this a favor?" I told him it was, and he then said "Fine" and asked me when he needed to show up.
The scene as the father to a video date was shot in one take. He showed up on the set in a studio driven vehicle from the other film, walked onto the set, sat in the chair, I yelled action and we filmed the scene in one take. I may have done two takes or a closer shot just to make sure it was covered - but after I yelled "Cut" he jumped up and went back to the set of Couch Trip.
But Chuck was generous to many people behind the scenes.
Most aren’t aware that it was his suggestion to Lorne Michaels that he consider two actors he’d met on a film he was in – Phil Hartmann and Jon Lovitz. That Lorne was at his wedding, that the concept of his being "banned" from SNL was ludicrous as he talked to Lorne for many years after his appearance. The "feud" with Howard Stern was unfortunate - I was there, and Chuck could not get over that Howard had disparaged his family on air. That was something he could not forgive (even though apparently Howard has, as reportedly yesterday he spent 15 minutes praising him.)
He took personal interests in people - and personally assisted or helped the people he helped get out of jail.
He worked behind the scenes, went up to prison to meet with them, and literally dragged me along with him on at least one occasion.
It’s not the way I would choose to spend a Sunday afternoon, but Chuck’s ability to feel compassion towards fellow humans was boundless. Going through security checks, guards shouting commands, doors locking and closing, the fear or general angst on people's faces - all behind concertina wire and bars.
(I want to point out that his family has suggested any donations to be made to his favorite charity: https://innocenceproject.org/ He was passionate about it. Worth checking out.)
So what’s to be said about a friend who was such a light in my life?
Here’s a clip of him taking me on the Merv Griffin Show and claiming that my aura made others feel happy.
I would suggest that was him – it his aura that made everyone happy. Just browse through the posts on twitter for the hashtag “#CharlesGrodin” or “#ChuckGrodin.” He made a lot of people very happy. I am so dumbfounded that I got to know him and love him along with his family - and my family got to know and love him as well.
And I think the love will continue as long as we have a means to watch his films, watch his TV shows or hear his voice.
Thank you Chuck. We hope to catch you on the flipside if not "in the next lifetime."
Here's a lovely article in the LA Times that captures a bit of his spirit from the equally hilarious, charming son of his, Nick.
|This photo fell off the wall in our place. |
I put it back in place the night before he
passed. He got this swing so our daughter Olivia
could swing in it. Happy couple.
Charles Grodin, activist, author and actor who made grouchiness cool, dies at 86
By Michael Ordoña Los Angeles Times
“Charles Grodin, the urbane actor who made his roles as a curmudgeon seem cool, died Tuesday at his home in Connecticut of bone marrow cancer at age 86, leaving behind a catalog of memorable performances and a legacy of lasting activism.
Known for leading or co-leading classic comedies such as “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Midnight Run” and for ruthlessly stealing scenes in “Heaven Can Wait,” “Dave” and “The Great Muppet Caper,” Grodin cultivated a screen persona that mined his own discomfort for laughs. He extended that to his many talk-show appearances, in which he seemed uncomfortable and even reluctant to be there — all an act, according to his son, Nick.
“That was a comedy persona he adopted for when he would go on talk shows,” said Nick Grodin, who confirmed his father’s death to the Los Angeles Times. “He didn’t think it was very interesting to just go on and say, ‘Oh, I’m in this movie coming out,’ so he adopted this comedic persona where he would be angry. A lot of people did not think it was a joke. I think Johnny Carson really appreciated it.”
As renowned as the actor’s filmography was, his son said his advocacy work, especially regarding criminal justice reform, is what really drove him.
“There were a few women in particular who he worked tirelessly to get out of prison and were sentenced under the Rockefeller drug laws in New York. When the Rockefeller drug laws were reformed, Gov. (George) Pataki cited him, and I know he was incredibly proud of that,” Nick Grodin said of three inmates granted clemency by Pataki in 1999.
