About two years ago, Steve Guttenberg walked into the showbiz haunt Crustacean on Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills.
“I walked in and the maitre d’ made a big deal for me,” said Mr. Guttenberg. The Goot—as he’s known to his friends—appreciated the show. To hear him tell it, eating in public in Los Angeles is a dangerous business for an actor whose last box office hit was Three Men and a Baby in 1987.
“All of a sudden, the maitre d’ says, ‘Get out of the way!’” said Mr. Guttenberg. “And they literally threw me to the side and Tom Cruise came in. And he sat Tom Cruise and said, ‘I’m so sorry, but you know, Tom Cruise.’ And I’m like, ‘Holy fuck.’”
So after three decades in L.A., he bought a place on the Upper West Side. “I came to New York to find a better life,” he said. Uprooting took some time. The 15-year-old golden retriever he loved dearly was old and sick; the golden died a month ago. So two weeks ago, the wavy-haired, Brooklyn-born 49-year-old actor, who describes his career as a “32-year-overnight success,” finally made it back to New York City.
“In L.A., I think about what I don’t have,” he told me. “In New York, I think about what I do have. And I’m really tired of comparing myself to Tom Cruise.”
We met on a recent afternoon at the Players Club, which faces Gramercy Park and was founded in 1888 by the great stage actor Edwin Booth and Mark Twain, among many others. The walls are lined with paintings of great actors, many of them long passed, but all familiar to the man who memorably embodied the role of Newton Crosby, the cheery scientist who created and learned to love a military robot in Short Circuit.
Mr. Guttenberg was wearing a starched white V-neck, a pair of black aviators hooked at the V, distressed jeans ripped at the knee, and some Wallabees. Textbook Hollywood-casual.
“I turned around, and took a good look at myself, and I didn’t like what I saw,” he continued. “I started to lose some of my values. Hollywood is a place where people spend more than they make to impress people they don’t like, who don’t care anyway. And I have a certain weakness of character, and I’m at this point in my life, I’m not strong enough to live there.
“I pop out of bed at 6:30. And I say my prayers, and every day have a little hot water and lemon, that’s my start,” he said. “And I go take a run in Central Park.” The other day, he met an attractive female jogger. Got her digits. They went on a date. Didn’t work out, but last Thursday he took a blond Cornell grad to the Water Club.
“Nothing sexier than a smart woman,” he said. “The Goot is on the loose.”
After his morning jog, he hits the gym in his building; he lives in the Reebok Condo on Columbus Avenue and 67th Street. “I’ve tried to stay fit, you know, because it’s my instrument, this is my violin,” he said, gesturing over his body. “I play the violin. So I want to keep it tuned up …. So I work out there during the day, and then I write.”
Writing takes up a good three hours. He’s working on a play, two scripts and a book about his first 10 years in Hollywood. Tentative title: Diary of a Seducer. Then he’ll cook himself a light lunch. He goes to MoMA a few times a week. He watches a movie every day—yesterday he saw Hancock, before that it was Wall-E, the day before it was M*A*S*H. He tries to read part of a great play every day; right now it’s House of Blue Leaves, by John Guare.
At the Players Club, he showed me Mr. Booth’s room, which has been preserved as it was when he died. “It makes you think, right?” he said. “Nothing really matters. Like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, who cares? … You know, it’s like time, the great equalizer.”
On the balcony overlooking Gramercy Park, he talked about his career. You might have seen him on Dancing With the Stars. What you probably don’t know is that in the past two years, the Goot has done eight indie films.
“I go in spurts,” he said. Upcoming Goot pictures include Mojave Phone Booth, about a phone booth in the middle of the desert, and Major Movie Star, in which he plays Jessica Simpson’s dad.
“I guess that’s just an artist’s life,” he said, gazing out over the park. His eyes are almost yellow; his smile is equally dramatic and bright; he looks like an ecstatic child. “And sometimes it’ll appear that an artist isn’t doing anything, but he’s doing his own work, or he’s doing work that you don’t see. And I feel I’m very, very fortunate to have the career I have. I’ve done some popular work, and I’ve done some artistic work that hasn’t been as popular but has a lot of merit.”
For example, there was P.S. Your Cat Is Dead!, which he adapted from the play by James Kirkwood and directed. “I think an actor can only do what he’s offered. So if you don’t get offered the stuff that you want, you don’t work. You know, so many people would say to me, ‘You haven’t worked in this long,’ like it’s a crime. You know, I’m an artist. I paint when I want to paint.
