Hollywood just lost one of its brightest, most compelling stars in Charles Grodin. The master funnyman died Tuesday in his Wilton, Connecticut home from bone marrow cancer, confirms Nicholas Grodin in an email to CNN. He was 86. The Beethoven actor is survived by his wife, mystery author Elissa Durwood, their son Nicholas, and his daughter from a previous marriage, Marion.
Charles Grodin regaled audiences far and wide with his exceptional dry wit, classic deadpan, and delectably droll brand of humor. He shared the big screen with the likes of Alan Arkin, Orson Welles, Kevin Kline, Robert Downey, Jr., and Robert De Niro, but was easily the standout character every time. Grodin was born during the height of the Great Depression in Pittsburgh, to working-class Orthodox Jewish parents. He was a third-generation Russian immigrant; his maternal grandmother notably “came from a long line of rabbis.” The family was originally named Grodinsky. As a young man, Grodin dropped out of the University of Miami to study under celebrated acting coach Lee Strasberg in New York, and hasn’t looked back since.
Charles Grodin jumped between theater and a handful of uncredited movie roles before landing his big break in Catch-22, the first live-action Hollywood adaptation of Joseph Heller’s seminal war novel of the same name. Grodin played Alan Arkin’s clueless navigator Aarfy under Mike Nichols and Buck Henry’s careful tutelage. It was a supporting part, but quickly led to more roles.
Charles Grodin took on the lead role of emotionally stunted sporting goods salesman Lenny Cantrow in The Heartbreak Kid, an Elaine May-directed film that attracted the attention of the Academy. He was also in the 1976 remake of King Kong, co-starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, and appeared opposite friend and fellow actor Robert De Niro in the critically acclaimed action-comedy Midnight Run. The film became a cult classic and would later inspire similar buddy cop movies like Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard.
In 1977, Grodin got his first taste of talk show hosting when he made his debut in Saturday Night Live; he didn’t know it then, but this one-time gig would eventually lead to a storied career doing stand-up opposite David Letterman and Johnny Carson, and in his own show, The Charles Grodin Show. It ran for three episodes before getting canceled. Two years earlier, in 1975, Grodin received recognition for playing Ellen Burstyn’s plus one in Same Time, Next Year, a theater production by Bernard Slade about a couple engaged in an illicit affair.
The 90s brought about the golden age of Charles Grodin, thanks in part to successive roles in the era’s most bankable films. Grodin played the disgruntled dad opposite a St. Bernard in the Beethoven series, possibly his greatest role yet. Then he appeared in Heart and Souls as one of Robert Downey, Jr.’s guardian angels, and in Dave, as Kevin Kline’s pretend U.S. President’s unofficial accountant.
Charles Grodin took 12 years off, and began guest-starring in a number of hit television shows, including Law and Order spinoff Special Victims Unit and another actor’s post-hiatus series, The Michael J. Fox Show. Audiences last saw an aging Charles Grodin play an eccentric doctor in Louis C.K.’s building in FX dramedy Louie. Aside from writing memoirs and trying to get his talk show off the ground, Grodin spent his final years watching his children grow up and the entertainment world advance, partly due to his myriad contributions.
Robert De Niro spoke fondly of Grodin after his death, saying, “Chuck was as good a person as he was an actor. Midnight Run was a great project to work on, and Chuck made it an even better one. He will be missed. I am very very sad to hear of his passing.”
Charles Grodin was a prolific writer in his youth. His memoir, It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here: My Journey Through Show Business, was published in 1989 and provides an intriguing sneak peek into the life and loves of the comedic tour de force Grodin had become.