The vicissitudes of Charles Grodin's career have been covered in detail in his assortment of autobiographies, including It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here, We're Ready For You, Mr. Grodin, and the new I Like It Better When You're Funny. He began his career as a stage actor, training in Lee Strasberg's famed Actors Studio, but also started working in film in the early 1960s. Grodin has written, directed, and starred in plays on and off Broadway, hosted his own cable talk show, and been an activist for causes as diverse as a pro-friendliness movement and fair sentencing for drug offenders. Over the years, he's built up an image as an unflappable, deadpan curmudgeon, playing that role in movies such as Dave and Midnight Run. Grodin bolstered the image with frequent appearances on talk shows, where he typically treated Johnny Carson and David Letterman in a cold, prickly fashion that stunned audiences but invariably drew attention and return invitations. After starring as the stuffy foil in a series of kid-friendly slapstick films (Beethoven, Beethoven's 2nd, Clifford), Grodin went back to surprising viewers with staged confrontations on his own cable talk show. But the show also addressed serious political and social issues, and when it was canceled, his commentaries ultimately led him into the Andy Rooney spot on 60 Minutes II. Now a quirky news commentator, Grodin recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about why he misses the '50s, why he's been mislabeled as a liberal, and why he doesn't plan to appear in any more movies.
The Onion: In your book How I Get Through Life, you discuss formality, and how you don't like being called "Mr. Grodin." Is that still true?
Charles Grodin: Yes. [Laughs.] I haven't thought about that book for a while, but I don't know. I'm just more easy-going than that. "Mr. Grodin," I thought, was my father. It's just an easier-going way to do it for people to call me Chuck. I'm trying to hold on to that 12-year-old persona.
O: In that book, you also describe yourself as a "'50s guy." What does that mean?
CG: It means that I have been writing my whole life, but I still write longhand. That I have a computer, but it's in a box in a garage. That I really never went for the technology of… I was looking at some new cars recently, and I was overwhelmed. I just don't understand half the things they're talking about. I can't read what the initials stand for on the dashboard. I just don't know, and I don't want to know. And I liked radio better when you turned it on and off and didn't have to deal with "seek" or "scan." I've got a 10-year-old Volvo, and I can't even touch some of the buttons on that dashboard.
O: So it's just a technological stance?
CG: Probably has to do with values, too.
O: People probably associate the '50s more with a set of social and political values than with a technological era.
CG: Well, I would kind of be there, with the exception of the advances that blacks and women have made, and gays have made, since then. I see the '50s as kind of a more civilized time, with the exception of those great advances that were made in those areas. I mean, if you listen to the radio today, sometimes you can't even believe you heard what you just heard. There's a vulgarity and a crudeness that got into the culture, and continues to… I think 90 percent of the country really rejects this, but everybody's so busy going about their business, no one really wants to step up and say, "What is this? How do we get rid of it?"
O: Your new book discusses that in some detail, about Howard Stern and Don Imus and so forth. Is their problem just crudeness?
CG: I think a lot of these people, they just find that this is the way to distinguish themselves. That they're just going to be different. They'll stand out from the crowd. So they do and say things that are just vulgar and rude. And I really don't have any idea who these people are. I'm more familiar with Imus, [who seems] very talented, like his heart is in the right place. And then before Memorial Day, he says, "Wouldn't it be funny if they blew the head off the Statue Of Liberty over the Memorial Day weekend?" I mean, I don't understand what he's doing. I don't like it, and I don't understand, and I wrestle with why some of my colleagues and friends regularly appear there, because they certainly don't approve of it. I don't go on these shows, because to me, to appear somewhere suggests some kind of approval. So I don't do it, although I do listen, because I do get a lot of information, and I keep waiting for the newsmakers to come on. At that time of the day, that's where I seem to get the best information. But the other stuff, and the unending ridicule and abuse that comes out of him. I think there's something wrong with him, and I think he may even know something's wrong with him. I mean, he was so happy when our Mars probe failed. He really does delight when things go bad for people. And I just don't… I understand people being competitive, but I don't understand rejoicing in the failure of other people.
