Lonely at the Top
By Josh Alan Friedman
Charles Grodin passed away today on May 18, 2021. This interview was done for The Movies magazine in 1983. Charles went into put-on mode the moment I walked into his trailer on the set of The Lonely Guy.
Charles Grodin is a movie star. He’s been a star for along time now. Since The Heartbreak Kid in 1972. Experience, as always, tells: Grodin thinks like a star, acts like a star, and talks like one. In his latest picture, The Lonely Guy, he co-stars with Steve Martin. Martin plays the title character—an unemployed writer of greeting cards who’s recently been dumped by his girlfriend—and Grodin plays his sidekick, also a kind of professional Lonely Guy.
On The Lonely Guy set recently Grodin is keeping to his mobile van, parked among a dozen other production vehicles on New York’s Upper West Side, where the crew is shooting exteriors. While Arthur Hiller blocks a barroom scene across the street, Grodin lounges inside the most luxurious trailer on the set and talks about the perks of stardom.
“I think they gave this trailer to me out of respect for my position in the industry,” he says. “Even though Steve Martin is considered a bigger star, I’ve done more pictures. Arthur didn’t get that good a trailer and made sure mine really was the best trailer on the picture.”
Steve Martin’s trailer actually resembles a sloppy camper where the star sits tensely after ten weeks of shooting and tepid reviews for The Man With Two Brains. Grodin’s trailer is more like a mobile resort. “This one has a sauna and a swimming pool, not a big pool, but bigger than a hot tub. The only thing is they keep knocking on the door to ask you to come out and film. You have to do it, it’s a contractual thing; they can really bust into your privacy. You can be right in the middle of a hot tub experience, but you have to towel down and go off and film. That’s the tough part of the business.”
Grodin prefers the trailer to his New York apartment because he can invite friends over for things like floating Monopoly games in the pool. It makes him nervous, though, when the trailer is stationed on the West Side location, and he always refuses to leave unless the scene absolutely demands his appearance.
“I don’t generally like to work on the West Side. I pretty much try and do all my films on the East Side. There’s less of a chance that someone will get you; there are more doormen keeping an eye out as you pass. That was one of my big concessions in doing The Lonely Guy. I come to Columbus Avenue for the shot, then they whisk me outta here in the motor home, back to the East Side. A lot of my films are set on the West Side, so I have them fix up the East Side to look like the West Side. It costs more money, but if they want me, that’s the deal. I think of the Apocalypse Now experience a lot of actors went through in the Philippines—that inspired me to come over on the West Side for today’s scene.”
Even on the East Side, Charles Grodin spottings are rare: “Let’s be honest, there are East Side diseases, too. People might see me on Carson, but I’m transported in a vacuum van. I stay pretty clean. Steve Martin and I have that in common—we’re good friends but we don’t touch each other.”
Though Martin plays the title character, Grodin, made-up for his part, is an even lonelier presence with hollow, shell-shocked eyes that stare from wire-rimmed glasses. “They assumed I was lonely, when in fact, I’m not even mildly lonely. Somehow they got the idea that I was the guy to get for the part of an authority on loneliness, a Lonely Maven, probably because nobody ever saw me anywhere. That’s why Redford was the first choice for my part, nobody ever sees him anywhere. Who knows what he’s doing up there on the mountain.”
Grodin’s head is matted down with a thinning hair piece, a lonely makeup appendage Redford would never go for. They very name Redford seems to make him twitch, but Grodin’s sense of values keep him in balance. “Being a movie star is a lot more important than being a person. That’s the important thing, ’cause a lot of people think you have to be a person. It doesn’t matter what anyone tells you. If you have a chance to be a movie star, forget about being a person. A lot of people can be persons. But there’s only a handful of us that can be movie stars. You never see Redford anywhere, do you? When’s the last time anyone ever saw Redford, he’s up on a mountain in Utah, he doesn’t have to know from any of this stuff, East Side, West Side, forget about it with him. He doesn’t even have to do movies anymore, he just has to agree to do them, and then there’s a lot of publicity, and you don’t actually see him in the movie. They just announce it, everybody gets excited, the studio looks good, the director says, ‘I’m doing the new Redford picture.’ The last time he actually appeared was what? President’s Men? Electric Horseman? But even Horseman, that was done way off somewhere, he didn’t have to come and be around people, it was just him and a horse. You don’t see Redford on the West Side at all.
“Most people—myself excluded, of course—can relate to the idea of loneliness,” continues Grodin, folding his hands ever more earnestly. “I feel very well connected to Neil Simon’s script. It was fun for me to read about what lonely people go through, ’cause I never knew anything about it. I haven’t seen Neil around while we’re shooting. He does not come to the West Side. So for actual life experience with loneliness, I get all my information from Steve Martin. But everything in the script comes from the theme of loneliness. It gives people something to relate to other than outer space. When they want something that doesn’t have the word ‘Jedi’ in the title.
“This is a comic treatment of the subject, because serious movies don’t even open in America, they don’t even get onto television. Public TV of France, they’ll show a serious movie about loneliness. A studio in America wouldn’t make a serious movie about loneliness even with Redford. They could lose all their Jedi money. I’ll tell ya, they don’t want to do a serious movie about anything—that’s my experience.”
Grodin stands and stretches, preparing to journey across the street to the set. “I don’t get to do any nude scenes in this picture, and you probably sense I’m a little miffed; they said I’d get to run down Fifth Avenue nude, to really show how lonely a person can get.”
Grodin straightens up when a knock comes, telling him they’re ready to shoot. “Time to get serious,” he says, heading out the door.