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.”
I apologize for the crack about Grodin’s age, adding that nobody would guess it to look at him. While his dark-brown hair has now gone mostly gray, his face retains the boyish glint and Cheshire-cat smile it had at the time of The Heartbreak Kid. “Nobody believes that I’ve never had plastic surgery either,” he adds. “When I say that to people, they just look at me like I’m flat-out lying. They say these things are genetic, but I don’t think that’s true. I mean, my older brother, when he was this age, looked his age. I think with me, as strange as this may seem, it may have a lot to do with the fact that I don’t go out very much. Now, I didn’t do that to protect my face. I’m just not inclined to go out very much, especially when it comes to traveling places.”
Since leaving acting, Grodin has authored several volumes of show-biz memoir and returned to his first love, journalism, as the host of a self-titled 1995–1998 cable talk show and, more recently, as a regular commentator for 60 Minutes II and CBS radio. He supports an array of charities and activist organizations, including the Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice and the anti-drug mentoring association Road Recovery and, at present, is editing a collection of celebrity essays, If I Only Knew Then: Learning From Our Mistakes, the proceeds of which will benefit the homeless-aid group Help USA. He’s also “spending a lot of time working on getting the felony-murder rule thrown out in California,” owing to his interest in the case of Brandon Hein, the Agoura Hills teenager jailed for his involvement in a 1995 stabbing. “He was just a kid in the brawl,” says Grodin. “But because he was there, he’s serving life with no chance of parole. Even Charles Manson comes up for parole. Gary Ridgway, who admitted to killing 48 women in the Seattle area, got the same sentence as this teenager who got drunk and got into a fight.”
All of that, Grodin notes, has gotten him pegged as a liberal, though the actor, who counts Republican Senator Orrin Hatch among his closest friends on Capitol Hill and says he doesn’t much mind the Patriot Act, remains leery of such labels. “You don’t have to be left-wing to care about the homeless or equal rights or that people are treated fairly,” he says. “Back when I was active in getting clemency for people who’d been convicted under [New York’s] Rockefeller drug laws, a lot of that came about because I went and made friends with the Republican leadership. And when I showed them why these people were in jail and how long they were serving, they all got out. Now, I’m so-called left and they’re so-called right, but we all agreed, and that’s the key. Whenever I hear about Republicans and Democrats, I always say, ‘Let’s talk about what the question is and see where we come down on it.’ You’ll often find that you don’t find the kind of disagreement you thought you were going to have.”
Oh, and a little good old-fashioned humor never hurts. “I get access to a lot of people because of laughter,” Grodin says. “They’re laughing, and so they’re more open to me. For example, Orrin Hatch wanted a picture of me for his office, so I took the photo of me that’s on the cover of my book It Would Be So Nice if You Weren’t Here, which was taken in the mid-1980s, and I framed it side by side with a recent picture of me with the New York Senate leader Joe Bruno. Then I put the inscription: ‘These pictures, amazingly, were only taken three weeks apart, but the last week I’ve spent with Senator Bruno learning how politics work.’ ”
Politics are actually old hat for Grodin, who, by the time he was 10, had already been impeached as president of his fifth-grade class. (“There was not a woman involved,” he claims.) Still, don’t look for the actor’s name in the ballot box anytime soon. “The reason I would never run for office — and it bothers me, because I know that if you really want to get things changed, that’s the best way to do it — is because I lean a little more than most towards self-indulgence. By that, I mean that I’m not going to go traveling around the country asking people for money. I’m not even going to go traveling around the country. I said to someone recently that my goal in life is to help as many people as I can without leaving home.”
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That goes double for Grodin’s dormant acting career. “A few years ago, my agents were driving me crazy to do a movie, so they took me to meet this guy who was running a studio at the time, who said, ‘I will get a building, locally, near your house, and I will convert it into a soundstage. It will be very close to where you live.’ And I said, ‘Well, if you had something like that and the script was right, I might do it.’ ”
“So, what happened?” I ask.
“Never heard from him again.”
The Ex opens in Los Angeles theaters on Friday, May 11.