Charles Grodin, activist, author and actor who made grouchiness cool, dead at 86

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Robert De Niro stands in the desert with Charles Grodin

Charles Grodin, the urbane actor who made his roles as a curmudgeon seem cool, died Tuesday at his home in Connecticut of bone marrow cancer. The performer, who leaves behind a catalog of memorable performances and a legacy of lasting activism, was 86.

Known for leading or coleading classic comedies such as "The Heartbreak Kid" and "Midnight Run" and for ruthlessly stealing scenes in "Heaven Can Wait," "Dave" and "The Great Muppet Caper," Grodin cultivated a screen persona that mined his own discomfort for laughs. He extended that to his many talk-show appearances, in which he seemed uncomfortable and even reluctant to be there — all an act, according to his son, Nick.

"That was a comedy persona he adopted for when he would go on talk shows," said Nick Grodin, who confirmed his father's death to The Times. "He didn't think it was very interesting to just go on and say, 'Oh, I'm in this movie coming out,' so he adopted this comedic persona where he would be angry. A lot of people did not think it was a joke. I think Johnny Carson really appreciated it."

Actor Charles Grodin, left, and Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show."
Actor Charles Grodin, left, was known for his sometimes combative talk-show appearances, but audiences might have figured out it was all an act from the fact that hosts such as Johnny Carson, right, kept inviting him back. (Gary Null / NBC / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

As renowned as the actor's filmography was, his son said his advocacy work, especially regarding criminal justice reform, is what really drove him.

"There were a few women in particular who he worked tirelessly to get out of prison and were sentenced under the Rockefeller drug laws in New York. When the Rockefeller drug laws were reformed, Gov. [George] Pataki cited him, and I know he was incredibly proud of that," Nick Grodin said of three inmates granted clemency by Pataki in 1999.

One Twitter user hearkened back to Grodin's interest in politics and social issues, relating that he once attended a "Midnight Run" Q&A at which the actor spoke at length about criminal justice reform before taking questions.

Charles Grodin was born in Pittsburgh on April 21, 1935. Despite his droll sophistication, he never graduated from college, dropping out of the University of Miami to pursue acting and study with Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen in New York. He appeared on Broadway and in several TV shows in the 1960s and had a small role in "Rosemary's Baby" in 1968. He also cowrote and directed an off-Broadway play, "Hooray! It's a Glorious Day ... and All That," and directed the 1969 Simon and Garfunkel TV special "Songs of America."

Nick Grodin said, "I know he was proud of the Simon and Garfunkel special he directed, because it has to do with human rights and social issues that were not very popular [on TV] at the time."

The actor broke through to mainstream success in 1972 with his leading turn in "The Heartbreak Kid" and starred in films through the ’70s and ’80s, including "Seems Like Old Times," Albert Brooks' "Real Life" (one of the first mockumentaries) and the much-maligned "Ishtar."

Surprisingly, Grodin never won a major acting award. He did collect an Emmy as part of the writing staff for another Paul Simon TV special in 1978, "The Paul Simon Special." He scored an Outer Circle Critics actor prize for the stage run of "Same Time, Next Year," which racked up 1,400 performances. He also wrote a number of books, along with a New York Daily News column that ran for nearly 10 years.

He hosted a talk show on CNBC ("The Charles Grodin Show," 1995-98) that dealt with the social and political issues of the day.

"It wasn't just like he would have someone as a guest on his talk show and then move on; it would become a lifelong journey for him where he would hold onto it," his son said.

"One particular case was a boy named Brandon Hein in California, who was sentenced to life under the felony murder law. His dad came and stayed at our house, and it became a lifelong thing."

Indeed, Charles Grodin wrote and directed a play about the case, "The Prosecution of Brandon Hein." In 2019, Hein was granted parole.

Celebrities took to Twitter to express appreciation for Grodin as the news broke.

Steve Martin tweeted, "So said to hear. One of the funniest people I ever met: Charles Grodin, Star of ‘Beethoven’ and ‘Heartbreak Kid,’ Dies at 86 -"

Marc Maron tweeted, "RIP Charles Grodin. One of the great cranky comedic geniuses."

Patton Oswalt tweeted, "RIP Charles Grodin. Ordering a plate of chorizo and eggs in his beloved memory," a reference to a gag in "Midnight Run."

Actor-writer-director Albert Brooks tweeted, "R.I.P. Charles Grodin. A brilliant comedy actor. I had the wonderful experience of working with him in my first feature “Real Life” and he was amazing. Rest In Peace, Chuck."

Comedian John Fugelsang tweeted appreciation for all the scenes Grodin stole in his movies, including a quote from the man himself: "Everyone is having a harder time than it appears."

Of his father, Nick Grodin said, "He said to treat everybody the same, and that's something I've watched him do. He would treat everybody the same, whether it was the president or whether it was somebody washing dishes. I really respect that."

He said his father also instilled in him a deep love of the Knicks, the Mets and the New York Giants. He remembered his father throwing a football with him in the backyard.

"He was just always there for me for whatever I needed. Anything, anything. He was just incredibly loving."

Grodin is survived by his wife, Elissa, daughter Marion, his son and a granddaughter, Geneva.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.