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Charles Grodin

(1935 – 2021)

Charles Grodin was a Jewish-American actor, memoirist and talk show host.

Grodin specialized in deadpan comedy and played both leading-man or character roles. He wrote several memoirs and advocated for social justice on his TV talk show. With bone-dry understatement, Grodin could steal entire scenes with just a look.

He was best known for two leading roles: In The Heartbreak Kid (1972), he played the caddish but oddly sympathetic just-married Jewish husband who ditches his bride for a blonde goddess (Cybill Shepherd) he meets on their honeymoon. Midnight Run (1988), with co- star Robert De Niro, is considered one of the best buddy comedies of all time.

Grodin was born Charles Grodinsky in Pittsburgh on April 21, 1935. His Orthodox Jewish parents had a store selling dry goods and his father died when Charles was 18. His paternal grandfather had changed the family name from Grodinsky to Grodin. His maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Russia who “came from a long line of rabbis” and moved to the Chesapeake Bay area at the turn of the 20th century.

Grodin became less observant in his adult years, although he and his second wife — in his words, “a nice Jewish girl from Kansas City” — observed holidays at home.

Grodin graduated as valedictorian from Peabody High School, where he was elected class president all four years. He attended the University of Miami but left without graduating to pursue acting. He studied acting at HB Studio in New York City under Uta Hagen.

Grodin’s film debut was an uncredited bit part in Disney's 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He made his Broadway debut in a production of Tchin-Tchin, opposite Anthony Quinn. In 1965, he became an assistant to director Gene Saks and appeared on several television series including The Virginian.

After a small part in Rosemary's Baby in 1968, he went on to have a long successful film career, appearing in more than 30 movies, including Catch-22 (1970), King Kong (1976), Real Life (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), Ishtar (1987), Dave (1993), and Clifford (1994).

Grodin also featured in several hit comedies including Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, Seems Like Old Times (which like The Heartbreak Kid was penned by Jewish writer Neil Simon), and Beethoven (1992), a family film about a lovable St. Bernard dog. He reprised the role in Beethoven’s 2nd (1993).

On Broadway, his production of Same Time, Next Year, ran for more than three years. In 2004, Grodin wrote The Right Kind of People, an off-Broadway play about co-op boards in certain buildings in Manhattan.

In 1977, Grodin hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live where the entire episode revolved around his forgetting that the show was live, and he proceeded to wreck sketches because of his failure to prepare accordingly.

In the mid-1990s, Grodin retired from acting. From 1995 to 1999, Grodin hosted The Charles Grodin Show on CNBC, where he used his microphone to expound on “social justice” causes. In 2000, he laned a gig as a political commentator for 60 Minutes II.

He returned to acting with a handful of roles in the mid-2010s, including in Louis C.K.’s FX show Louie and Noah Baumbach’s film While We're Young (2014).

His memoirs include It Would Be So Nice if You Weren’t Here: My Journey Through Show Business (1989) and We’re Ready for You, Mr. Grodin: Behind the Scenes at Talk Shows, Movies and Elsewhere (1994). He was a frequent guest on late night talk shows, with a grumpy shtick that seemed improbable with his heart of gold.

Grodin won several awards, including the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special in 1978 for the Paul Simon Special. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for The Heartbreak Kid in 1972. He won Best Actor at the 1988 Valladolid International Film Festival for Midnight Run, and the American Comedy Award for Funniest Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture for his performance in Dave in 1993.

Grodin said in a 2004 interview that he tries to live “in a way my rabbi would be proud of me. I’m very active with prisoner issues, with kids in crisis. I try to live by religious principles, even if I don’t do the ritual.”

And as for his Jewish connections, they were strong, if a bit flexible. “If I ever detect any anti-Semitism,” he says, “then I become more Jewish.”

Grodin had two children: a daughter from his marriage to Julie Ferguson, and a son from his marriage to Elissa Durwood. For a period in the 2000s, Grodin gave up show business to be a stay-at-home dad.

Grodin died of cancer on May 18, 2021. He was 86.

Sources: “Charles Grodin dies at 86,” Times of Israel, (May 19, 2021).
Jack Coyle, “‘Midnight Run,’ ‘Heartbreak Kid’ star Charles Grodin dies at 86,” Times of Israel, (May 19, 2021).
Gabe Friedman, “Charles Grodin, Jewish comic actor known for ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ and ‘Beethoven,’ dies at 86,” JTA, (May 19, 2021).
Hannah Brown, “Jewish-American actor Charles Grodin dies at 86,” Jerusalem Post, (May 19, 2021).
“Charles Grodin,” Wikipedia.

Photo: Adam Schartoff, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.