“Good acting is thinking in front of the camera. I just do that and apply a sense of humor to it. You have to trust the audience to get it.” — Charles Grodin

It’s Charles Grodin’s birthday today. Here is a re-post of the piece I wrote when Charles Grodin died last year (a day after his birthday!)

Heartbreak Kid. Ishtar. Heaven Can Wait. Midnight Run. Muppet Caper. Rosemary’s Baby. Seems Like Old Times (not as well-known, but I loved it as a kid.) Charles Grodin was so cranky, so anti-social (his talk-show guest spots were legendary … was he putting it on? Was he “acting”? Why was he being so RUDE and surly? It didn’t matter, because it was so funny.) Why he was so funny is difficult to quantify or even explain. He came from a comic/improv background (mixed with Actors Studio): it’s a killer combo. Maybe even THE killer combo. (I wrote about this in my piece on female comedians, i.e. why actors who start out in “comedy” often make the best dramatic actors.) It’s why Grodin was able to not only go “toe to toe” with Robert De Niro in Midnight Run, but was so spontaneous he seemed to even surprise De Niro. The film was a true two-hander. Grodin was so good at being off the cuff. With Grodin, everything important happened between the lines. There was always a certain amount of SEETHING happening beneath the surface. It gave him his edge, his honesty.

Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, “Midnight Run”

Please please read my friend Dan Callahan’s beautiful and insightful tribute to Grodin up on Ebert. His analysis of Heartbreak Kid is spot on. (The film has been unavailable forever. You can’t find it. It’s infuriating. Someone uploaded it to YouTube. Go see it while you can, particularly if you haven’t seen it.) Dan makes this essential point :

Grodin is a figure of and for the cinema of the 1970s. Like Alan Arkin and the recently departed George Segal, Grodin had a manner that matched the neuroticism and self-obsession of that decade and also the breaking down of limits and prejudices that could allow an unambiguously Jewish sensibility to be the center of films without any softening for the WASP masses.

I want to talk about his first book, a “memoir” of how he got started as an actor. It is called It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here.

More after the jump.


Grodin describes the genesis of the title:

Candy Bergen and I were filming the movie 11 Harrowhouse in a castle outside London. We were sitting in a room off the main hall where the cameras were being set up. After a few minutes an Englishwoman appeared. I don’t know who she was, but she acted as though she had a duchess-or-something title. She said, “Did someone ask you to wait in here?” “No,” we answered, a bit taken aback. She responded: “Well, it would be so nice if you weren’t here.”

Grodin said that the snooty lady’s comment was basically a metaphor for his entire experience as an actor.

Someone gave me this book soon after I graduated from college. I was about to embark on my journey as an actor. I read it, and found it so helpful as I started to navigate all those shoals of auditions and head-shots and classes and rehearsal-problem-solving and getting a backbone/thick skin, and all that.

I consider the book to be required reading for young actors.

It’s not an abstract book about the pursuit of Art, or what acting “means” – there’s nothing lofty about it, or even aspirational. It’s a book that says, “Get new shoes because you will be pounding the pavement every day for years.” Nobody pursuing acting has a run-of-the-mill story, but there are many similarities and requirements, the main one being: not stopping even though you are rejected constantly. It’s not a How-To book, because if anyone had an unconventional and, at times, difficult career, it was Charles Grodin. But for actors, and anyone interested in the business of Show, and how it works (not how it appears to work, but how it actually works) should also read it as well. There are so many ups and downs, and callous decisions, and annoying co-stars (I love the chapter entitled “Breakthrough: I don’t accept an apology from Anthony Quinn”).

Cybill Shepherd and Charles Grodin, “Heartbreak Kid”

But, crucially, he does get into how actors must – must – even when they’re toiling in obscurity – work on the SELF. You must know who you are, and work to be who you are (this does take work: Civilians don’t get this.) Who are you? Know thyself. Work to bring that out, so you can show it at will. Be honest with yourself. Classes help with this kind of exploration. You must be doing all this at the same time you are trying to survive in a brutal business. I saw friends of mine fail to do this and the result was they got bitter and resentful about why they weren’t getting anywhere. The book addressees all of these issues like no other.