O: Often, people who say they don't like Howard Stern also say they listen because he's unpredictable. They don't know what he's going to do next.
CG: I'm sure he is.
O: Does that have any appeal for you?
CG: No. Because it's just vulgar. I mean, he made my friend Gilda Radner cry because he asked her so many questions about her sex life. I don't understand why people would get near it. I guess people are looking to make a splash, and if they don't do that, they just sound like everybody else, so that's what they do. But Howard Stern went on television and played, for humorous reasons, with the remains of a young woman who overdosed on drugs. He got hold of her remains after she was cremated, and played with the bones as though it was funny. You know, this is really… You would expect somebody like that to be in a mental institution. I don't begin to understand them, and I don't want to get near them. In fact, when I had my show at CNBC, one of the reasons they said I was difficult was because I didn't want to have him on.
O: On that show, and on other talk shows, you gained a reputation for being confrontational yourself.
CG: Well, the Letterman and Carson thing, that really is self-defense. I mean, I just absolutely couldn't appear on those kind of shows and get huge laughs if I were going to go on and talk in a normal, conversational way. I just don't have that kind of confidence. It's extremely difficult to go out there and make a big impact, and just think of something humorous to say about whatever it is you're doing. However, if I go out there where I have a real problem that I have to work out on television—all created, all made up—it's all just a comedy bit. But unfortunately, a lot of people don't realize that I'm kidding. They think, "My God, what a rude, unpleasant guy." I mean, I went on once with a pre-arranged idea that [Letterman] wasn't going to be there, because he was home waiting for the cable people to come. And I went on, and there was nobody behind his desk. He was on the phone, explaining that he had a cable appointment and they hadn't come. And I said, "You know, I could have had something come up, but I had a commitment to be here, and I'm here. And I think it's really rude that you're not even here to host your own show." Well, it was shocking how many people didn't understand that that was a bit, and that we were kidding.
O: Is it important that everyone understand when you're joking, or are you mostly aiming for a select portion of your audience?
CG: Well, I would prefer that people not think I'm some miserable, rude, horrible person, because those are the kind of people I'm criticizing. I would prefer that people understand that this is all joking around. When I asked David Letterman for free tickets to Radio City Music Hall, because I'd been appearing for 20 years and still get the same salary as everyone else… I mean, I even think he thought I wanted tickets to Radio City Music Hall.
O: But if somebody doesn't get it, do you feel a responsibility to reach out to them and explain that it's a joke?
CG: I don't feel it's my responsibility, because you can't get everybody. I mean, I have that with 60 Minutes II. I just had a meeting with the head of broadcasting. And somebody has to be in charge of what goes out on the air. So I'll do a piece, and if he doesn't think it should go out on the air, or he wants me to change something—it's like a director in a movie. Somebody's got to be in charge, and it's not me. And I'm glad it's not me, because I have a much easier time taking criticism than rejecting other people's ideas. I'm not really comfortable putting people down or saying "I don't like that," or "That doesn't work for me," or "I don't find that funny." I really would rather deal with somebody telling me that than me having to tell someone that.
O: Do you think your public image has changed for the better since you started doing the CBS commentaries?
CG: Maybe to a degree. Then I undo it by appearing on Letterman, and confuse it all over again. I'm not really sure. I think it's a good change. I would rather people take me as straightforward and not have to wonder if I'm kidding or not. Because what I have to say, and what I'm interested in doing and communicating, is worthwhile enough that I don't want to muck it up with people being confused about where I'm really coming from. You know, it's interesting: I have a real tag on me as a liberal. Always have. And I always say, "Would somebody point out exactly what's so liberal?" Lately, when it comes to national security, or the estate tax, or free speech on the radio, I'm probably way over on the right. So it's kind of ironic that I have always been seen as so left-wing. That just says to me that the whole political-label thing is lazy thinking. Politically, I think there are two kinds of people: the people that care about other people and the people who don't. And the people that care about other people, they could be conservative, liberal, Green Party—anything. Then there's some people that just don't care at all. They absolutely don't care at all about anybody other than themselves. Whatever they may say, their actions speak louder. And that's the distinction between people. When you get into Democrat/Republican, liberal/conservative, I think it gets very confused.