One Twitter user hearkened back to Grodin’s interest in politics and social issues, relating that he once attended a “Midnight Run” Q&A at which the actor spoke at length about criminal justice reform before taking questions.
Charles Grodin was born in Pittsburgh on April 21, 1935. Despite his droll sophistication, he never graduated from college, dropping out of the University of Miami to pursue acting and study with Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen in New York. He appeared on Broadway and in several TV shows in the 1960s and had a small role in “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1968. He also co-wrote and directed a Broadway play, “Hooray! It’s a Glorious Day ... and All That,” and directed the 1969 Simon and Garfunkel TV special “Songs of America.”
Nick Grodin said, “I know he was proud of the Simon and Garfunkel special he directed, because it has to do with human rights and social issues that were not very popular (on TV) at the time.”
The actor broke through to mainstream success in 1972 with his leading turn in “The Heartbreak Kid” and starred in films through the ’70s and ’80s, including “Seems Like Old Times,” Albert Brooks’ ”Real Life” (one of the first mockumentaries) and the much-maligned “Ishtar.”
Surprisingly, Grodin never won a major acting award. He did collect an Emmy as part of the writing staff for another Paul Simon TV special in 1978, “The Paul Simon Special.” He scored an Outer Circle Critics actor prize for the stage run of “Same Time, Next Year,” which racked up 1,400 performances. He also wrote a number of books along with and a New York Daily News column that ran for nearly 10 years.
He hosted a talk show on CNBC (“The Charles Grodin Show,” 1995-98) that dealt with the social and political issues of the day.
“It wasn’t just like he would have someone as a guest on his talk show and then move on; it would become a lifelong journey for him where he would hold onto it,” his son said.
“One particular case was a boy named Brandon Hein in California, who was sentenced to life under the felony murder law. His dad came and stayed at our house, and it became a lifelong thing.”
Indeed, Charles Grodin wrote and directed a play about the case, “The Prosecution of Brandon Hein.” In 2019, Hein was granted parole.
Celebrities took to Twitter to express appreciation for Grodin as the news broke.
Steve Martin tweeted, “So said to hear. One of the funniest people I ever met: Charles Grodin, Star of ‘Beethoven’ and ‘Heartbreak Kid,’ Dies at 86.”
Marc Maron tweeted, “RIP Charles Grodin. One of the great cranky comedic geniuses.”
Patton Oswalt tweeted, “RIP Charles Grodin. Ordering a plate of chorizo and eggs in his beloved memory,” a reference to a gag in “Midnight Run.”
Actor-writer-director Albert Brooks tweeted, “R.I.P. Charles Grodin. A brilliant comedy actor. I had the wonderful experience of working with him in my first feature “Real Life” and he was amazing. Rest In Peace, Chuck.”
Comedian John Fugelsang tweeted appreciation for all the scenes Grodin stole in his movies, including a quote from the man himself: “Everyone is having a harder time than it appears.”
Of his father, Nick Grodin said, “He said to treat everybody the same, and that’s something I’ve watched him do. He would treat everybody the same, whether it was the president or whether it was somebody washing dishes. I really respect that.”
He said his father also instilled in him a deep love of the Knicks, the Mets and the New York Giants. He remembered his father throwing a football with him in the backyard.
“He was just always there for me for whatever I needed. Anything, anything. He was just incredibly loving.”
Grodin is survived by his wife, Elissa, daughter Marion, his son Nick and a granddaughter, Geneva.”
One last note about The Fun Patrol.
Chuck appointed me a member of The Fun Patrol. These were a small group of people who Chuck could call day or night, with an issue or problem, and they'd make him laugh. Perhaps not intentionally but they would get him to laugh.
Dave Patlak, a lifelong friend is a member of the Fun Patrol - Chuck loved his persona, his attitude towards life, and often rang him up for life advice. Seriously. Dave, a psychiatrist's son, who joined the Coast Guard, is that kind of a guy - nuts and bolts for both life and psyche.
