As part of his starring role in the 1974 caper flick 11 Harrowhouse, Charles Grodin provides the narration. His character is introduced while sitting glumly in a posh waiting area. Grodin’s distinctive voice flatly states: “That’s me there. I don’t know if it’s obvious, but I’m pretty uncomfortable. It’s actually my normal state, but in this place it’s a lot worse.”
Grodin is one of the credited screenwriters for the film, and him tapping out the words he’ll say only formalized a process that was embedded in every bit of acting he did across his long career. No matter the film or television project, the material always bent towards him. He didn’t impose his persona on whatever he did so much as a stand obstinately and let it come to him. He was still game for anything — such as caddishly romancing Miss Piggy and giving his all in an efficiently overacted death scene that encapsulated the tone of Dino De Laurentiis’s remake of King Kong — but it always felt like a version of Grodin was always coming through. He was always present. To a degree, “Charles Grodin” was his greatest and most enduring role.
And why wouldn’t he commit to such a juicy part? As he proved across various endeavors — acting, writing, hosting his own talk show — Grodin had a rapidly clicking intelligence that could make the most mundane interactions into grand comic achievements. It’s no mere coincidence that some of the true geniuses of comedy — Elaine May, Lily Tomlin, and Albert Brooks, to name a few — sought him out for their projects. He elevated the material so assuredly that his presence was a blessing.
Blessing actually seems too small a word to describe Grodin as a talk show guest, especially during the nineteen-eighties and -nineties when his appearances with Johnny Carson and David Letterman raised irritated combativeness to an art form. There are arguments to be made, and admiration to be registered, about Grodin’s panel act as satiric dismantling of the perpetuating commerce through feigned showbiz camaraderie. It’s more satisfying to see it as the very funny creation of a gifted performer, a man uniquely skilled at making discomfort into gold.