Charles Grodin picked me up at the Westport stop on the Metro-North line around noon. I had to take the hourlong train ride, because—as he explained it—why should he have come to the city for me?
Granted, he’s owned an apartment on the Upper West Side for the past few years, but he’s still getting used to the place and has yet to spend a night there.
This month he published If I Only Knew Then … Learning From Our Mistakes, a compilation of famous people’s mistakes and what lessons people such as Paul Newman and Gene Wilder learned. The proceeds—including his $300,000 advance—are going to the charity HELP! USA, which helps the homeless become self-reliant.
As I got off the train he was easy to spot, leaned up against his black Volvo sedan, movie-star incognito in a zip-up sweater, sweat pants, a Yankees ball cap pulled down low and sunglasses.
He took me to the Red Barn, where everyone knew his name and a younger likeness of the 72-year-old great man hangs from a banister.
Normally he would probably get a cheeseburger, but cheeseburgers are awkward to eat in front of strangers. They require opening your mouth wide, which can be an unpleasant visual, a fact he demonstrated by mimicking what he looks like when chomping into a burger.
“I mean, today I’m not going to do that,” he said. “I’ll have a seafood salad, ya know?”
He also ordered two chopped salads to go, which he planned to serve as a side to dinner guests that evening. The dinner party had nothing to do with his book. Which reminded him of something he’d like to clarify.
“This whole thing about right wing, left wing, it really makes me laugh,” he said. “I was on a conservative guy’s talk show, and he introduced me like I’m this radical left-wing guy. And he asks, ‘What are you going to do if in Pakistan, someone was e-mailing a suspected terrorist in America?’ I said, ‘Get to them as fast as you can.’ I had the exact opposite reaction of what he was expecting. He thought I’d be like, ‘Oh no … you better …’ I said, ‘You want to see what books I’m taking out of the library? Be my guest! If you can spot me or anyone else on a computer figuring out how to make a bomb, swoop in right away!’ He’s got me completely wrong.”
Mr. Grodin definitely enjoys hearing himself talk, much more than his wife or kids do. He allows that when he’s got a captive audience, he likes to take full advantage. “And you know, I’m against the estate tax,” he added. “That’s a conservative position. So the positions have to do completely with what’s the question.”
Lately he’s been doing press for this book and speaking at charity events, about four a month. Since he’s a well-known, lifelong activist, charity committees surely see him as an easy mark—so long as their event doesn’t require him traveling out of state. His motto is to say yes whenever possible. He also has about eight causes of his own—the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the homeless and cancer research, to name a few—that he has tirelessly pursued.
The seafood salad arrived.
“So I found it funny—it just occurred to me the other day,” he said, “Right-wing groups, left-wing groups. When I was in this thing, when I was working for a dollar an hour for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, that was my first job. Dollar an hour, full uniform, dollar sixty-two if you were in Brooklyn on the shipyards on the night shift. All I really could afford were a package of chicken wings. They cost 19 cents a package. I could just go to the market, and I had an electric frying pan that I hid under my socks. Because I couldn’t go into a restaurant—I couldn’t afford that.
“And now that I can eat what I want to eat, it’s amazing how many times I’m eating chicken wings,” he continued. “So what I thought of, with all this left wing or right wing—that’s the wing that I want. And it’s really true, I like chicken wings as much as anything at all. That’s my wing, if you want to place me in the political spectrum. It’s the chicken wing.”
Charles Grodinsky was born in 1935 in Pittsburgh, the son of Orthodox Jewish parents. His father owned a supply store that sold linings, zippers and buttons. The mistake he relays in the new book is that he wishes he’d helped out more in Dad’s store; he was more interested in sports and drama. This annoyed his father and resulted in a distant relationship—throughout high school they communicated mostly through letters. When Chuck was 18 his father suddenly died. The lesson he took away: “You need to, first and foremost, do what you believe is right, but sometimes giving a lot of thought to what a loved one feels will significantly affect what you believe is right. Sometimes getting your way isn’t really worth it.”
In high school he was elected class president eight times in a row.
“I was home sick in bed,” he said. “I was 14. My mother answers the phone, and some girl in the class said, ‘Tell Chuck he was just elected class president.’ It’s not like I was even running—I wasn’t even in the class at that time. Well, that kept happening.” He finally asked a classmate asked why he kept getting elected even though he never ran.
“And she said, ‘Because you care about people.’ And, that’s simply it. Some people do care, and some people don’t. Relatively few people do, which makes these of us who do, you know, we have limited ranks here. That’s why I’ve now gotten interested in kind of recruiting people.”
Indeed, he’s had his share of brushes with folks who don’t care so much; he’s been working in showbiz for near half a century.
He had roles in Rosemary’s Baby and Catch-22, but his big break came in 1972 in Neil Simon’s Heartbreak Kid, in which he stared opposite Cybill Shepherd. He confessed that Ms. Shepherd was not actually nude in the famous scene in which she appears to disrobe.
“I’ve never seen a girl naked onscreen or offscreen,” he told me. “Never. I’ve not even seen myself naked. I avert my eyes, I’m very like puritanical.”