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GRODIN: LEARNING THE HARD WAY

‘I was so naive about Hollywood before I started this movie,” Charles Grodin said. “Not any longer. I’ve learned a lot. . . . “

Seven years ago, Grodin, who has long been considered one of our best light-comedy actor-writers, was called into Paramount Pictures. The studio had just bought the title to Alex Comfort’s best seller, “The Joy of Sex,” and they wanted a script written to fit it. Was Grodin interested?

He was.

“Listen,” he told them, “why don’t I write a script about a studio which has bought the title to a best-selling sex book and doesn’t know what to do with it? In other words, write about the situation you’re in now. That could be funny.”

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Grodin is a persuasive talker. After listening to him, everyone agreed it was a good idea. And off he went to write the script.

However, when he turned it in, nobody thought it was that funny and Paramount opted out. So Grodin did what legions of writers before him have done--he began to hawk the script around town (now with a new title, “Dreamers,” since “The Joy of Sex” was Paramount’s property).

What happened?

Every studio turned it down.

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“Some perceived the script to be an attack on Hollywood,” Grodin said the other afternoon. “Of course, I didn’t agree. I’d just tried to write a comedy about movie making. Perhaps it had an edge, but it wasn’t an attack in the way--say, that Blake Edwards’ ‘S.O.B.’ had been. Others felt that the public just wasn’t interested in a behind-the-scenes look at film making. Again I disagreed. I felt the public was interested in a behind-the-scenes look at anything if it was interesting enough. And I felt that this was.”

Grodin then tried a new tack. He called some of the people who’d originally said no, went around and read the script to them--all 130 pages and 50 different characters.

“Without exception,” he said, “they all agreed to do the movie when I’d finish reading. But some time later, after consultations with their colleagues, they came back to me and said, ‘Sorry, nobody else likes it.’ ”

By this time, several years had gone by and it was generally assumed that Grodin--by now involved as an actor in other movies (“The Lonely Guy,” “The Woman in Red”)--would abandon his venture. This, after all, was not what he’d originally left Pittsburgh to do--bash his head up against a wall of indifference. But that “born dupe” face, as one critic described it, conceals a quiet tenacity.

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And finally he found an ally.

“I was starring in ‘Charlie’s Aunt’ for Bill Asher, the director,” Grodin said, “and I told him the story one day. He loved it. And he told me he was sure it could be made for as little as $2.5 million. That was a lot less than I’d imagined, so at that point I began sending the script to people I knew.”

It has been written that he called on his friends for help at this point. He says this is not true.

“Nobody is going to put their career on the line out of friendship,” he said. “All the actors who are in the film said yes because they liked the script--people like Walter Matthau, Tyne Daly, Vincent Gardenia. After I’d sent the script to Gene Wilder for comments, his wife, Gilda Radner, called and said, ‘I’ll play any part you like. I love it.’

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“Only one person volunteered to help purely out of friendship--Steve Martin. I’d worked with him on ‘The Lonely Guy’ and we’d become friends. He said, ‘If I can help by being in a couple of scenes, I’ll do it.’ So he did. But he was the only one.”

Grodin was now really encouraged.

“Here were all these names wanting to do the movie and not caring whether it did or didn’t attack Hollywood, only caring that it was entertaining,” he said.

So he sat down and telephoned Frank Yablans, who was then running MGM-UA. Grodin told him the budget. He listed the names he had. The deal was made on the telephone.

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“The budget eventually went up to $3.5 million,” he said. “But Yablans remained supportive--he was the only movie maker who did. Even so, of course, there was a feeling at the studio that the film was too ‘special’ ever to do any business in the marketplace. But with those names and with that low budget, the feeling was they could hardly lose.”

The movie, by now called “Movers and Shakers,” got off to a disastrous start.

The night before they were to start shooting, the production manager called Grodin to say that the woman who owned the house they were to film in next morning had just claimed that $30,000 worth of jewelry had been stolen.

“I just stared into space,” Grodin said. “I was speechless. I thought: Great, that means we’ll have police all over the set tomorrow. Just the thing to encourage good comedy.”

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Then came another call.

“One of the stars called and said he’d had second thoughts,” Grodin said. “He said he didn’t think he was right for the role. ‘I want out,’ he said.”

Controlling his panic, Grodin talked to the actor for 30 minutes, telling him just how right he was for the role and how good he would undoubtedly be.

“It was a monologue,” Grodin said, “but I had no alternative. I could hardly tell him, listen, without you the movie will be canceled; your name was a condition to the deal.”

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Eventually the movie, directed by William Asher, was in the can. And last month it opened in New York to some good reviews and rather better business than anyone expected. Grodin, in his capacity as actor, writer and co-producer, was there for the great day. And then something interesting happened. During the second week, business went up 23%.

“Suddenly,” Grodin said, “executives were looking up from their desks, saying, ‘Now wait a minute. This thing isn’t even supposed to be breathing. What’s happening?’ And what was happening was that during the third week it went up 37% over the second week. Unheard of. After all, there’d been no trailer, no TV spots. The film had just opened. And people were going to see it.”

“Movers and Shakers” has now opened in Westwood, and Grodin is crossing his fingers that the same thing will be repeated here. If so, he will feel that his struggles over the last seven years have all been worthwhile.

“Meanwhile,” he said, “I have to have some money, so I’m lining up a lot of work.” First, is Jules Feiffer’s “Grown Up” for cable. He follows this with “Club Sandwich” for Julie Corman, and then he’s set for a feature, as yet untitled, starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, directed by Elaine May. He will then revamp his behind-the-scenes play, “One of the All-Time Greats,” which he wrote in 1971, and, he hopes, take it to Broadway.

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“I’ve spent a lot of time on ‘Movers and Shakers,’ ” he said. “Now I have to catch up on work.”

Had he known how long it would take to see his movie reach the screen, would he have thrown in the towel years ago?

“I don’t know,” he said. “All I do know is that I’ve learned a lot about this business since I first wrote that script. I’ve learned how many people there are in Hollywood who don’t live up to their word. I used to think that if someone said yes, they really meant it--now I know better. If I were writing that movie today, it would be much tougher than it is now. I’ve learned a lot, you see. I really have. . . . “


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