O: There's a perception in America that, regardless of whether you care about people, if you actually want the government to do something about it, that's a left-wing posture.
CG: And I disagree with that, so maybe I'm left-wing. I mean, if the government didn't check the medications that are put on the marketplace, good luck. Because [corporations] definitely will sell you stuff that could hurt you, and have. There was an asthma medicine for children that they knew could cause brain damage in children, but only a few doctors, relatively speaking, knew about it. And it did cause brain damage. This was a case that Ralph Nader wrote about in one of his last books. So you really need to be protected. And you need the FAA for airline security. I mean, I'm about as interested in dealing with the government as a member of the militia. I don't want to have anything to do with the government. And yet if we don't have any regulations, there goes civilization, there goes security, and there goes protecting you against what people are going to sell you.
O: Do you actually consider yourself either a liberal or a conservative?
CG: No, I really don't. I mean, I can't, because too many opinions are all over the place.
O: What about Republican and Democrat? Do you think those are still meaningful distinctions?
CG: I don't know. I mean, they are. The parties are lined up a certain way. For whatever reasons, I'm more closely aligned with Republicans in New York state. Not philosophically, necessarily, but those are the people that I'm friendliest with. I'm not sure why that happened, but I am. And most of my friends, maybe because of the area I live in, are conservatives. But you have to look at each specific issue and say, "What do you really think about this?" It's so difficult to understand every issue, so you say "I'm a Republican" or "I'm a Democrat." But I'm trying to make an effort, as much as I can, to understand things and not really worry about the political thing. It just splits us down the middle. We spend more time debating with each other instead of trying to find solutions together. It seems to be more about winning than making the country a better place.
O: Are you interested in returning to film acting?
CG: No, I can't do that. Contractually, I can't, but I wouldn't have anyway. You know, it's taken me seven years since I've really started on the air, and in some people's minds… The person who runs NBC right now, I don't think he can ever adjust to the fact that what seemed like 10 minutes ago, I was telling a St. Bernard to get off a bed, and now I'm suddenly holding forth on every issue in America. So it's not in my interest to be perceived that way, even though I'm proud of what I did in the '70s, the '80s, the '90s. It kind of holds me back in what I do now, so I wouldn't want to do it again, but they absolutely don't want me to do it, either.
O: Even if you were playing more serious roles?
CG: No, because it's acting, and they really don't want that. I sometimes wonder, "Are you okay with me doing Letterman?" Because that's another form of acting. But they see that differently. And the other problem with acting, for me, is why I got out of it in the first place. I have a son who is now 14. You know, being a father is, far and away, way out in front. That's my main thing. I'd give up everything if I thought it would be of value to my son. And he originally wanted me to stay in the movies, but then I'd be away for a night or so, or even come home late, and he'd say, "Boy, I don't like this." I have a very close relationship with my family, and that would preclude me going anywhere, either.
O: It would also presumably preclude your moving into film direction.
CG: I never wanted to do that. The people who did it grew old as I watched. Over the course of a movie, you could see directors age. I directed off-Broadway and on Broadway and television specials, and… I'm not really interested in telling people what to do anymore. I can tell you what I think, but I don't want to tell anybody what to do.
O: Theatre is ephemeral by nature, and so is your television work, for the most part. But your films and books are still out there, and people can look at projects you worked on 30 years ago. Are you comfortable with that?
