Describing his road back from the Hollywood hinterland, actor Steve Guttenberg uses a preferred tactic: He reaches for a metaphor.
“I’ve played at the small ballpark. But now I want to be at Yankee … Stadium,” the actor said, punctuating his words with the gerund form of a certain four-letter word. “I’d rather be a batboy on the Yankees than a power hitter on the … Blue Jays.”
Deploying the Blue Jays as a symbol of his box-office futility may be putting it kindly. Over a four-year period in the 1980s, Guttenberg had a stunning run. Though only in his 20s, the actor anchored seven hit films: He was the diaper-changing cartoonist in “Three Men and a Baby,” the robot-protecting scientist in “Short Circuit,” the unsuspecting boat owner in “Cocoon” and the wisecracking police cadet, Carey Mahoney, in the “Police Academy” franchise. Back when “Footloose” was an original film and “Don’t Stop Believin’” was only a Journey song, Guttenberg was the prototypical nice guy, a poster boy for a pre-irony generation.
In the two decades since, Guttenberg hasn’t gone away — it just seems like he has. (The third-most popular search for his name on Google is for “Steve Guttenberg Dead.”) Since he had the modest hit “Three Men and a Little Lady” in 1990, the actor has in fact had lead parts in nearly two dozen movies — nearly all of them low-budget obscurities with titles like “Help Me, Help You,” “The Gold Retrievers,” “Fatal Rescue” and even the ironically named “Major Movie Star.” If you’ve seen any of these, well, you may want to make better film choices.
But Thursday, Guttenberg returns to the spotlight, thanks to “Relatively Speaking,” a highly anticipated trio of stand-alone one-act plays written by Woody Allen, Ethan Coen and Elaine May. ( John Turturro directs all three.) It’s Guttenberg’s first appearance on Broadway in — yes, 20 years. (He replaced Timothy Hutton in “Prelude to a Kiss” in 1991.)
In “Relatively,” Guttenberg stars in the portion that Allen (or “Mr. Allen,” as Guttenberg, with his earnest politeness, refers to him) wrote, playing a man who falls for his son’s bride ( Ari Graynor); that bride, in turn, may have feelings for Guttenberg’s character. The dialogue-heavy scenes take place in a motel room near the wedding and, according to those who’ve seen the play, offer an Allen-esque meditation on family and intergenerational romance, with the inevitable Jewish spin.
“I really think there is something a little divine about it,” Guttenberg said about getting the part after years of struggle. “It was kind of like being in a hurricane and all of a sudden an ice cream truck goes by. You can’t help but get emotional about it.”
Guttenberg is eating lunch at a popular Broadway restaurant before hightailing it — unrecognized and in the rain — to a rehearsal space 10 blocks away. As he walks, he practically bounces in his shiny Nikes, as boyishly enthusiastic as a kindergarten student who gets to take the classroom hamster home for the weekend.
“I don’t think the word is ‘comeback,’” said actor Peter Strauss, Guttenberg’s longtime friend. “I think it’s salvation.” Strauss says that serious work matters so much to the actor and he was so long away from it that the “Relatively” part has practically been a religious experience for him.
Guttenberg has tried to return to the public eye before. He made fun of himself on the Starz comedy “Party Down” (the gang caters a party at his house; he invites them into his hot tub and dispenses fortune-cookie advice). He tried taking matters into his own hands in 2002 by writing, directing and starring in “P.S., Your Cat Is Dead,” an adaptation of the James Kirkwood novel and Broadway show. (It flopped, barely getting a theatrical release.) And he did the inevitable twirl on “Dancing With the Stars,” in 2008. He was eliminated three couples in.
But “Relatively,” he says, is his big chance. “It’s like going into the Louvre. You don’t know what’s in there, but it’s probably going to be pretty …good,” he said, probably the first time a profanity and the Louvre have been used in the same sentence.
In fact, Guttenberg was so excited about landing an audition that he stayed up for three straight days memorizing the scenes. Turturro, Allen and others auditioning him originally asked him to read just one scene. He talked them into hearing a second.
