There is deadpan and then there is the mystical art of the deadpan that Charles Grodin practiced for the entirety of his 60+ year career. Grodin was an impossibly funny actor who often seemed to be doing almost nothing. His face was often expressionless, his voice seldom raised beyond a relatively soothing tone, and it’s hard to think of many times in his career where he ever even raised his arms (although he did bring many a laugh by lifting an eyebrow).
Despite starting his career in 1954 as “Drummer Boy” in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Grodin wouldn’t make a strong impression on moviegoers until 1968 and 1970, with small parts in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Mike Nichols’ Catch-22. Two years later, Grodin would land his big break in Elaine May’s sublime “romantic comedy,” The Heartbreak Kid. Cast as a man who impulsively leaves his wife while on their honeymoon for a comely, if shallow, Cybill Shepherd, Grodin scored relentlessly as a man way in over his head. His meeting with Shepherd’s father (played by Eddie Albert) where in an effort to make conversation with the disapproving patriarch, he states that Midwestern produce has “no deceit” is a tiny comic gem that could have only been delivered in such a way by one actor, and one actor alone.
The Heartbreak Kid was well-reviewed and became a modest box office success at the time. The film’s reputation has grown since then and is now thought of as a classic that led to a new sort of comedy. Built on desperation, close observation, and pointed dialogue, it’s hard to imagine the films of Albert Brooks without The Heartbreak Kid.
Unfortunately, the success of The Heartbreak Kid seldom led to leads worthy of Grodin’s particular talents. However, as a supporting actor, Grodin graced and improved many a film over his career. He was wonderful as a duplicitous gold-digger in Heaven Can Wait, fabulous as the subject of a faux documentary in Albert Brooks’ Real Life (how did these two work together only once?), and he classed up both The Woman in Red and The Lonely Guy in 1984.
But it wouldn’t be until Martin Brest’s Midnight Run in 1988 that we would once again see Grodin at his very best. As an embezzler targeted for assassination, Grodin’s dry wit and delivery were never put to such good use on film. Playing across from Robert DeNiro as a bounty hunter trying to bring Grodin’s accountant into custody, the two make a hysterical odd couple in one of the finest action/buddy comedies of the ’80s. The two play off each other perfectly. DeNiro’s natural live-wire energy contrasts with Grodin’s low-key vibe so exquisitely, you wish they would have made ten movies together. But, I suppose it’s best to simply make one perfect one, and Midnight Run is most certainly that: perfect.
Like The Heartbreak Kid before it, Midnight Run was well-received and garnered solid box office returns. Unfortunately, while Grodin certainly stayed busy over the remainder of his acting career, he would never again capture such a plum part. It seems odd to think that Grodin’s greatest box office success is the sweet (if not much more than that) dog movie Beethoven about a caper involving a family and their Saint Bernard, but it’s all the more watchable thanks to Grodin’s presence. He also had a nice role in Ivan Reitman’s Capra-esque Oval Office comedy Dave in 1993. A Beethoven sequel would follow, but for me, Grodin’s final great performance came in Louie as Dr. Bigelow, the consistently annoyed physician to Louis CK’s title character. As the not-so-friendly doctor, Grodin’s retorts and mild facial inflections of derision towards Louie are awkwardly hysterical. Grodin only acted in five episodes of the series, but as with most of his work, he always left you wanting more of him.
Sadly, there will be no more work for us to look forward to from Grodin. But while we manage our heartbreak for The Heartbreak Kid, we can sift through his career and find numerous examples of Grodin’s particular and peculiar talents. I say “peculiar” in the most complimentary of ways. I guess what I’m simply getting at by using that word is that there was no comparable actor to Charles Grodin. Perhaps that was both a blessing and a curse for him – his talents being so specific that they weren’t always easily put to good use.
But as epitaphs go, being “one of a kind” is a pretty damn good one.
Charles Grodin died yesterday, he was 86 years old.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.