Grodin’s book, on some level, says to young actors, “Yeah. You should be scared. Toughen up, toots. It’s a harsh world out there.” But it doesn’t JUST have a cynical tone to it. He is being honest about his own journey, how he found his way, how he leapt at opportunity when it knocked, how he missed key opportunities for a variety of reasons. Grodin is notorious for his temper, and his sense of humor – which often got him into trouble. Because God forbid someone doesn’t get the joke. Crucially, Grodin wasn’t afraid to be disliked – it’s one of his distinguishing characteristics as an actor. But at the same time, he NEEDED to be liked. Being LIKEABLE is not a cop-out, it’s also how you grease the wheels of the industry, how you get people to do favors for you, how you get people to help you get projects off the ground. So Grodin had this classic dichotomy.

Charles Grodin, “Rosemary’s Baby”

Grodin turns each story he tells from his life into a little “teaching moment” – one of the reasons why this book is so good for young actors. He does a kind of “what have we learned from this?” summing-up after each anecdote. Grodin shows that there is a choice involved in how we react to the random things that happen to us. In other words, you can choose a lesson that empowers you, or you can choose one that makes you bitter and self-righteous. Sometimes Grodin chooses one, sometimes the other, as we all do, and he is unafraid to call a spade a spade. There are people who were unkind to him when he was starting out, not big-wigs, just your basic casting agents, managers, agents in general: they said horrible things right to his face with the utmost carelessness: “We’re looking for someone sexier.” I mean, my God, they do say things like this. You have to be able to somehow deal with it. How do you keep your confidence up in the face of “You’re just not beautiful enough” or “Your thighs are too big”. It takes some serious mental maneuvering. You have to make sense of it, and survive it, and determine to thrive in SPITE of it, rather than be victimized by it.

Ellen Burstyn, Charles Grodin, director, Gene Saks, “Same Time Next Year” on Broadway

Grodin tells a story about the party celebrating the fact that the Broadway smash hit Same Time Next Year (which Grodin starred in with Ellen Burstyn) had been bought by a producer and was going to be made into a movie. Grodin asked the playwright’s wife why the playwright wasn’t there, and she replied blithely, “Oh, he’s off meeting with Actor X whom we are really hoping will play your part in the movie.” !!! This event happened 20 years before, but he obviously never forgot it – who could forget it? He forgives the playwright’s wife for her callousness (which he did not believe was malicious, just oblivious) … but says he still, to this day, “ducks” when he sees her, afraid of whatever zinger she might throw his way. Grodin is not all Zen about these things and that’s one of the refreshing (and most human) things about his book.

Grodin admits that his humor sometimes doesn’t go over well, but then there are people like Mike Nichols who said of Grodin, “He’s the funniest man I’ve ever met.” And Nichols was no slouch in the humor department. (According to Grodin, he was cast as Benjamin in The Graduate, but Grodin blew the opportunity for various reasons. Grodin, forever afterwards, was always nervous whenever he saw Dustin Hoffman, even if Hoffman was just walking on the beach. Grodin always believed that any sighting of Hoffman anywhere meant that Grodin was about to be fired. lol)

So. Grodin poses the question with all of these painful anecdotes: Who are you going to believe? Which interpretation do you go with? Can you be okay with the fact that some people just won’t “get” you? Grodin’s entire career was about this. Some people will “get” you, others won’t. Keep working. Fuck ’em.


Grodin wrote that people still, so many years later, come up to him on the street and talk to him about Heartbreak Kid. Success, right? But here is why his book is so important: the next movie he did was 11 Harrowhouse and it was such a flop it very nearly killed his career for good. Opportunities dried up immediately, like a switch was turned off. The anecdote that gives the book its title is a case in point: Just a year before, Grodin had become a big star, a hot new actor, desirable, wanted, praised. In a matter of no time at all, it would be so nice if you weren’t here.

Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase, Charles Grodin, “Seems Like Old Times”

But I want to go back to the whole “this book is great for young actors” thing. He is so HONEST about the early stages of the journey. Any young actor will recognize themselves in these descriptions: taking classes with Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen, trying to get cast in something, the insane obsession with headshots (“Did you get your pictures?” “I’m getting my pictures….” “I like my pictures.” “Can I see your pictures?”) – It’s all just so dead on. There are moments where Grodin makes mistakes (many many moments), like the time he disagreed with a bit of Roman Polanski’s direction during the filming of Rosemary’s Baby. Or the time he refused to accept Anthony Quinn’s bullshit (in my opinion) apology. The time he almost got into a fistfight, defending Marlo Thomas’ honor and reputation from a heckler who told her she should be “ashamed” of herself and that her father “would be ashamed”.