CG: I like it. I mean, I like what I've done. I mean, I have to like what I've done, because it's so tough—the minute you stick your head up, people start taking shots at you. So I'm always supporting myself, and I stand behind what I do. It's unbelievable, the amount of abuse that's out there, and the amount of hostility and anger. I did a radio interview the other day with a husband-and-wife team, and the husband… wow, was he sour. He kept saying, "This guy's to the left of Joe Stalin." I was thinking, "He doesn't even know what he's talking about. He doesn't even know who he's talking to. He's probably just some sour guy." There's a lot of that around. I've seen it from the very beginning, even starting in acting class: ridicule, abuse, making fun of. All the stuff that I despise. So if I did a project, I would always talk positively about it. I said, "That was good. I liked that. That was a good job." And my daughter would always say, "I can't believe you're talking that way." And now that she's in show business, she understands why I was doing it. Because you've got to be able to stand up. After a while, they'll just knock you out. Most people going into show business, they're knocked out within the first few years, because the rejection is so overwhelming. That's why I wrote my first book, It'd Be So Nice If You Weren't Here: to let people know that even somebody who became very successful took a ton of rejection.
O: What do you think is at the heart of all that negativity?
CG: Anger. Jealousy. Hostility. Stupidity, I would say.
O: Which of your films do you think has held up best over the years? What would you most like people to watch again now?
CG: Midnight Run. Midnight Run, I think, is the best movie I made, no question. Although Heaven Can Wait is an excellent movie. Heartbreak Kid is excellent. I've been in some really good movies. I thought Rosemary's Baby was excellent. That first movie that Albert Brooks made, Real Life, I think is really outstanding.
O: What was it like working with him when he was a first-time director?
CG: He's not the easiest guy in the world. I have great admiration for him professionally. Personally, he's not the kind of guy I'd be hanging out with.
O: Do you have any interest in doing DVD commentaries for your movies? Do you have any interest in revisiting them and telling people about them?
CG: I'm asked to do that a lot, and I never wanted to do it. I never wanted to do it when I was in the movies, because I always thought—to go and talk about the character, I mean—it's all about the illusion. And yet they want to show you everything behind the scenes. Even in the special-effects movies, they want to show you how everything is done. I don't understand that. I have no interest in watching an actor talk about his character in a movie. It just completely is antithetical toward the goal.
O: Are there any films out there that you'd like to erase entirely?
CG: No, not really. The only thing that comes to mind is one of the first movies I did. I'm slightly embarrassed that the first movie I did—which was a real low-budget movie called Fun Lovers—after we made it, they released it and called it Sex And The College Girl. And I'm embarrassed that that's now supposed to be the first movie I did. That wasn't the name of the movie that I did. And if there was any sex in that movie, I sure missed it. So I think of that. I liked some movies better than others, no question about it, but I wouldn't turn against anything.
O: You did recently do a CBS commentary supporting George W. Bush, but you didn't mention politics at all. You talked about his family and his cooking. That seemed an unusual direction to take.
CG: Well, I always would support the president. I think rooting against the president is like rooting against… You hope he's successful, and you hope whatever they want to do works. So I always am like that, whoever the president is. You know, I thought he was about the least qualified person I ever saw run for president. I still think so. I still hope he's tremendously successful. I mean, what's the point? We can't afford for him not to be successful.
O: How free are you to pick your own topics for your CBS commentaries?
CG: Well, I can pick them. That doesn't mean they're going on the air.
O: Has there been pressure for you to take those in any particular direction?
CG: No, absolutely not. I mean, the guy who runs the broadcast, that's a tough job, because he wants me to talk about things that are on everybody's mind, and say something no one has said, and hopefully be humorous about it. It's easier when I do radio commentary, because I record them on a disc, and I mail them in, and they go out on the CBS News Radio Network. Nobody discusses it with me at all. In fact, I was just telling the 60 Minutes II guy today about something I had done recently. He said, "Why didn't you do that for us?" I said, "Well, okay." He's very tough, but he's also a huge supporter of mine. And he even said to me today, there's going to be things that he's going to reject, and I'm just not going to agree with him. But that's the way it is, because somebody has to be in charge. When you look at 60 Minutes, 60 Minutes II, I can't imagine being responsible for putting something like that on every week, so I try to cause as little trouble as possible. If he disregards something that I want, or wants me to get rid of something that's in a piece, I'll just do it. My daughter is a stand-up comedian, and my son is 14, and they're outraged over this. They think, "What do you mean? But you're the one who…" I say, "Because somebody else has got to be in charge, and that's the way it is." I understand that we're going to disagree on things. But for the most part, it's a great job.