Other members were before me - Jack Warden (from "Heaven Can Wait") Harper Simon (Paul's son.) Over the years, friends of his would joke, or I thought they were joking... "How do you get on The Fun Patrol?" It was just one of Chuck's comedic genius bits.
Like "Hutch Saxony."
Chuck invented this persona who was a "songster" in the 60's who had disappeared in Australia in the outback. But rumors were that he had reappeared. He went into a recording studio with Paul Simon, dressed in sunglasses and a hat, and sang three songs - all off the cuff - all words made up as he heard the soundtrack for the first time.
Some years later, Chuck called me and appointed me his manager. He wanted me to arrange for studio time to "cut some tracks" again. Paul Simon had given him the number of Grammy award winning producer Russ Titelman, and Russ - not knowing what Paul was talking about, or who he was talking about - took my calls about arranging studio time for Hutch Saxony.
I had a list of demands. A "full court fress." Which is Yiddish for "lots of food on the table." We negotiated over minor details - if there was going to be turkey, chicken, or something like egg salad. Memos were faxed back and forth. Then Luana and I, Hutch's entourage showed up a sound stage in North Hollywood with Russ Titelman producing, and an engineer who had worked with him on Rickie Lee Jones' records (I think - may have worked with Sinatra as well) being the console.
Chuck walked in wearing a giant floppy hat supplied by Luana and dark wrap around sunglasses. "Are you ready?" We said "Yes," and the track began and Chuck sang three songs back to back - ones he'd not written, to music he'd never heard.
And they were hilarious.
Russ and I have become friends since then - and still laugh about it.
The engineer would cue up a track, switch on the microphone in front of "Hutch" and he would sing an improvised song. "My Dog" is one I remember and is hilarious - and I hope to figure out how to unzip it from the file I have to post it one day soon. But "Hutch" just began singing a soulful whimsical song about a guy and his dog on the beach. And it was heartbreaking - and completely improvised.
Chuck used to send long and involved lawsuits to his friend Paul Simon over some "slight" that had occurred during their last meeting. "To the party of the first part, with regard to eating the last pickle in Charles Grodin's refrigerator on Sunday of last month." The lawsuits were pages upon pages of legal mumbo jumbo, written up to look frighteningly real - and then Paul's attorneys would send over a reply. Documents detailing how Mr. Grodin was hoarding the pickles, and that he had promised said pickle with sandwiches, and Mr. Simon was under no obligation not to eat the pickle. I saw them - they were also wildly fun.
Chuck kept a wall of notes in his living room. From Johnny Carson, from Jack Paar, from those who got his sense of humor and could write a witty remark. They were thrilling to see, because they always were fun or funny and about his wit.
He loved SCTV - the sketch artist show from the comedy group in Toronto. He would tape sections of Martin Short, John Candy and others and share them with his friends. I have a stack of DVD's from him with his favorite bits.
The man knew comedy, shared comedy, was comedy. I can't imagine anyone else like him gracing the planet. All I can say is I'm glad to have met him, known him for 40 years.
Here's one note that Chuck sent to me, while I will forever cherish.
|Me, Chuck, Jack Warden and Harper Simon were|
charter members of the "Fun Patrol." People you
could call night or day for a laugh.
I once got a call from Chuck while working at Warner Brothers for Robert Towne. Robert had just heard some bad news, and it was accompanied by a glass Perrier bottle that flew across the hall, and smashed against the wall while we were on the phone.
I said "Well, that's a novel way to dispose of a bottle." Chuck laughed and I became a member of the Fun Patrol on the spot.
So whenever you can - when the chips are down, when people are saying something annoying, acting annoying - try to think "What would Chuck say?" Would he find it amusing? Would he fight for injustice? Would he smile an enigmatic smile and wait until the storm clouds parted? Perhaps all of the above.
The world is a better place for his having been in it.
My two cents.