THE MAN WHO TORTURES THE STARS
by James Gavin
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.