In 1969, despite being fired three times from Candid Camera, he was tapped to direct The Paul Simon Special, for which he won an Emmy. Much of the show addressed the war in Vietnam and the equal-rights movement.
He recalled being confronted by an advertising executive in a hallway. “The man said, ‘You’re using our money to sell your ideology.’ And I said, ‘What’s my ideolo
gy?’ And I really meant it, I’m not a tricky guy, I’m very straightforward. He says, ‘The humanistic approach!’ For a second I thought it was kind of a gas, I was so naïve. I said, ‘You mean there are people against the humanistic approach?’ He says, ‘You’re goddam right there are.’ He says, ‘You know the telephone company doesn’t want to offend the Southern affiliates.’”
That was then. But as far as he can tell, not much has changed.
“There’ve been advancements, but 70 percent of black children live in single-parent homes, and about—I forget exactly—but something like 25 or 30 years ago, 40 percent lived with just a single mother,” he said.
In 2006, he received the William Kunstler Award for Racial Justice. Mr. Grodin recently spoke at a high school in an impoverished neighborhood.
Before going onstage, he asked what kind of kids he was talking to. The guy said, “This is your future prison population.”
Through all his activism, Mr. Grodin is always looking for a laugh. At even the most serious speaking engagements, he’ll sometimes pull out the story about Rabbi Kaplan. The rabbi was on his deathbed and the doctor asked if he was afraid of dying. The rabbi said that he wasn’t, though he’d be grateful if the good doctor could tell him where it was going to happen. “Why?” the doctor asks. “Because I don’t want to go there,” the rabbi replies. Mr. Grodin, who has a genius for timing, can get big laughs with this story.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Mr. Grodin had some hits—Heaven Can Wait opposite Warren Beatty; Midnight Run opposite Robert De Niro—and some misses.
For a period during the late 70’s, he was under contract to be a guest exclusively on the Johnny Carson show. He would appear once every three weeks, and in these appearances on Carson and later on the Late Show with David Letterman—he estimates he’s been on Letterman over 40 times—Mr. Grodin would often come on in character as a cantankerous crank who seemed pissed off about everything.
Mr. Grodin said that as a result of those appearances, many people came to think that he really was that character, noting that he was the only contract guest of Carson’s who was never tapped to host the show when Carson was on vacation. “But you know a lot of people suggested me for Midnight Run because of that character, so you know—I’ll take it.”
In the 90’s, he hosted his own talk show, The Charles Grodin Show—something he would not consider doing again. “That was just too much,” he said. He also co-starred with a St. Bernard in the Beethoven movies.
He spends his days writing now—pen to paper; he’s doesn’t like computers, and has excellent handwriting. In 2004, he wrote the Off Broadway play The Right Kind of People, based on his experience sitting on the board of a Manhattan co-op from 1986 to 1992. He recently finished another play, At Home With Bill, inspired by his frustration trying to get his wife and two children to listen to his work. “About two years ago, I came downstairs, and I said, ‘Listen to this,’ and I started reading, and I noticed that my wife headed upstairs a little sooner than usual,” Mr. Grodin said. “So I thought to myself, ‘You know, I’ll bet anything if Shakespeare came downstairs and said, ‘Listen to this,’ then his wife or whoever would … In other words, you could be Shakespeare and you still don’t want to sit there and say, ‘Yes, William.’”
In 1994, he moved his family to Connecticut, so that his son could benefit from what he was told was an excellent school system. (That hasn’t been Mr. Grodin’s experience.)
Still, New York had become too congested for him. “The traffic, you just can’t move,” he said. “I was a cab driver for three years in New York; it wasn’t like that. And I don’t have that kind of patience. Nobody likes it, but the older you get, you’ll notice, it’s going to get tougher and tougher to do that.”
On the traffic-free drive back to the train station, Mr. Grodin insisted on playing me his favorite new song. It’s Dido’s hit “White Flag,” which he sees more as an activist’s anthem than a love song. He turned the song up loud and a faraway look came over him.
“I know you think that I shouldn’t still love you,” Dido began.
Mr. Grodin sang along. Mrs. Grodin thinks her husband has an unhealthy obsession with the song.
I asked Mr. Grodin how he feels about the snarks at Gawker who try to make fun of him for being an old man. “What?! Tell them to come to me when they’ve got a contract with Johnny Carson.”