The Indiscreet Charm Of Charles Grodin (1935-2021)

One of the least celebrated efforts of Charles Grodin‘s long and storied career was the CNBC talk show he hosted from 1995 to 1998. Imagine a Bill Maher program, except it’s Charles Grodin. I know, I know — outside the improvement no one will know the difference. But trust me — it was, in fact, a little loopy. There was a lot of talk about the O.J. Simpson case, if I recall correctly, but given the era, no surprise there. Anyway, on an episode when the show was close to ending its run, one of his guests, his good friend Phyllis Newman, lamented (and despite the quotation marks here, I’m paraphrasing; dramatic license and all): “What’s the world coming to when the youth of America doesn’t want to hear what you, Charles Grodin, have to say about the state of things in our country.” Grodin nodded sagely and with no abashment. 

Given the reactions of the Youth of America, Film and TV Commentary Division, to the news of Grodin’s death at 86, it may just have been that the program was one whose time had not yet come. Because the mourning seems to be for not just a great actor, but a beloved and wise old uncle. For the purposes of this piece, I’ll stick to the acting — while acknowledging that it was of such a high and unusual caliber that it’s hardly a wonder that his fans are unusually verklempt today. 

Grodin studied the craft with the fabled Uta Hagen, but didn’t get much of a chance to shine in the early part of his career, doing small television roles. As the self-righteousness he could display on his talk show tended to illuminate, his ability to project smug smarminess wasn’t something he necessarily developed at an extreme distance from his own personality. Of course that wasn’t the whole man, or the whole performer. But the facility served him well from his first notable film role, as Dr. Hill in 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. His glib, confident obstetrician is usurped early on by the far more avuncular Dr. Sapirstein — played by Old Hollywood nice guy Ralph Bellamy, yet! — but this is a classic casting switcheroo, in which it’s the doctor you like who turns out to be in league (spoiler alert!) with Satanists. 

Grodin then played the unctuous, brown-nosing, and eventually murderous Aarfy Aardvark in Mike Nichols’ ill-starred adaptation of Catch-22. One presumes this role was one that caught the eye of director Elaine May — a former comedy partner of Nichols’, and a future screenwriter for him — who cast Grodin as the world’s worst bridegroom in The Heartbreak Kid in 1972.

As Lenny Cantrow, the truculent, nervy new husband who literally dumps his wife on their honeymoon to pursue a shiksa goddess played by Cybill Shepherd, Grodin practically provides the dictionary definition of a sniveling shit. The character is hardly “relatable” (one would hope), utterly unlikable, and practically repellent. But Grodin makes him completely compelling, in part through utter brazenness. You just can’t believe the chutzpah of this guy. 

You may have noticed I’ve been using a lot if Yiddish in this piece. Yes. Grodin’s varied personae, but especially his portrayal of Cantrow, traded in what are generally understood to be Jewish-American traits. The talent lineup for The Heartbreak Kid, in fact, is a murderer’s row of Jewish-humor talent: May, screenwriter Neil Simon, Bruce Jay Friedman (whose short story inspired the movie), Jeannie Berlin, May’s daughter, who plays the jilted bride. The title of Grodin’s first-rate, and frequently vinegary, 1989 memoir It Would Be So Nice If Your Weren’t Here is an oblique variant of the Jewish Mother Joke punchline “It’s okay, I’ll just sit in the dark.”

Charles Grodin and Jeannie Berlin in The Heartbreak Kid.Photo: 20th Century Fox Licensing/Merch

Speaking of Mike Nichols, though:  if you’ve read Mark Harris’ excellent recent biography of the man, you are up to speed on what a miserable time that was had by him and Robert De Niro working on what would have been De Niro’s first major comedy movie, the abortive Bogart Slept Here. (Also, as it happens, written by Simon.) Nichols could have used Grodin on that set, given that it was Grodin, in part, who helped De Niro find his way into screen comedy with the 1988 Midnight Run. De Niro plays tough bounty hunter Jack Walsh and Grodin is tetchy, neurotic mob accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Madurkas. This is a prey-turns-buddy comedy in which the buddy dynamic comes straight out of The Odd Couple. And the reason it works is because of Grodin’s Swiss-watch timing wedded to an unerring improvisational instinct. These qualities enabled Grodin to establish a rapport with De Niro that expanded on the latter’s always-extant ability to be funny. 

In one scene, Grodin turned the acting tables on De Niro, who has been known to get reactions from his fellow performers with provocative ad-libs, as in substituting “mother” for “wife” when asking a particularly pointed question of Joe Pesci in Raging Bull. In a scene in a train boxcar in which Walsh is enraged that The Duke has tried to escape him, Grodin unexpectedly asked De Niro if he’d ever had sex with an animal. It did the necessary work of changing De Niro’s facial expression entirely. 

Creating their characterizations through improv was the magic formula for making De Niro a screen comedy maestro. De Niro would channel these chops in the lucrative artistic purgatory of the Meet the Parents movies, while Grodin got caught up, albeit for only two films, in the world of Beethoven. Not the composer, but the raucous, drooling St. Bernard whose name gave the title to two “family” films featuring Grodin as a put-upon patriarch. 

Despite taking two lengthy hiatuses from acting in the late 1990s and early aughts, Grodin built filmography as a character actor of satisfying width and depth. Highlights include his Lust-For-Miss-Piggy-motivated rotter in The Great Muppet Caper, understandably infuriated uncle to Baby Man Martin Short in Clifford, ethics-free CIA agent in Ishtar (also with director May; the once-maligned comedy has been well and truly vindicated by now). He reunited with De Niro for 2016’s all-but-ignored The Comedian; the film is a thoroughly mixed bag, but their scenes together have a spark that vividly demonstrate why this unique performer will be much missed.

Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reviews‎ new releases at, the New York Times, and, as befits someone of his advanced age, the AARP magazine. He blogs, very occasionally, at Some Came Running and tweets, mostly in jest, at @glenn__kenny. He is the author of the acclaimed 2020 book Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, published by Hanover Square Press.

Where to watch The Heartbreak Kid