“I remember being in the Four Seasons Hotel having lunch and John Travolta came in before Pulp Fiction,” he continued. “And I remember people who knew him were turning away, because they didn’t want anyone to see him talking to them ’cause he wasn’t hot.”
The Goot may feel that he never really got his big break. But who can forget Cadet Carey Mahoney in the Police Academy movies, 1 through 4. Or him stealing the movie from Kevin Bacon in Barry Levinson’s 1982 picture, Diner? He also played the shirtless captain of the boat that aliens use to rescue their friends in Cocoon, a role he reprised in the sequel. And Three Men and a Baby was the biggest film of 1987! Three Men and a Little Lady, not so much.
You’d think that those successes and the various others would be enough for a man to hang his hat on. Not the Goot. He’s a worrier.
“I am a seducer, I’m a salesman,” he said. “I’m trying to get people to buy my message. I do have a message. I’m as corny as Ka
nsas in August. I’m as high as a kite on the Fourth of July. That’s from South Pacific, but yeah, I do have a message …” He looked at the busy street below and into the private park across the street. “The meek will inherit the earth,” he said, in a softer voice. “So be nice to the meek. The old man spitting on the corner. The janitor cleaning up. The man behind the counter at the convenience store. Those are our people—that guy driving that truck—they make the world go. And, you know, the powerful and the wealthy, there’s a place for everybody, but don’t put the regular guy down. And that comes from me. I’m an ordinary guy living an extraordinary life, but I’m an ordinary guy. I’m not a fancy fellow.”
His father was an Army Ranger, then an NYPD cop, before becoming an electrical engineer and moving his family to Massapequa. At age 12, young Steve—one friend called him “Gootin Rootin Tootin”—knew he wanted to be an actor.
“I think some people do understand that message, that I’m an ordinary guy trying to paint pictures of ordinary people, in an extraordinary life,” he said. And then there are the people he calls the “hippoisie. These are the people who think I’m not apathetic enough for them. That the tone in my voice goes up too often. That I smile too much. That I’m too happy. So, to them, I say, ‘Fuck you.’”
It irks him that his nice-guy persona has hurt his career. “A prick has got substance,” he said, shaking his head. “I like being nice. But as an actor, a lot of times people mistake niceness, kindness, for a weakness of your character.
“Lately I’ve heard a lot of people ask, ‘Is Steve Guttenberg really that nice?’” he said. “And I think, how shitty. When you’re a prick, people believe it right away. No questions asked. If you’re really nice, people are like, ‘Is he really that nice, what’s up his sleeve?’ Oh, fuck you.”
The Goot does have his vices.
“I indulge in wine, and I love vodka, I do,” he said. “And I love scotch, you know. And I love weed. And I love women. And I do have, you know, those … Addiction is such an overused word. Addiction is just someone famous walking around the street. It’s so whacked out, but I think that there are certainly times that I use money to make me feel better.” A couple years ago, he got in a big fight with his mom, and he bought her a $25,000 diamond necklace.
“If I feel lousy, I’ll do what the next president of the United States did: smoke a joint,” he said. “It’s documented in his book. I’ll go into a bar and down two beers. I’ll go out with women, because it’ll make me feel better. Women that I shouldn’t be around, but maybe they’ll make me feel better.”
He estimated that he’s dated some 600 women, but still hasn’t found Mrs. Right. He hopes to; he wants a family.
“I’ll lie to make myself feel better,” he said. “If I feel shitty, and someone says, ‘What are you working on,’ I’ll get really pissed off and go, ‘Yeah I’m doing a thriller with, you know, George Clooney.’ I make myself feel better by that—that’s an addiction to whatever that is, to make myself feel better, to take the pain away.”
He added, “When I was a kid and my parents would argue, I would go in my room and watch TV or I’d go to the movies or read a fairy tale, make myself feel better.”
Just being in New York has made him feel better. Earlier that day, the man at the bodega gave him a free paper.
He’s being honored at the Fire Island Golden Wagon Film Festival on July 19. They’re doing a retrospective of his work and giving him the Tony Randall Lifetime Achievement Award. “It’s not a gay festival,” he said. “I guess you know Fire Island’s pretty gay. Hey! I gotta tell you something—a good gay rumor about me might not be a bad thing to start. You know, a lot of heavyweight actors are gay. And they do very well.”
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