Charles Grodin, Rest in Peace

Charles Grodin could have been Benjamin Braddock.

It was a story that he told often, about how he was a struggling, 30 year-old actor with a few film credits to his name when he was offered the lead role in The Graduate. Even though producer Lawrence Turman said the role would make him a star, Grodin turned it down because of the low salary that Turman offered. The role was then offered to Dustin Hoffman, who went on to become a star and spend several decades as an unlikely box office draw.

It’s easy to imagine Grodin in the role of Benjamin Braddock. He probably wouldn’t have been as insecure as Hoffman was in the role. He would have been a less passive Benjamin. Grodin’s Braddock would probably have been more obviously frustrated with Mrs. Robinson and his parents. Nobody played frustration quite as well as Charles Grodin. Audiences might not have been as quick to sympathize with Benjamin if Grodin had played the role but I think he would have eventually won them over. Grodin was an actor with a talent for making unlikable characters somehow funny and relatable.

Though Grodin may not have played Benjamin Braddock, he still went on to establish himself as one of the funniest character actors in the business, a master of deadpan humor. He was often the best thing in the moves in which he appeared. In Heaven Can Wait, he was funny even while he was trying to kill Warren Beatty. In Real Life, he was a suburban father who found himself trapped in an early version of reality television. In Seems Like Old Times, he gets more laughs with one annoyed expression than Chevy Chase gets in the entire film. In The Great Muppet Caper, he fell in love with Miss Piggy and tried to kill Kermit. He was one of the few actors to make it through Ishtar with his dignity intact. In Midnight Run, he was the perfect comedic counterbalance to Robert De Niro. In Dave, he taught the government how to balance a budget. Though he was often cast in supporting roles or as a co-lead (as in Midnight Express), he proved that he could carry a film with his starring turn in The Heartbreak Kid.

A lot of people knew Grodin best as a late night talk show guest, where he always seemed to be annoyed about something. He would get into mock arguments with the hosts and leave audiences confused as to how serious any of it was. (According to David Letterman, none of it was.) He briefly hosted his own talk show, from 1995 to 1998. Legend has it that Lorne Michaels banned him from Saturday Night Live after he hosted the show, apparently because he was so difficult to work with. How much of that is true and how much of that was just Grodin doing a bit, no one knows. I’ve seen Grodin’s episode. It’s fine. He’s funny.

Charles Grodin died today of bone marrow cancer. He was 85 years old. I’m going to miss him.

Gilda Radner, John Belish, and Charles Grodin on Saturday Night Live

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