Prime Chuck: Charles Grodin makes a rare appearance at the Mahaffey

The living legend premieres his comedy act outside the Tri-State area on Nov. 13

These days, the 76-year-old Pittburgh native puts all of his energies toward mentoring and seeking justice, human rights and helping the less fortunate. He lives in Wilton, Conn., with his wife, Elissa.


His son, Nick, is a strapping athlete who towers over his dad and works for HBO Sports. Grodin beams and brags about the 24-year-old, whose emergence into the world prompted Grodin to take a long hiatus from showbiz in the '90s and most of the '00s. He also shared that Nick would be visiting Hong Kong with his girlfriend this month, but he himself hates to travel. Chuck likes to stay as close to home as possible, working tirelessly as an advocate for non-violent offenders with unjust prison sentences, as well as people with physical and mental challenges and others in need.


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Grodin visits the bay area for the one-night-only live chat, An Evening of Humor and More with Charles Grodin, at the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg. The show has received rave reviews and is his first engagement outside his gigs for charity in New York and his Connecticut home state. Expect witty and entertaining anecdotes in Grodin’s inimitable comedic style as he discusses his rise from living in a hovel that was “upgraded to homeless shelter.” He also shares his favorite film clips from both his movies and others, including tidbits like the long-held myth that he turned down Dustin Hoffman’s role in The Graduate. Tickets are $30 and $45. For more info, visit mahaffeytheater.com



Here's are some portions of a pleasant, if at times rambling chat with the ever-easy-going Charles Grodin ...


CL: Your books seem to have an undercurrent of helping others ...


CG: The best one, I didn’t actually write. I produced it and put it together. It’s called If I Only Knew Then ... Learning from Our Mistakes. It’s 82 essays — plus one by me — from people of achievement who talk about the mistakes they made and what they learned from them. People like Sen. Orrin Hatch, Mario Cuomo, Paul Newman. What’s really interesting is that when you make a mistake, you don’t know you’re making it generally speaking; you just don’t, or otherwise you wouldn’t do it, and sometimes it takes you years to realize, “Well that was a mistake.”


Did you always want to be an actor?


I was originally heading in the journalism direction when I attended the University of Pittsburgh. Then I started to think that one day some editor is going to tell me to ask somebody something I don’t want to, like when Piers Morgan asked Amy Winehouse, “How did you feel when you heard your daughter.”


What inspired you to go into showbiz?


I saw A Place in the Sun starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, and developed an instant crush on Elizabeth Taylor. I looked at Montgomery Clift's acting, and he made it look like it’s so easy, so I decided on the spot that I could be an actor. I could do this.


What was your experience as a struggling actor and what do you wish to impart to aspiring actors?

It’s a bumpy road, but my goal wasn't to be rich and famous. I just wanted to be good at what I did. I didn’t really take note that I was living in a room with window, no bathroom, no stove. It’s since been upgraded to a homeless shelter! My physical surroundings and circumstances didn’t bother me. The rejection and abuse started at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. I thought they were foolish. Why would you make fun of a beginner? I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, and I wasn’t going to learn it there.


Then I moved onto famous New York acting coaches. I would ask Uta Hagen, “Why are we carrying imaginary suitcases? Why are we opening imaginary windows?" I had no idea — I’m not a wise guy. I really meant the questions. She was really angry at me. It was like an insult and I didn’t mean it that way. In my experience, opening an imaginary suitcase or window or Lee Strasberg’s thing, taking an imaginary shower, you might be really good at it, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be an actor or ever get a job. I think they’re focusing on the wrong things. The value of studying for 8 years is that I got so used to being in front of people, and it’s where I’m most comfortable — the exact opposite of the normal thing, where people would be, the last thing is they want to do is be in front of people, to even raise their hand at a meeting to ask a question. People like Johnny Carson and David Letterman they’re basic only comfortable in front of people on stage, and that’s what happened to me too. I don’t have the normal nerves.


Helen Hayes — I don’t know if it’s literally true — but she used to throw up before every performance. If I were like that, I would have gone into another field. There’s got to be something where you’re not going to be that stressed out about it. … It does take a long time to build up enough confidence to feel comfortable. Even when I’ve done movies with established people, I could see them trembling in front of the camera. To me, the reason they hadn’t spent enough time just basically mastering the dialogue. I mean if you have to worry about what your next line is, then you probably will be nervous. You should know the dialogue like 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. Most people don’t have the patience to just drill that. It’s not how you’re going to act it — it’s so you know what it is, like the alphabet, and I found that only Robert de Niro and Ellen Burstyn to go as far as I did, just to get the words out so we didn’t have to think about them. And your question was, did I think it was going to rain later. This is what it’s like to talk to me! (Laughs)


A guest on your talk show inspired you to help non-violent offenders convicted to serve out unduly long prison sentences. Which guest was it?


