It’s great to see Charles Grodin acting again. For about 11 years, the legendary screen actor who sublimely segued between comedy and drama, took a break from acting for a career in the TV news realm. Grodin returned to the big screen in 2006 in the Jason Bateman-Zach Braff comedy The Ex, and lately he’s been guest starring on FX’s Louie as a deadpan, philosophical doctor Dr. Bigelow who prioritizes sandwiches and newspapers over his patients. Grodin is being submitted at the Emmys for guest comedy actor for this season’s episode “Untitled” in which he explains the nature of dreaming to Louis C.K. There’s also a hysterical moment during a check-up with C.K.’s daughter on the show: She vividly tells Dr. Bigelow in detail that she physically had a life-transforming, cosmic experience to which Grodin’s doctor advises, “Sounds like you could use a drink of water!”
Grodin isn’t a stranger to the Emmys: He won a 1978 Primetime trophy in the comedy-variety/music special category for writing The Paul Simon Special, a kudo he shared with Lorne Michaels, Lily Tomlin, Chevy Chase and Al Franken to name a few.
While distinguished cinematic actors always like to flex their range as a screenwriter , director, and producer; Grodin has surpassed those bars over and over again. His stint as a CNBC evening talk show host in 1995 with the self-titled series Charlies Grodin was iconic and a great platform. There Grodin could sound off on socially conscious issues while also delivering interviews that rivaled Tom Synder, Larry King and Charlie Rose’s Q&A style (his David Letterman interview is brilliant). There was also room to joke around on Charles Grodin; one of the takeaway episodes was when Grodin’s daughter, comedienne Marion Grodin, produced a segment about reptile pet shop owners. And while Grodin rested from acting, he never put his pen down, continually writing plays, screenplays and seven books, the most recent being 2013’s Just When I Thought I’d Heard Everything! Humorous Observations on Life in America.
Off camera, Grodin is warm, with a slew of behind-the-scenes Hollywood stories about what went right and wrong on the sets he stepped on; not to mention, he’s sublimely hysterical with a Catskill-ian sense of humor. One of the quotes that has stuck with me over the last seven years was when I interviewed him for a Variety special feature on Warren Beatty’s AFI Lifetime Achievement tribute. Speaking about his Heaven Can Wait director/star, Grodin remembered first seeing Beatty at one of his first auditions across the room: “I said to myself that’s the best looking person — man or woman — I’ve ever seen in my life. I told myself at the time, ‘I’m quitting the business right now.'”
Well, thank God, Grodin has never quit. He recently spoke with Deadline about working with C.K., Louie, TV news and his latest turn on the ABC miniseries Madoff.
At one point on CBS’ 60 Minutes II, you occupied the final commentator spot
I am still a CBS News radio commentator, I’ve been doing it for 14 years, I record five a week, they also run on Saturday and Sunday. I talk about anything I want for them. Right now, I’m focusing on the importance of seat belts, particularly using them in the backseat. People don’t wear them in taxis. I try to comment on things that might be helpful, useful or a reminder. Sometimes I try to record something humorous because there’s nothing humorous in the news.
In regards to 60 Minutes, I think I’m the only one in the history of the show to quit. They didn’t run me one week on 60 Minutes II. I told Jeff Fager, the producer of the show, who is a friend of mine, ‘Look, if you have the option of not running me, I can do nothing but this.’ It’s that hanging over my head. What’s interesting is that even though I quit, today he is very generous to me. We go out socially. He’s flattering. What’s great about doing commentaries, acting, writing plays is that you’re not so invested in any one thing. If one thing doesn’t go through, there’s so many other things out there.
Why did you take a break from acting in the mid ‘90s?
It was around the Beethoven movies when I stopped. I wanted to be at home. My son was six or seven years old when I stopped doing movies in 1994. I thought it was the time to be there (for him). It was all about my son Nick.
How did Louis C.K. hook you to guest star on Louie? He has a knack for landing iconic talent who doesn’t just show up for anybody.
I wasn’t familiar with him. He sent me this flattering letter with (script) pages and I appreciated that. I find him to be the single most talented person that I’ve ever worked with. He’s a wonderful director, writer, actor, and he knows all about lighting and cameras. He knows everything there is to know about shooting TV and movies. I worked enough to know when I’m in the room with someone where something special is happening.
What struck you about the script he first gave you?
I thought it was very good, that was my judgement about him. I read the scene just as he wrote it. In that first episode where I eat the sandwich and read the paper, I don’t think any director would let me do that for that long. If I improvised that, I could hear a movie director yelling ‘We gotta a movie. We gotta move along!’ It’s exciting when I come into a room with him. I worked with so many famous people, so I’m aware of how gifted he is.
What is Louis C.K.’s process like with actors?
He doesn’t say that much. At some point, he says ‘Ok, Fine’. We didn’t do a lot of takes. There’s very little discussion and it’s clear what he’s doing. I couldn’t get over him looking at the lenses and the lighting, in addition to writing, directing and acting – I mean, that’s a lot. And he has no ego about it…I wouldn’t change one word of his scripts.
What other projects are you working on? You are starring in ABC’s Bernie Madoff miniseries.
I just finished that miniseries. Richard Dreyfuss plays Madoff and I play Carl Shapiro. He’s now 102. He was Madoff’s mentor before he got crooked. It’s fascinating stuff and it was three days of work.
