Sunday, March 12, 1995


by James Gavin

CHARLES GRODIN likes to sum up the last days of his 30-year film career with the line "Get that dog off the bed!" After playing straight man to a St. Bernard in two family comedies, "Beethoven" and "Beethoven's 2d," he is exiting from the movies -- and, it appears, from stage acting, directing, writing plays and writing books, to name some of his other pursuits. Enter Charles Grodin, cable talk-show star.

"The Charles Grodin Show" began broadcasting from the CNBC studios in Fort Lee, N.J., on Jan. 9. So far it has about 200,000 viewers -- a healthy rating by CNBC standards. It may also have the potential for a cult following.

Ken Tucker, writing in Entertainment Weekly, included Mr. Grodin's talk show as one of two (with Tom Snyder's show) that go against the "all-too-familiar grain of irony that characterizes the great Letterman and the less-great-in-descending-order Jon Stewart, Greg Kinnear and Conan O'Brien. . . . Grodin has done what we hoped (and sorta feared) he'd do: expand his self-parodying loutishness in making the move from talk-show guest to host. . . . The results are yielding terrific television."

Indeed the show, shown week nights at 10, has a very different kind of feeling from other talk shows. It is less predictable, less promotional, maybe even more truthful.

Mr. Grodin calls his series "dessert": it is made up of chats mostly with show-business friends like Carol Burnett and Marlo Thomas and visits from favorite singers like Rosemary Clooney and Tony Orlando. Mr. Grodin, however, doesn't make it easy for these performers to plug their latest projects -- a staple of other talk shows. "Nobody cares what anybody has coming up next," he says. "That's a bad question."

So what's a good one? Given his habit of hanging on to the camera like a puppy with a rag toy, the best questions seem to be ones that ricochet back to him.

Seated in his Fort Lee office between tapings, the movie-actor-turned-host, now 59, looks frozen in time, at about age 40: his brown hair devoid of gray, his skin tighter than it was when he starred in "The Heartbreak Kid," in 1972. It was then that he began appearing frequently on talk shows; his stock in trade became hurling insults at David Letterman and Johnny Carson. Along the way, Mr. Grodin cast his net over so many fields that he may have missed making a solid mark in any of them, despite acclaimed performances in movies like "Heaven Can Wait" and "Midnight Run."

Now, with his wife, Elissa, and their 7-year-old son, Nicholas, he says he wants to stay put in Connecticut (he won't say exactly where he lives) and make this new venture last "forever." (He signed a two-year contract, but CNBC can drop him after a year.) He also wants to do it his way, so no suggestions, please.

Roger Ailes, the president of CNBC and one of Mr. Grodin's champions, says Mr. Grodin will ask for suggestions, but "then he'll say, 'Of course I only want you to tell me I'm brilliant.' " Mr. Ailes has responded by saying he also knows something about what works on a show. But his host feels that he does, too. After 40 years in show business, he has accumulated enough opinions, stories and neuroses to fill several analysts' logs. Instead, he fills his show with them.

Each hour opens with 10 minutes of vintage Grodin: a monologue in which he settles an old score or cocks an impatient eyebrow at politics, movies, whatever is irking him. In January he talked back to a replay of the President's State of the Union Message, mocking the rhetoric that drew standing ovations: "Nobody wants fear and paralysis and terror. Good! Standing O. Clean up toxic dumps? Big! Stand, everybody, stand!"

After the monologue, his guests arrive and the questions begin. How, he asked Angie Dickinson, does she let a man know she's interested in him? The actress had just enough time to respond "Pick up the check, I guess" before he launched into a long chapter from his own dating history. After several minutes of her host's chatter and worshipful asides ("Angie, you just look sooo good"), Ms. Dickinson realized that if anyone was going to bring up her new movie, it would have to be her.

When John Cleese appeared on the show to promote his new book, "Life and How to Survive It," Mr. Grodin spent so much time ridiculing the book that Mr. Cleese was finally reduced to chanting (very funnily) "Buy the book, buy the book, buy the book" directly to the camera.

ONCE IN A WHILE, SPARKS FLY, in a way not seen on other talk shows. Mr. Grodin angrily accused the defense attorney Alan M. Dershowitz, one of O. J. Simpson's lawyers, of not caring about justice, just winning. And when Jackie Collins, the best-selling author of quasi-erotic fiction, said she had no use for gorgeous men because "it's what's in the mind that counts," Mr. Grodin cut in: "Right, Jackie, right. I appreciate your forthrightness and honesty." Facing the camera, he added, "We'll get Jackie to tell the truth before the night is over."

Most of the time, though, the focus stays on Mr. Grodin. "Can I have the camera, please?" he keeps asking. Even while his singers are performing, the cameramen keep cutting back to his enraptured face. Those shots make the top brass a little nervous, but Mr. Grodin stands firm. "It was my idea to have the singer on, and it was my idea to cut to a reaction shot," he says testily. "People want to see the host watching the singer, especially me, because I love it."

Now putting his feet up on the desk, he talks about ending his movie career. "I was more in demand than I had ever been," he says. "This is because of 'Beethoven,' not because people suddenly took a great liking to me in the movies." Last year, Universal offered him a $10 million budget to direct and star in one of his own comedies, "The Secret Life of Man." He turned it down.

"I wasn't going to go off and do movies and leave my family at home," he says. Staying with them meant working either in Connecticut or in New York. "Well, what could you do?" he asks. "I could have had my own sitcom. I didn't want that. I could have had one for 25 years."

But a talk show is what Mr. Grodin says he has wanted for years. "I'd rather do this than anything else," he says. "I like to talk to people. I like to joke around. I like to learn about different points of view."

He began negotiating with King World, the company that distributes Oprah Winfrey's show, to star in a syndicated show that might have pitted him against Jay Leno and David Letterman. Instead he accepted an offer from Andy Friendly, the executive producer for CNBC, for what he describes as "way less" money. Now he commutes across the Hudson River on Mondays and Wednesdays to tape four weekly shows. (Repeats are shown on Fridays and weekends.) Other days he stays home writing monologues, station promos and questions.

The reviews have been mainly good but not good enough for him. He claims to screen out anything negative, then bitterly refutes almost every criticism on the air: that he hogs the interviews, has dead-looking eyes and so on.

Does Mr. Grodin feel that any of the criticism is justified? "None," he says. "None whatsoever." But asked to do some self-evaluation, the thoughts tumble out: The monologues are too long. He dominates his guests. Too few of them are young.

Regrets about his own career follow. "I'm not one of those guys who say they would never change a thing," he admits. "I'd change a lot of things." Talking on the show with Marlo Thomas, he turned to address the viewers: "Marlo tells me, 'You're a great actor. You were on Broadway with Ellen Burstyn in 'Same Time Next Year.' Now you're making movies with dogs. You're up there with Miss Piggy.' " He often mentions passing up the lead in "Jaws" to do a friend a favor: going to Boston to direct the ailing play "Thieves," written by a close pal, Herb Gardner.

"What I did not do in 30 years in the movies," he says, "was form relationships with people who could help me. I could have scored heavily if I'd moved to Hollywood and entered into the social scene." Thanks to cable, he has one more chance to score.