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Charles Grodin: Naughty and nice

Special to The Times

A manager at the Marriott asks Charles Grodin how the actor-writer-commentator is enjoying his room at the hotel.

“It’s fine,” Grodin says, except for all the dancing on the ceiling from the nightclub on the floor above.

“Did you want to move?” the manager asks.

“Packing and unpacking,” Grodin says, his voice rising in pitch as he throws down his hands in exasperation. “It’s horrible.... I’m too tired to move.”

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The prickly persona will be familiar to viewers who remember Grodin from his regular appearances years ago on the “Tonight Show,” where he was one of the few guests under exclusive contract.

“I invented a persona of somebody who was always unhappy about something,” Grodin says. “It was a joke. Carson and Letterman knew it was a joke, but I don’t think the audience did.... I have some regrets about that.”

His current persona is altogether different: righteous commentator and crusader for justice. Five times a week he opines on CBS radio about anything that moves him -- the criminal justice system, potentially dangerous cholesterol medicine, lack of body armor for troops in Iraq.

And then there are the trials and tribulations of the super-rich, shopping for Manhattan real estate -- the ostensible subject of his new play, “The Right Kind of People,” at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco.

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The action takes place at the board meetings of a pricey New York City co-op where members disdain supplicants wanting to buy into the building because they buy their clothes off the rack, their second wives are too young or their dogs are too tall or heavy. One wealthy young applicant is even rejected because he made his money too fast.

“The play is about bias and discrimination, which is, in a way, a longer form of commentary,” Grodin says. “It’s not just about co-ops. It’s about private clubs, institutions, private schools. It’s everywhere.”

The play, which runs through Dec. 12, is based on Grodin’s experience sitting on the board of the New York co-op he lived in from 1986 to 1992.

“I was respected for my dedication to the job, surely evidenced by all my note taking,” he recounts in a playwright’s note. “No one imagined they were notes for a play.”

The story revolves around a coup by a rebellious faction on a co-op board and the revolt’s effect on the friendship of a Grodin-like character and his mentor: a surrogate father who sits on the board, gets his protege involved and then finds himself feeling betrayed when the younger man joins the rebels.

“The play pulls the curtain back on a group of people in a situation that we don’t usually get to see,” says Chris Smith, the Magic’s artistic director, who has been working with Grodin on the play for several years. “It’s surprising that being on a co-op board can tear apart a personal relationship like this.”

Grodin says he was more interested in exploring the nuances of human behavior than in making fun of the foibles of the wealthy. “It’s a play that tries to be fair to both sides,” he says. “By the end you’re wondering who is right and who is wrong. If you have a multimillion-dollar apartment, you do want to protect yourself. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment that someone got their clothes off the rack. Everything in the play is authentic. That’s the discipline I gave myself, that I would make up nothing.”

Critics have suggested that it might have been better if Grodin had made a few things up. “All the drama of a board meeting,” the San Francisco Chronicle complained. “More a slice of co-op life than a fully realized play,” added the Contra Costa Times, which nonetheless found the production “wildly funny.”

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The play is Grodin’s third, although he co-authored and directed a musical satire called “Hooray! It’s a Glorious Day ... and all that” in 1966.

Grodin, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1935, worked as a cabdriver and a night watchman before becoming a successful actor, starring in such movies as “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Midnight Run” and the “Beethoven” films in which his costar was a dog too big for most New York co-ops.

After leaving New York, Grodin moved to eight acres in the Connecticut countryside, where he lives with his wife, Elissa, an author, and his 17-year-old son. A adult daughter is a stand-up comic. Grodin tapes his radio commentaries at home and sends them to the network. His trip to San Francisco marked the first time he’s been in California in a dozen years.

“He’s a homebody,” Smith says. “When his son was born, he made a choice to be much more settled.”

Not that Grodin doesn’t stay busy. For five years he hosted “The Charles Grodin Show” on cable TV; he has been a commentator on “60 Minutes II.” He’s written four books, including the bestselling “It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here.” And he has two more plays in the works.

“I didn’t go into playwriting to get rich,” he says. “I like to write; it’s my nature.”

His first play, “The Price of Fame,” premiered in New York at the Roundabout Theatre in 1990, followed by “One of the All Time Greats,” two years later at the Vineyard.

“Plays are the most demanding,” he says. “There are no special effects. You’d better have something interesting to say. People pay a lot of money. With plays you have much more hope it can get produced; it’s much more difficult to get movies made.”

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Grodin’s next play, “The Prosecution of Brandon Hein,” opens in May at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. The work deals with the true story of a teenage boy from Southern California who gets involved in a fight that ends in the death of another youth. Because prosecutors invoked a felony murder law that treats everyone at the scene as culpable, Hein is sentenced to life imprisonment.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Grodin says. “I found it very difficult to work on. There’s something wrong when this boy is serving the same sentence as Charles Manson.”

The case has long outraged Grodin, who pored through trial transcripts and interviews to create a nonfiction play that he hopes will result in Hein, who has been in prison for nine years, being released.

“It has an undeniable power because it’s not fiction,” he says. “I hope he gets out on appeal or that it comes to the governor’s attention.”

After Grodin used his cable show to bring attention to the case of four mothers imprisoned in New York under the state’s tough drug laws, the governor granted clemency to the quartet.

“It’s astonishing,” he says. “We’re the greatest democracy and sometimes you look at us and we’re guilty of human rights violations. I go for the kind of cases that are undeniable. I don’t want to spend my life in debate.”

His other new play, called “We Three,” is more personal. “I think I really have something to say about male friendship,” he says. “It’s a serious comedy.”

At 69, with his gray, thinning hair, wire-rimmed glasses and casual fleece attire, Grodin could pass for a suburban retiree. But when he talks about his long list of projects, his voice burns with the passion of a man in a hurry.

“I’m like that dog that bites your leg and doesn’t let go,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that I’ll be successful, but I’ll never stop. My wife can tell you, I never run out of things to say.”


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