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R.I.P. Charles Grodin

Actor Charles Grodin attends the 51st New York Film Festival, September 27, 2013. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Veteran actor Charles Grodin has died at 86. Grodin’s best work was often as a supporting player, which allowed him to give free rein to his fundamental quirkiness and offbeat humor. Even his starring roles were often not quite starring; in Beethoven, he played second fiddle to a dog. In his most indelible and enduring screen role, Midnight Run, he was a quirky bookkeeper whose quirks drove Robert De Niro and Yaphet Kotto up the wall. (Kotto, himself a tremendous character actor, died earlier this year.)

And yet the most audaciously quirky of all of Grodin’s roles was himself, or at least a televised version of himself, as a late-night-talk-show guest and in his own, short-lived mid-1990s late-night talk show on (of all places) CNBC. Roger Ailes hired Grodin for that job, before leaving CNBC to start Fox News. In a way, Grodin’s earnest histrionics helped pave the way for the evening shout-show careers of Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann. Grodin’s politics were liberal, if not always quite conventionally so, but what made the show a must-watch was its bizarre unpredictability, amplified by Grodin’s hesitating delivery. Grodin had long been one of the oddball guests on David Letterman, prone to insulting Dave, but his show posed the question, “What if the weird, uncomfortable guest was the host?” As a Vulture retrospective (quoting a contemporary Entertainment Weekly review) described Grodin’s transition from guest to host:

Grodin, whose career spans nearly fifty years, is a well-known thorn in the side of hosts who have spent decades dealing with his aggressive demeanor. His early guest appearances on the talk show circuit were quickly categorized as schtick, the affectation of a combative character whose eye-rolling accusations aimed to expose the fake friendliness of celebrity culture — and to prove that audiences loved the abuse. Throughout his shifting career, Grodin’s maintained and expanded on this “character,” challenging hosts and audiences to play along with the joke, or become the target. . . . “As a guest on Letterman and, earlier, Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Grodin excelled at the rude put-on, provoking reaction by seeming to appear angry or offended by his host. Now sitting in the opposite chair, Grodin frequently ignores his guest and gasses on about himself.” He became known for launching into off-topic digressions and demanding more camera time, tics that comic Dana Carvey repeatedly skewered on his short-lived variety show.

The New York Times called him “The Man Who Tortures the Stars”:

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.” . . . 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!”

Watching his show, you got the sense that nobody — including the host — quite knew what Grodin would do next, and that edgy volatility made it compelling television even when the actual content of Grodin’s rants was not all that interesting. For a sampling, here is his show reacting to the OJ verdict (complete with the slow jazz theme song).

And another 1996 episode, which among other things features a very young-looking Tony Snow:

Here he is as a genially rude guest on Hannity & Colmes, years later:

R.I.P.

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