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Charles Grodin, Star Of 'Beethoven' And 'Midnight Run,' Has Died At 86

May 18, 2021
Originally published on May 19, 2021 6:17 am

Updated May 18, 2021 at 4:30 PM ET

Actor Charles Grodin, whose comic characters were almost always hapless, and whose serious characters generally gave that trademark haplessness a sinister twist, died Tuesday of cancer at his home in Wilton, Conn. He was 86.

His death, from bone marrow cancer, was confirmed to NPR by his son, actor Nicholas Grodin.

He was the obstetrician who gave Rosemary's Baby to a coven of witches, the dog owner who couldn't control his enormous Saint Bernard in the Beethoven movies, and the man who met the girl of his dreams just a little bit late in The Heartbreak Kid. He was, sad to say, on his honeymoon.

Grodin credited Elaine May's direction of The Heartbreak Kid with jump-starting his film career in 1972, though he'd made his debut as an uncredited child actor almost two decades earlier in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He became a familiar face in such comedies as Heaven Can Wait and Midnight Run, in which he played an accountant pursued by Robert De Niro after having embezzled from the mob.

When not working in films, Grodin directed plays on Broadway, including Lovers and Other Strangers in 1968 and Thieves in 1974 with Marlo Thomas. And in 1975, he scored a big success opposite Ellen Burstyn as an annual philanderer in the Broadway romantic comedy Same Time, Next Year (the part went to Alan Alda in the film version).

Grodin once described himself as "low-key, but high-strung," which also described a lot of his characters. And he was so sought after as a talk-show guest on late-night TV (Johnny Carson had him on The Tonight Show 36 times), he ended up hosting a talk show host himself in the 1990s.

His knack for deadpan humor extended to books with titles such as How I Got to Be Whoever It Is I Am.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The deadpan expressions of the actor Charles Grodin made him the star of movies like "The Heartbreak Kid." He also starred on Broadway and wrote books and hosted talk shows. Grodin died of cancer yesterday at age 86. NPR's Bob Mondello has a remembrance.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: A Charles Grodin character was nearly always doughy, soft-spoken and, most of all, hapless. He was the obstetrician who gave Rosemary's baby to a coven of witches, the dog owner who couldn't control his enormous Saint Bernard in the "Beethoven" movies and the man who met the girl of his dreams just a little bit late in "The Heartbreak Kid."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HEARTBREAK KID")

CHARLES GRODIN: (As Lenny) There is a slight complication. I happen to be a newlywed. She's a nice girl but just not really my type.

MONDELLO: Grodin credited Elaine May's direction of "The Heartbreak Kid" with jumpstarting his film career in 1972. Though, he'd made his debut in "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" almost two decades earlier. He scored a Broadway hit opposite Ellen Burstyn in the romantic comedy "Same Time Next Year" and became a familiar face in Hollywood comedies from "Heaven Can Wait" to "Ishtar" - talk about hapless - to "The Great Muppet Caper," in which he haplessly competed with Kermit the Frog for Miss Piggy's affections. Publicizing so many projects made him a frequent talk show guest. And for those occasions, he created a curmudgeonly version of himself, sparring with Johnny Carson more than 30 times.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON")

GRODIN: So far, I'm just kind of, like, trying to defend myself here, you know?

JOHNNY CARSON: No, no. I didn't mean...

GRODIN: I haven't said anything about anything...

CARSON: That's right.

GRODIN: ...Other than would you please try to make this a more pacific...

CARSON: Convivial type of a thing?

GRODIN: Yes, yes.

CARSON: Well, I'll do my best.

GRODIN: When are you going to start?

CARSON: Well, I'm...

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: Charles Grodin ended up hosting a talk show himself in the '90s. His knack for deadpan humor extended to self-deprecating books he wrote about his career with titles like "How I Got To Be Whoever It Is I Am."

Bob Mondello, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.