Judge Jerome Marks. He passed away recently in his mid-90s … made me aware of a pregnant black teenage girl in Harlem, and very often with these cases there was no mother, no father — almost always, no father — she was staying with an uncle, a guardian, and one day he says to her, somebody’s going to knock on the door, just hand them this envelope. Well, she did. They arrested her and sentenced her to 15 years to life in prison. Marks got involved and that gave me the idea to help people who are in prison who shouldn't be there. Because I was in show business, I had access to officials they didn’t, and once I brought cameras to Bedford Hills correctional facility and filmed four women, and all of them got clemency after I showed the interviews to the elected officials. It wasn’t a drug deal; none of these women had criminal backgrounds. [In one case, a woman was delivering money for cash, and though she was a non-violent offender, she got 20 years to life. That case helped get the Rockefeller drug laws reformed.]


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It must be impossible to work the criminal justice part of your life into your material.


I’m not going to talk about any of this during my show. To say this is not humorous, is putting it mildly. I want the audience and anyone reading your article to understand that [the show scheduled at Mahaffey] is all comedy. It runs around 80 minutes long. I first did something like this in Pittsburgh in the early ’80s and a reviewer said, “After 80 minutes, one could only wish for more.” That’s what you want, leaving people, saying, “God, I want more.” Half of the show is film clips, of me and Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno — all from word one to the end, comedy.


As well as your movies, you became well known for your talk show stints on late-night TV? What do you think of the new generation of talk show hosts, like Stewart, Colbert and Fallon? Would you ever reprise your shtick?


No. I did Jon Stewart once when I was getting a book out, but I stopped doing the act on talk shows because I belatedly realized, even after several friends cautioned me, that people aren’t going to realize that I’m kidding. It was all a joke. But when you’d see me on there you’d think, “This guy is really disagreeable; this is a guy with a chip on his shoulder.” I once came out on David Letterman and was acting like I didn’t know the camera was on me and yelled backstage, “I was told I’d be paid for this!”


Any chance for a Midnight Run sequel or working with De Niro again?


They called me and asked if I I’d be interested in doing the sequel and said they were going to send me the script next week, and that was about two years ago, so I would doubt it. The project with Robert De Niro I'm writing now [for De Niro] would be something completely different. I haven’t even told him about it yet. I tend to write things and wait to see how they get on afterward. I’m just forming the idea now of what it’s going to be.


Have you two gotten to be good friends since working together on Midnight Run?

Yes, we have. He used to come up to visit me but I haven’t seen him in a while. He lives in Manhattan, and even though I have a place in Manhattan I’ve never stayed there. I used to visit for afternoons but I don’t anymore. My son lives there now, so I don’t want to intrude on him. I like Connecticut; I like where I am. Fairfield County is gorgeous. I really appreciate being here. I was friends with Paul Newman. He lived in this area. You can see why.


With celeb-savant Alex Fischetti
  • With celeb-savant Alex Fischetti
So, how are you doing with this social networking thing?

We’re just starting a Twitter thing for me because I have a mentee whose book I’m attempting to sell. He asked me if I would do this and I said I would. It’s up right now. CBSGrodin. I’m not going to be Twittering about how I just took a shower and going to have some dinner now. I just want to get the word out about his book and about social issues.


Alex [Fischetti] has Asperger’s syndrome. It’s a mild form of autism, and one of the characteristics of it is an obsession, and his obsession is celebrities. He’s just obsessed with celebrities. I took him with me to prison once to visit a woman I was working with for three years to get out. He was sitting there very politely listening to our whole very serious conversation. There was a pause at one point, and out of nowhere he said, “I really feel that someday I will meet Annette Bening” — and that became the name of his book. If you go to www.alexcelebrity.com, you find out how you can buy it for $8. So, I’m trying to promote his book. It’s only about 50 pages long, but it’s very interesting because you never know what he’s going to say next. He’s truly unique. He’s not your boy next door. … I’m not a doctor and people have different attitudes about how you go about these things. I have two mentees, and he’s one of them. I’d like to see him get a job. He’s working as an usher for AMC in Vero Beach now. I think he should be working for AARP Magazine because his real gift is talking to older celebrities. He knows more about them than they can remember, and your average professional journalist isn’t going to be head over heels to talk to Ernest Borgnine, but he is. He’ll talk to Robert Wagner and say, “I’ll never forget your performance in The Poseidon Adventure.” The older stars aren’t used to hearing that.


