Charles Grodin, Star of ‘Beethoven’ and ‘Heartbreak Child,’ Dies at 86

Charles Grodin, the eclectic actor best known for “Same Time, Next Year” on Broadway, popular films such as “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Midnight Run” and “Beethoven” and numerous television appearances, died Tuesday at his Wilton home , Conn. He was 86 years old.

His son Nicholas said the cause was bone marrow cancer.

With a great flair for dead comedies and the good looks of anyone who lends itself to playing businesspeople or quirky fathers, Mr. Grodin found plenty of work as a supporting actor and occasionally as a lead actor. He also had his own talk show for a period during the 1990s and was a frequent guest on other people’s talk shows. He has appeared 36 times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and more than 40 on David Letterman’s NBC and CBS shows.

Mr. Grodin was also a writer and has had a number of plays and books in his honor. Although he never won a prestige acting award, he won an Emmy in 1977 for a Paul Simon television special that he shared with Mr. Simon and six others.

Mr. Grodin, who dropped out of the University of Miami to devote himself to acting, had managed to get a few stage and television roles when he got his first major hiatus in 1962 and a role in a Broadway comedy called ” Tchin-Tchin ”with Anthony Quinn and Margaret Leighton.

“Walter Kerr called me impeccable,” Grodin wrote years later, recalling a review of the show that appeared in the New York Times. “It took a trip to the dictionary to understand that he meant more than clean.”

Another Broadway appearance took place in 1964 in “Absence of a Cellos”. Mr. Grodin’s next two Broadway credits were directing Lovers and Other Strangers in 1968 and Thieves in 1974. 1975 saw a groundbreaking Broadway role opposite Ellen Burstyn in Bernard Slade’s “Same Time, Next Year” , ”A long-lived two-handed man and woman who are each married to someone else and meet in the same guest house room once a year.

“The play takes actors of grace, depth and performance and found them in Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin,” wrote Clive Barnes in a rave in The Times. “Miss Burstyn is so real, so lovable, and so feminine that a man would want to hug her, and you barely notice the exquisite finesse of her actions. It’s a game of sheer virtuosity. Mr. Grodin is her equal in every way – a monument to male insecurity, gloriously incompetent, and the kind of manly sucker every decent man aspires to be. “

The show lasted three and a half years, with an ever-changing cast; The two original stars disappeared after seven months. At that point, Mr. Grodin was in demand in Hollywood. (Ms. Burstyn repeated the role in a 1978 film, but this time opposite Alan Alda in the Grodin role.)

Mr. Grodin had already appeared in Mike Nichols’ “Catch-22” in 1970 and had shot one of his better-known screenings in the 1972 comic book romance “The Heartbreak Kid,” in which he played a selfish sporting goods salesman who gets married in a hurry loses interest immediately on his bride (Jeannie Berlin) and falls in love with another woman (Cybill Shepherd) on his honeymoon. (Directed by Elaine May, long-time comedy partner of Mr. Nichols and mother of Ms. Berlin.)

In 1978 he had a supporting role in the Warren Beatty vehicle “Heaven Can Wait”. Another major role was in the 1988 action comedy “Midnight Run,” in which Mr. Grodin played an accountant who embezzled a fortune from the crowd and is being pursued by a bounty hunter played by Robert De Niro.

Although Mr Grodin acted with stars like Mr De Niro and Mr Beatty, perhaps his most famous role was to work with a dog. The movie was “Beethoven,” a family-friendly hit in 1992, and the dog was a St. Bernard. Mr. Grodin played a moody father who didn’t exactly warm to the new pet. In one memorable scene, he crawls into bed with his wife and enjoys having his neck licked until he realizes that the dog, not the woman, is his roommate.

“You ruined my life,” he growls at the beast. “You ruined my furniture. You ruined my clothes. My family likes you more than they like me. Why? All you do is drool and shed and eat. “

The next year he repeated the role in “Beethoven’s 2.” If he was often staged by the title character in these films, he accepted this.

“I don’t complain if the editor picks my worst attitude because it’s the dog’s best attitude,” he told The Kansas City Star when the sequel came out.

Charles Sidney Grodin was born in Pittsburgh on April 21, 1935. His father, Ted, was a sewing merchant, and his mother, Lena (singer) Grodin, was a housewife.

He grew up in Pittsburgh and tried the University of Pittsburgh thinking he might want to become a journalist. But he soon rejected this idea.

“I imagined that one day an editor might tell me to ask someone who has lost a loved one how they are feeling,” he wrote in a 2011 article for Backstage magazine. “I see that on the news all the time now. Not for me.”

He often said that the 1951 film, “A Place in the Sun,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, made him shift his focus to acting.

“It was two things,” he told the Television Academy Foundation in an oral story. “One of them is that I have a crush on Elizabeth Taylor. Second, Montgomery Clift made the acting look like, ‘Gee, this looks pretty simple – just a guy talking. ‘“

After six months at the University of Miami, he worked at the Pittsburgh Playhouse for a year and a half and then found his way to New York. From 1956 to 1959 he studied with Uta Hagen, although he often questioned her methods, which annoyed her.

Mr. Grodin made guest appearances on “Shane”, “The Virginian” and other television series of the 1960s before landing his first major film role as obstetrician in the horror hit “Rosemary’s Baby”.

In 1976 he played an unlikely oil man with some reluctance in a remake of “King Kong”.

“I wanted to play the love interest with Jessica Lange,” he said. “I didn’t want to be the guy responsible for killing the most popular animal outside of Bambi. But they wanted me for the bad one. “

In response to popular requests, his character comes to a cruel end.

“The only thing they changed after the first screening was when Kong broke up and tried to step on me and kill and miss me,” he said. “The audience was so disappointed that it had to be re-edited.”

Mr. Grodin showed a different side when he hosted “The Charles Grodin Show” on the CNBC cable channel in the mid-1990s.

“They got me in as a humorist,” he said in the oral tradition, “but I got involved in social problems pretty quickly and the show became just as if not dominant.” Some people like it better when you are funny and others prefer that you take cameras with you to jail and try to help people who shouldn’t be in jail. “

Nicholas Grodin said his father was especially proud of his work for the Innocence Project, the prison justice organization and related causes, as well as his work with groups helping the homeless.

After his talk show ended in 1998, Mr. Grodin largely retired from show business for a dozen years. Then he began to take on roles again, including a recurring in “Louie,” the series by comedian Louis CK.

Mr. Grodin wrote several memoirs full of anecdotes from his career, including “It would be so nice if you weren’t here: My Journey through Show Business” (1989) and “We are ready for you, Mr. Grodin: Behind the scenes on talk shows, Films and Elsewhere ”(1994).

His first marriage to Julie Ferguson ended in divorce. In 1983 he married Elissa Durwood, who survived him, along with his son, who was from his second marriage; a daughter from his first marriage, comedian Marion Grodin; and a granddaughter.

A 1985 anecdote told by Mr. Grodin on Mr. Letterman’s Show was typical of the breath of fresh, if unusual, air he brought to these performances. He told Mr. Letterman that he was pleased when the crowd that had lined up for the show burst into applause on their way to the studio through the lobby.

“I turned and smiled,” he said, “and they didn’t applaud me. A duck walked by in a tuxedo and they applauded the duck.

“But,” he added, “for the moment I thought they were applauding me, it was a nice, nice moment.”

He gave no explanation for the duck’s presence.

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