It’s an act of generosity, this book … and I am grateful I read it when I did in my life. It was a dash of cold water, in many respects, but at the same time, Grodin doesn’t condescend. He doesn’t roll his eyes at someone who wants to “do this” as a career. He doesn’t say “The whole thing’s a racket. Do something else with your life.” He’s not a know-it-all. He makes fun of himself (his stories of working with Robert DeNiro are HYSTERICAL), but he’s primarily interested in passing on what he has learned.

I found this book to be invaluable at a time when I really needed it.

Thank you, Charles Grodin.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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8 Responses to “Good acting is thinking in front of the camera. I just do that and apply a sense of humor to it. You have to trust the audience to get it.” — Charles Grodin

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Loved the man. I groaned when I heard yesterday. Such a distinctly funny man. Re-watched one of his times with Carson and laughed so hard I cried. Then I just cried. Peace.

  2. Emily says:

    It’s amazing how many actor memories come back to The Great Muppet Caper. The first time I saw Charles Grodin outside of it, I exclaimed “that’s the guy that was in love with Miss Piggy!” I was a little girl, in my defense. When I was older and my father and I were watching Spartacus, I recognized Peter Ustinov, remembering aloud him being the trash collector who had his ass kicked by Miss Piggy. My father, who smoked a pipe back then, sighed both times, took a puff while laying his head back in diasappointment. “Yes, they’ve done a Muppet movie. Among other things….”

    • sheila says:

      emily – hahahaha!! “among other things”

      That’s one of the reasons I feel so fortunate to have grown up with the Muppet Show – and Sesame Street – I was introduced to all these LEGENDS because of those shows – and then later I’d be like, “oh! they did other things??”

      Once back in college my friends and I were sitting around talking – there may have been weed involved – and someone mentioned Helen Hayes. One friend said, “Oh yeah, she was in the Herbie the Love Bug movies.” There was a long pause and my friend Mitchell said, “She was the First Lady of American theatre …” and we all lOST it.

      I still think Grodin’s performance in Muppet Caper is one of his best. The crazy lip synching alone! During that insane water ballet?

  3. Bill Wolfe says:

    One of my favorite Grodin moments is in the underrated It’s My Turn. He and Jill Clayburgh are talking – she’s telling him she’s reached a point where she needs more out of their relationship. Grodin says something like, “You mean, ‘We two as one’? I can’t do that. I did that once before.” His delivery is so good. Not apologetic, or even regretful, simply recognizing what he can and cannot do. It’s one of the startling moments in a Hollywood movie, where romantic love is nearly always all.

  4. Stevie says:

    Hi Sheila! I remember fondly Grodin’s portrayal of Steve Martin’s friend in The Lonely Guy. Steve is a newly single New Yorker (his girlfriend ran off with a band!), unsure of the whys and wherefores of getting back into it, but he’s game. He’s hopeful. He falls in with the permanently single Charles, who has peppered his lonely life with Boston ferns and life-size celebrity cutouts. Charles makes it abundantly clear why he is alone, although he is endearing in a nebbishy way. He punctuates the movie with a classic nerdy guffaw, which Steve promptly starts mimicking. Once Steve gets a good look at the single lifestyle Charles is experiencing, he becomes more determined than ever to leave lonely island. Fast!

    They’re both fabulous in this. What Charles is doing here, though, is demonstrating a unique version of loser: somebody who also happens to be quite relaxed and happy. The presumably not-lonely, uptight, ambitious, turtleneck-wearing schemer of the 70’s, wary and cynically detached but ready to be amused, is a pretty good description of Charles himself (he found his doppelgänger in Dick Cavett). No sign of that urban sophisticate here! Pauline Kael’s review rightly put the spotlight on Grodin’s performance.

    Thanks for this! Love, XOXO Stevie

    • sheila says:

      Stevie! Love you!

      I forgot about Lonely Guy – I love that movie!

      // a unique version of loser: somebody who also happens to be quite relaxed and happy. // this is so insightful!!

      I’m gonna go dig up Pauline’s review.

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