What do you think of some of your younger co-stars, such as Jason Bateman?


Jason Bateman [from The Ex] is a favorite of mine. I’m friends with him. You know, he’s Paul Anka’s son-in-law. We stay in touch. I’m not really familiar with people who are the new stars now. I’m just focusing on other things. I particularly like this fella who’s a bit much for people — Ali G on HBO. I’ll just watch the same thing for 25 times, Ali G or old musicals. They’re my favorite diversions. Sometimes there’s another person in the shot and I like to see their reaction. … I’m actually friends with — he’s in his late 80s now, and I believe he was the co-director of An American in Paris — Stanley Donen. He’s the boyfriend of Elaine May, who’s a good friend of mine. I was just with them recently at a Q&A after a showing of The Heartbeat Kid.


For the jokes in your show, do you play off your insecurities or neuroses at all, like other comedians?


The humor is just from true stories of my career progression. I’ll talk about being a writer for Candid Camera working on the Simon & Garfunkel specials.


So, where does that nebbish thing come from?

Well, I just got cast that way. The first time was in Rosemary’s Baby, and I didn’t even audition. I looked like a drawing on the wall of what he thought her doctor should look like and that was it. I just got cast in those roles. … One of the things I don’t do is watch myself. That’s a good idea if you’re an actor is not to watch yourself. I’m going to be checking out the film clips for the Mahaffey. ... I would rather watch Fred Astaire sing “A Fine Romance” to Ginger Rogers in Swing Time.


You play an accountant in two movies.


My brother’s an accountant, but I’m not an accountant at all in life. I’m not aware of money going in or out, which is probably not a good idea. … There are people who say I should make money, so it’s a concession.

Is it true that you turned down the lead in The Graduate?


I knew you were going to ask that! No, I didn’t turn it down! I wasn’t offered it. Regis Philbin’s book has a mention of it in there, and it’s not true. Everybody believes that Washington crossed the Delaware, but that’s not true. Everyone knows he crossed the Allegheny in Pittsburgh! No, that’s not true. That’s a joke! No, I did not turn down The Graduate.

click to enlarge Charles and Elissa Grodin - Westchaster News
Westchaster News
Charles and Elissa Grodin

  • Westchaster News
  • Charles and Elissa Grodin

As mob-accountant-on-the-lam Jon Mardukas in Midnight Run, we see Charles Grodin at his most Charles Grodin. On the surface, he's a sneaky, neurotic, self-serving fugitive. "The Duke" irks and gives chase to Jack, his bounty-hunter captor, Jack (Robert De Niro), but eventually endears himself to him, subtly revealing that he's a stoic survivor with old-fashioned gentility and a therapist's knack for healing wounds from the past.

Grodin revealed in a recent CL interview that in many of those key scenes — where the chemistry between him and Bobby D nearly sizzles off the screen — that the two actors completely improvised their dialogue. It's no wonder. Though he will downplay it, Grodin is the master of the mysteriously sideways smirk, answering a question with a question, reacting with a deadpan stare and outsmarting everyone in the room. When asked how he came up with those trademark quirks, Grodin was, for once, at a loss for words. He just laughed and said he was just "kinda like that."

In addition to the classic DeNiro/Farina/Pantoliano caper, Grodin gave us memorable turns in Heaven Can Wait, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Seems Like Old Times and Dave, and long before he romanced Miss Piggy in 1981's The Great Muppet Caper, Grodin got his start on TV (in The Virginian) and in bit parts in movies. He started making a name for himself in the late '60s in Rosemary’s Baby and Catch-22. In the '80s, he was the hapless dad in Ivan Reitman's Beethoven franchise, which he will praise as brilliant and has hopes for a sequel.

From 1995 to 1998, Grodin made the switch from entertainment to news, when he hosted his own issues-oriented talk show, The Charles Grodin Show, on CNBC and, starting in 2000, became a political commentator for 60 Minutes II. In 2004, Grodin penned the off-Broadway play The Right Kind of People, about the snobbery of co-op boards in certain buildings in Manhattan, a scenario he experienced firsthand and describes as non-fiction. Grodin's commentaries continue to be heard on New York City radio station WCBS and other affiliates of the CBS Radio Network, as well as on the "CBS Radio Network's Weekend Roundup."

Grodin's books include It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here, Spilled Milk and Other Clichés, How I Get Through Life The 2007 anthology If I Only Knew Then ... Learning from Our Mistakes is a collection of essays from his famous friends (and friends of friends), with all author proceeds going to the Help USA charity. His latest, How I Got To Be Whoever It Is I Am , came out in April 2009.

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