Charles Grodin Dies: ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ Actor, Unrivaled Talk Show Curmudgeon Was 86

Charles Grodin Everett Collection

Charles Grodin, the comic, scene-stealing actor of such films as The Heartbreak Kid, Midnight Run and Beethoven who later established himself as a curmudgeonly talk show guest without rival, died today at his home in Wilton, Conn. He was 86.

His son, Nicholas, told The New York Times that the cause of death was bone marrow cancer. A spokesperson said Grodin died peacefully at his home.

Born Charles Sidney Grodin in Pittsburgh, Grodin, who studied under Lee Strasberg, made his big-screen debut in the small role as the duped obstetrician who turns Mia Farrow’s Rosemary over to a coven of witches in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Grodin graduated to leading man by 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid, the Elaine May film that established his career and set the hapless, dry-wit style that would become his signature.

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Though he would achieve fame on screen, Grodin actually began his career on Broadway in Tchin-Tchin (1962), and appeared onstage in Absence of a Cello (1964) and, most successfully, Same Time, Next Year (1975). He directed Lovers and Other Strangers (1968), Thieves (1974) and Unexpected Guests (1977).

At the time Heartbreak Kid was released, Grodin had appeared in a supporting role in Mike Nichols’ 1970 feature Catch-22, and the actor’s association with Nichols-May brand of sophisticated comedy was set. By the end of the decade, he’d costar in Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait (1978) and, a year later, the Albert Brooks An American Family satire Real Life.

Other credits include 1980’s Seems Like Old Times and two infamous flops, one on the small screen (the short-lived 1986 primetime soap spoof Fresno costarring Carol Burnett) and the big-screen Ishtar (1987), lows from which he’d quickly rebound: In 1988, he costarred with Robert De Niro in the hit action comedy Midnight Run. As the annoying accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas, Grodin gave Robert De Niro’s no-nonsense bounty hunter character a perfect antagonist in one of the era’s greatest buddy comedies.

Grodin took one of his career’s various abrupt turns when he starred in the popular family film Beethoven in 1992. Whatever crotchety inclinations he had to repress for the big-dog franchise was given unexpurgated release on what would become his trademark talk show experiences, at first playing the prickly, grumpy deadpan foil for Johnny Carson and, later, David Letterman.

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Despite drifting away from acting roles, Grodin maintained his irascible public persona via book writing, guesting and, from 1995-98, as host of his own CNBC talk show and in 2000 as a political commentator for 60 Minutes II. So popular and recognizable was his prickly persona that it could be used as a comic plot point in an episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia in which the actor didn’t even appear. Legend has it he was banned from hosting Saturday Night Live by his old pal Lorne Michaels after ad-libbing on an infamous 1977 episode, pretend-forgetting that the show was live.

Grodin won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special in 1978 for The Paul Simon Special, and an American Comedy Award for Funniest Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture for his performance alongside Kevin Kline in ’93’s Dave.

More recently, Grodin had a recurring role as Louis C.K.’s doctor on FX’s Louie, and appeared in Noah Baumbach’s 2015 film While We’re Young. He played a cheated Ponzi scheme investor in ABC’s 2016 miniseries Madoff.

Grodin is survived by his wife of 38 years, author Elissa Durwood Grodin, their son Nicholas, daughter-in-law Aubrey and granddaughter Geneva, and daughter Marion by a previous marriage.

The family requests that friends and fans consider making a donation to The Innocence Project in his memory: Grodin received the William Kunstler Racial Justice Award and was praised by Governor Pataki for helping revise New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws, and often said the accomplishment was that of which he was most proud because of its direct impact on improving the lives of others.

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