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Let’s get one thing clear from the start: Charles Grodin is not — I repeat, not — planning a comeback. Though the 72-year-old comic actor makes his first big-screen appearance in more than a decade as father-in-law to Zach Braff’s addled advertising exec in the antic new comedy The Ex, Grodin is quick to note that the role is a one-off, a favor of sorts to his son, Nick, who recommended the script to him and who plays a small part in the film himself. As it happens, it was also Grodin’s son who prompted his retirement from acting, back in 1994, when young Nick was poised to enter the first grade. “I thought it would be good to become a stay-at-home dad and create some stability,” Grodin tells me. And so, just like that, he turned his back on Hollywood at what was — on the heels of the enormously popular Beethoven (as in the recalcitrant dog, not the deaf composer) movies — one of the most successful periods of his career.
Then again, fame and celebrity have never exactly been Grodin’s bag. “When I first came to New York, I lived in a room without a window,” Grodin says in the purring monotone — pitched halfway between sarcasm and self-deprecation — that could be considered his trademark. “It was $10 a week. You shared the bathroom with 16 people on your side of the floor. The place is still there: It’s called Capitol Hall, between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues in Manhattan, and it’s the exact same building. Except, now, it’s a homeless shelter and there are bars on everything. So, I’m not all that focused on material things.”
A Pittsburgh native and the son of Orthodox Jewish parents, Grodin originally didn’t intend to go into show business at all, planning instead on a career in journalism. Until, that is, “I fell in love with Elizabeth Taylor when I saw her in A Place in the Sun, and that was what moved me into acting,” he recalls. Grodin then studied at the Actors Studio under Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg, worked briefly as an assistant to Broadway director Gene Saks, and, by the early ’60s, landed guest spots on such television series as The Defenders, My Mother the Car and The Trials of O’Brien.
Few noticed Grodin in his first movie appearance, the low-budget 1964 comedy Sex and the College Girl, but he made a bigger impression four years later, as the gynecologist attending to the pregnant-with-devil-child Mia Farrow (who co-stars with Grodin in The Ex) in Rosemary’s Baby. Still, the young actor approached Hollywood from a cautious distance, rejecting, then accepting, then getting fired from the lead role in a little movie called The Graduate, whose director, Mike Nichols, went on to cast Grodin in his 1970 film version of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Two years later, it was Nichols’ former comedy partner, Elaine May, who gave Grodin his star-making role in her sophomore directing effort, The Heartbreak Kid. As the sad-sack New York sporting-goods salesman who abandons his nebbish wife midhoneymoon to chase after WASP goddess Cybill Shepherd, Grodin was a sometimes lovable, sometimes off-putting angler, who finally gets the girl, only to be left wondering if that’s really what he wanted. Even more than The Graduate, May’s bittersweet farce, scripted by Neil Simon, coursed with the dystopian social outlook and vibrant, improvisational energy that was lighting up the Vietnam-era American cinema, and it established Grodin as one of that generation’s unconventional movie stars, alongside Dustin Hoffman, Elliott Gould, George Segal and others whom the critic J. Hoberman has termed members of Hollywood’s “Jew Wave.”
“I became aware very quickly that if I could be in a situation where I could improvise — and the first time that happened was The Heartbreak Kid — that would be a big asset for me,” Grodin says. “Neil Simon had never written anything where actors would be improvising, but since Elaine May was directing it, he went along with it. Later, I did another movie he wrote called Seems Like Old Times, where you were not permitted to improvise; the director, Jay Sandrich, was someone who had come out of television, and that sort of thing just wasn’t done. I remember how different the two were. In Seems Like Old Times, I had a scene with Robert Guillaume where he was playing the piano and I was standing behind him with my hands on his shoulders, tapping my fingers, and they said, ‘Would you mind not tapping your fingers?’ ”
Grodin and I are speaking by phone — I from my Los Angeles office, he from his Connecticut home — but it isn’t the first time we’ve talked. Last December, back when The Ex was called Fast Track and was scheduled for a January release, we sat down for an interview in the lobby of the Disney screening room in Manhattan, where Grodin had just viewed the film. But before I could transcribe the tape, it was stolen from my office — zipped inside a carrying bag that also contained my laptop computer — never to be seen (or heard) again. Three months later, Grodin tells me he remembers our initial conversation. “You were the first person who ever interviewed me who referred to me as a septuagenarian,” he says with a snarl, “and you were also the first person who ever referred to me as a legend. So, I went home and I looked up the definition of ‘legend,’ and it said, ‘Historical figure, but not necessarily verifiable.’ I thought that was great.”
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