I always have a lot of plays that I’ve written. I’m a compulsive writer. If I write a screenplay, I’ll write a play version then a pilot version. I’ve been working on script about a life coach recently. A lot of these guys can get a degree and just become one overnight. Carol Burnett is committed to playing the life coach. I would like to see this as a play. If you do a movie version first, it reduces its potential of being a play. I’m doing a reading soon of that play. There’s a screenplay I have that Julian Schlossberg is behind. We’re in touch with Chip Rosenbloom about that. He use to own the St. Louis Rams.
What do you look for in a project nowadays?
My problem is I don’t like to go anywhere. I’ll go to Manhattan. Even when I committed to the ABC miniseries, I asked ‘Where is it shot?’ When I found out it was New York, I said ‘OK, fine’. Then two hours later, I said to myself ‘Wait a minute, that might include Long Island’. It was Long Island, but I still did it. Whenever they offer me something, I don’t ask ‘How much?’ but I ask ‘Where?’. I haven’t been to Los Angeles for over 20 years. I live in Connecticut and I try not to travel an hour from where I am. When you go to New York City, it’s punitive. It’s crowded. I drove a cab for 13 years when I was starting off and you can’t take a left, there are buses you can’t get around. I went from driving a cab to working at the post office on the west side. I was stacking TV Guides at the time and I was guest starring in a TV movie at the time. The guy who I was working with saw my name and said ‘Hey this guy has the same name as you’. I said, ‘That’s me.’ Then he asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ Just because he said that, I quit and put all my pursuits on my acting career. My income was $3K a year. There was a play that I was in where my take home pay was $107 a week. I asked someone connected to the production if I could get a raise. Anthony Quinn was the star. Couple weeks later I said to the guy, ‘I guess they didn’t give me a raise.’ He told me, ‘They just laughed.’ So a few years go by, and the guy who laughed sends me a script he’s producing. What goes around, comes around. People know there’s ramifications for doing something bad.
Did you get to spend time with Mike Nichols before he passed? He originally selected you to be the star of The Graduate, then decided to cast Dustin Hoffman.
Mike told me I was the first choice and there was no second. He told me that when he closed his eyes, he could never imagine the lines being said the way I said them. But when he opened his eyes — I didn’t look like a recent college graduate. I was 32. He wanted me to look younger. I was heavy at the time. I’ve done that before: Get thin to look younger. He wanted me to do a screen test and before you do one, you have to make the final deal. They offered me $500/week to star in The Graduate and at the time I was making $1K being a guest star in westerns for three days. Then there was seven years of options. I didn’t take it. Larry Turman, the producer, asked me ‘Did you realize this is a role of a lifetime?’ I told them that it wasn’t fair for them to do that. I’m into what’s fair and not. The minute I said OK the pages were delivered and it was 15-20 pages and I had to be there the next morning to do the screen test. I told them that it was a lot of dialogue (to memorize). I go (into the screen test) and Mike Nichols doesn’t recognize me because I lost so much weight. I’m sitting on a bed next to Katharine Ross. I said, ‘I don’t even know the lines, can I improvise?’ They said ‘jump up and down on the bed.’ Then I asked, ‘Why would I do that?’ It didn’t go well. I think they called me the next day and said I would be in the next movie Catch 22.
If I accepted that $500/a week, I would have had the role. It (the screen test) was a set-up for me to fail, that’s exactly what it was. There was a similar incident with Stacy Keach on Catch 22. Stacy was an established Broadway actor at the time. After we did a reading of Catch 22 in Mexico, Mike fired Stacy Keach. I thought about this recently. I called Stacy and asked him if it was over money. He said ‘No’. I was devastated about that incident; to fire someone after a reading! Mike then has me playing the part for a few days. The character is in his mid ‘60s and I have rubber on my face to look older. Mike was gifted, a very bright guy, but you couldn’t do anything that would cross him.
I saw him a little bit (before he died). We once had lunch. Last time I saw him I was reading a screenplay by Elaine May; he didn’t look well. He’s a very interesting guy.
The fact that you haven’t been to LA in 20 years — do you have something against it?
I like to be home. I have nothing against LA. Even on Monday night after shooting this series about Madoff, they were going to put me up in a hotel and save me three hours on the road, and I didn’t even do that. I went back home.
In doing research for the role of Carl Shapiro on Madoff, did you contact him?
I have his contact information, but I didn’t want to call him in the middle of doing the project because he might say something contradictory to what I’m doing. Richard Dreyfuss looks so much like Madoff. I have such great admiration for him. All of my scenes are with Richard. My character is the mentor to Madoff. He’s like a father figure to him. He refers to Madoff as ‘Bernie the kid’. My character is devastated when Bernie is arrested.
What was the biggest takeaway for you working on Madoff?
Toward the end of the first day the director Raymond De Felitta said to me, ‘Just say whatever you want on this take.’ I got to improvise. That’s flattering. With Neil Simon, you don’t change a word. I remember he came to the first rehearsal of The Heartbreak Kid. There’s the moment when Jeannie Berlin and I are singing in the car on the way to Florida. ‘Where does it say they sing in the script?’ Neil asked. I thought (the film’s director) Elaine May made him aware that there would be a lot of improvisation. Evidently not. Eight years later, on the set of Seems Like Old Times, Neil was also controlling. Robert Guillaume played the district attorney, and I’m the assistant attorney. He’s playing the piano and I’m standing there tapping my fingers. One of the production supervisors comes over and says ‘Neil prefers that you don’t tap your fingers’.
Did you ever improvise on Louie?
No, I wouldn’t even think of it. Word for word, I did exactly what Louis C.K. wrote.