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Charles Grodin, deadpan comic actor known for 'Midnight Run' and 'Beethoven,' dies at 86

The actor, beloved for his understated comic turns, specialized in playing world-weary businessmen and uptight fathers.
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Charles Grodin, the actor who lent his droll wit and deadpan delivery to films such as "The Heartbreak Kid," "Heaven Can Wait," "Midnight Run" and "Beethoven," died Tuesday. He was 86.

The actor's son, Nicholas Grodin, told The Associated Press that his father died at his home in Wilton, Connecticut, from bone marrow cancer.

Grodin specialized in playing world-weary businessmen and uptight fathers, approaching each role with a deft combination of neurotic intensity and wry detachment. He was especially prolific in the 1980s, alternating between supporting and leading parts in Hollywood comedies.

He was also a regular face on television, frequently dropping by "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and "Late Night With David Letterman," and a notable performer in Broadway productions such as "Same Time, Next Year."

Grodin was born Charles Grodinsky in Pittsburgh in 1935 and studied acting at HB Studio in New York City under the famed actress and instructor Uta Hagen.

Charles Grodin in "Beethoven."Alamy

He made his Hollywood debut with an uncredited bit part as a drummer boy in Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954). He was active in theater in the 1960s, appearing in "Absence of a Cello" (1964) and directing "Lovers and Other Strangers" (1968).

Grodin earned small but crucial early film roles in Roman Polanski's horror classic "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and Mike Nichols' adaptation of the anti-war novel "Catch-22" (1970). (He previously auditioned for the title role in Nichols' epochal coming-of-age movie "The Graduate," but the part ultimately went to Dustin Hoffman.)

But he leaped to leading man status in Elaine May's cult comedy "The Heartbreak Kid" in 1972. He played an immature salesman who strays from his new wife (Jeannie Berlin, May's daughter) and falls for another woman (Cybill Shepherd) during his honeymoon. (The movie was remade with Ben Stiller in 2007.)

“I thought the character in ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ was a despicable guy, but I play it with full sincerity,” Grodin told the pop culture website The A.V. Club in 2009. “My job isn’t to judge it. If it wasn’t for Elaine May, I probably would never have had that movie career.”

Grodin achieved greater fame with roles in Warren Beatty's fantasy "Heaven Can Wait" (1978), Albert Brooks' media satire "Real Life" (1979), the Neil Simon-scripted comedy "Seems Like Old Times" (1980), the heist-themed "The Great Muppet Caper" (1981) and the Steve Martin vehicle "The Lonely Guy" (1984).

Brooks paid tribute to Grodin in a tweet Tuesday afternoon, calling him "a brilliant comedy actor" and adding: "I had the wonderful experience of working with him in my first feature 'Real Life' and he was amazing. Rest In Peace, Chuck."

Grodin reteamed with May for "Ishtar" (1987), a box-office disaster co-starring Hoffman and Beatty that later developed a cult following among admirers who consider it an unfairly maligned modern classic.

In contrast to many of the megawatt comedy stars of the 1980s, Grodin was a consummately understated screen presence who could get a laugh from a subtle shift in his facial expression or a coolly sardonic line reading.

Grodin's appearance — Everyman looks, traditional haircut — sometimes disguised an offbeat spirit that made him difficult to categorize.

He delivered one of his most beloved performances in Martin Brest's "Midnight Run" (1988), playing a seemingly straight-laced accountant who embezzles a fortune from the mob and gets dragged across the country by Robert De Niro's gruff bounty hunter.

In the early 1990s, Grodin introduced himself to younger viewers as an anxious father in "Beethoven" (1992), a children's romp about a slobbering St. Bernard dog. Grodin reprised his role the following year in "Beethoven's 2nd."

But after a few more screen credits in the 1990s (including turns in the Washington rom-com "Dave" and the Mike Myers project "So I Married an Axe Murderer"), Grodin took an extended break from acting.

He made his mark in other mediums, though.

Grodin wrote several books, hosted a short-lived talk show on the cable channel CNBC and offered political commentary on the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes II." (CNBC and NBC News are units of NBCUniversal.)

He continued to delight audiences on Carson's show, often pretending to be belligerent to create comically uncomfortable situations on the set.

In the 2010s, Grodin resurfaced in film and television projects, playing an aging documentary filmmaker in Noah Baumbach's dramedy "While We're Young" (2014) and a blunt but philosophical doctor in Louis C.K.'s series "Louie."

Grodin and his first wife, Julia Ferguson, had a daughter, the comedian Marion Grodin; the marriage ended in divorce. He and his second wife, Elissa Durwood, had a son, Nicholas.