Actor Charles Grodin, who charmed audiences with his droll, understated and awkward humor in such films as The Heartbreak Kid, Midnight Run and the Beethoven movies, has died. He was 86.
Grodin died Tuesday of bone marrow cancer at his home in Wilton, Connecticut, his son, Nicholas, told The New York Times.
Grodin invigorated Neil Simon’s Seems Like Old Times (1980) when he portrayed an ambitious D.A. whose wife (Goldie Hawn) and life are distracted and disrupted when her ex-husband (Chevy Chase) plops into their straight-laced marriage.
On the flip side, the Pittsburgh native brought a duplicitous guile to a positive character in Sunburn (1979), playing an insurance investigator who poses as a tourist while investigating a murder.
In Albert Brooks’ mockumentary of a typical American family, Real Life (1979), Grodin’s deadpan portrayal of the veterinarian husband and father of two layered in a vegetarian wackiness to the satire.
Grodin’s characters occasionally displayed a sinister side. In King Kong (1976), he played the shady businessman who tries to cash in on the giant ape; two years later, he portrayed an oily lawyer in the screwball comedy remake Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty.
Early in his career, Grodin was in the running to star as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (1967), then played an obstetrician in Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
Grodin vaulted into the public eye in Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972) when he starred as sporting goods salesman Lenny Cantrow, a caddish newlywed who falls for another woman (Cybill Shepherd) while on his Miami honeymoon.
“I thought the character in The Heartbreak Kid was a despicable guy, but I play it with full sincerity,” he said in a 2009 interview with The A.V. Club. “My job isn’t to judge it. If it wasn’t for Elaine May, I probably would never have had that movie career.”
Grodin perhaps peaked among mainstream movie audiences in 1988 when he starred opposite Robert De Niro in the action road comedy Midnight Run. As an accountant convicted of embezzlement and being transported cross-country to face justice, he eventually displays his overall decency along the way.
Self-described as “low key but high strung,” Grodin often played uptight and cranky characters who ultimately were likable.
He meshed those conflicted qualities in the popular family comedy Beethoven (1992) and its 1993 sequel as a pet-averse patriarch. Playing straight man to the family dog, a lumbering and lovable Saint Bernard, Grodin was appealingly twitchy.
And in The Great Muppet Caper (1981), he starred as Nicky Holiday, a human suitor who rivaled Kermit the Frog for the affections of Miss Piggy.
Cerebral, opinionated and always curious, Grodin from 1995-98 hosted an issue-oriented CNBC talk show and served as an Andy Rooney-style commentator for 60 Minutes II, delivering satirical perspectives on politics and social issues.
He also was an accomplished talk show guest, adapting the persona of a peevish, picked-on person in front of Johnny Carson and David Letterman, and he starred and directed on Broadway.
The youngest of two sons, Charles Grodin was born on April 21, 1935, and raised in the Highland Park section of Pittsburgh. His father owned a store that sold supplies like zippers, buttons and hangers to cleaners, tailors and dressmakers.
Grodin was the valedictorian at Peabody High School — he was class president in each of his four years there — before he studied acting at the University of Miami and then, on a scholarship, at the Pittsburgh Playhouse School of Theatre.
He appeared in summer stock and eventually headed to New York, where he studied with Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg. He said he often had questions for those legendary teachers.
“I dared ask [Hagen,] ‘Why are we being asked to carry imaginary suitcases and open imaginary windows?’ he said in the A.V. Club interview. “She deeply resented the questioning, but she didn’t throw me out, she just threatened me for three years and was really abusive.”
During the summer of 1960, Grodin performed various lead roles at the Woodstock Theater in upstate New York. He made his Broadway debut in Tchin-Tchin in 1962 opposite Anthony Quinn (when he took home $107 a week) and appeared in his first movie, Sex and the College Girl, in 1964.
Grodin landed on the network soap operas Love of Life and The Young Marrieds (on the latter, Ted Knight played his boss), then was hired by Allen Funt as a “set-up” man on Candid Camera. He was fired from that show twice but rehired both times before quitting.
Groden started landing one-off stints on TV shows including My Mother the Car, The F.B.I., Captain Nice, The Guns of Will Sonnett and The Big Valley before playing the icy Dr. Hill in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
He didn’t make the cut for Mike Nichols’ The Graduate — he balked at memorizing 30 pages of the script for his audition — but he did star for the director as Aarfy Aardvark in the adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1970).
For Broadway, Grodin directed Lovers and Other Strangers, written by married couple Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna, in 1968 and then guided Marlo Thomas in the 1974-75 Herb Garner comedy Thieves. Three years later, he starred alongside Thomas in the 1978 movie adaptation.
He won an Outer Circle Critics best actor award for his performance opposite Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year, which opened in March 1975 and ran for more than 1,400 performances through September 1978.
His stage work also included writing One of the All Time Greats, about a Broadway disaster; The Price of Fame, in which he also starred as a whiny movie star; and The Right Kind of People, which centered on the richly screwy institution of Manhattan co-op boards.
In the ’80s, Grodin was widely recognizable in mainstream, big-screen comedies. He played an unhappy bachelor in Steve Martin’s The Lonely Guy (1984) and appeared in It’s My Turn (1980), The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), The Woman in Red (1984), Last Resort (1986), May’s Ishtar (1987) and The Couch Trip (1988).
He then played Kevin Kline’s nervous friend Murray Blum in the presidential comedy Dave (1993).
Grodin won an Emmy in 1978 for co-writing NBC’s The Paul Simon Special, which championed the anti-establishment ethos of the era, and wrote and starred in the 1985 Hollywood-set feature Movers and Shakers.
His body of work also includes such movies as Taking Care of Business (1990), Clifford (1994), The Humbling (2014) and Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young (2014), More recently, he appeared in ABC’s Madoff miniseries and on Louie.
Grodin penned a column for the New York Daily News for nearly 10 years and wrote several books, including 1989’s It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here, 1992’s How I Get Through Life, 1993’s Freddie the Fly and 2009’s How I Got to Be Whoever It Is I Am.
Survivors also include a daughter, Marion.