When a producer called to tell Guttenberg he had landed the role, the actor was driving. He got so emotional he began weaving through midtown Manhattan. A policeman pulled him over, recognized him, offered his congratulations and sent him on his way. Guttenberg never gets traffic tickets, just Mahoney jokes.
Guttenberg said he has no explanation for his 20-year dry spell. (He has supported himself during this time with the modest paychecks of independent films as well as residuals and savings from the good years.) But he does believe it’s as much about perception as acting ability.
“This business run on fear. It’s about ‘if we say no to him, can he come back and ... bite us in the...,” he said, advancing a somewhat bizarre theory in which producers and casting directors never felt sufficiently intimidated to hire him. “And I have a very even-keeled nature, and I think sometimes that kindness is taken as a weakness.” He added, “If you’re too nice to the doorman, you won’t get your packages as quickly.”
Guttenberg does come off like the goofy, eternally optimistic cousin you can’t not root for. “Take care of my boy, Goo-tee,” Woody Harrelson tells a reporter when learning of this story. The actors met through a mutual costar, Ted Danson, and have been friends for more than 20 years.
Harrelson, who calls Guttenberg “one of the five funniest people I know, right up there with Owen Wilson and Dave Matthews,” says the “Police Academy” star has been helpful during times of personal crisis. “I’m not one who goes for psychotherapy, but if I did, it would be to Steve. He just gets to the core of what’s going on.”
Guttenberg’s capacity for seeing the silver lining has served him well during the stormy time. Asked if it bothers him that his most famous role originated more than 25 years ago, he smiles, as he often does. “I’m thrilled. How many guys in the world have a famous character? Sean Connery. Harrison Ford. Sylvester Stallone. William Shatner. Steve Guttenberg,” he said, perhaps embellishing the cultural legacy of “Police Academy.” “I mean, when people yell out ‘Mahoney’ on the street, I’m … proud of it,” returning to his favored profanity.
In fact, about the only thing that nudges the fairy off his shoulder is the fickleness of Hollywood — to wit, the aforementioned Captain Kirk and Priceline spokesman.
“People don’t ... realize this guy was in ‘Judgment at Nuremberg.’ So you know ... you, all the people who make fun of this ... guy, this guy was on Broadway. I mean ... you, you can’t ... realize this guy was on Broadway? Give this ... guy a little ... credit,” he said, a blue-collar Long Island accent slipping out. (Guttenberg likes to mention famous actors he’s had conversations with and from whom he’s also received advice — over the course of a lunch, one learns he has been dispensed counsel by Jessica Tandy, Shatner, Sean Penn and Frank Langella, among others. It seems not so much name-dropping as hero worship.)
At 53, Guttenberg appears a little fuller of face but still has some of the youthful appeal that made him a cherubic comedy star. He has a way of speaking that might be described as self-educated, using words like “crisises” as the plural for a difficult time. A longtime Angeleno (for years he lived near Jason Segel’s parents and watched the “How I Met Your Mother” star grow up), Guttenberg, who’s single, recently moved back to New York.
The actor now lives near Manhattan’s Columbus Circle and says he pops by the Metropolitan Opera “often.” “I just like to go to the opera,” he said. “I don’t know why people are surprised.”
Guttenberg said he hopes his Broadway turn will give him the credibility to work with A-listers again on either the stage or the screen. “I want to play on the Yankees,” he said, returning to one of his preferred metaphors.
And who would some of those Bronx Bombers be?
“Look, I’m a pop guy. I have a commercial face, a modern face,” he said. “I gotta call it like I see it. Very rarely would I get cast in a psychologically complex, 17th century French drama.”
He stops to think about the question for a moment. “It would be great to be in a film by Michael Bay, who I think does a really brilliant job at what he does. Most guys can’t do that.” Guttenberg also holds out hope for long-developed new installments in the “Police Academy” and “Three Men and a Baby” franchises. “I don’t understand,” he said of the delay. “They’re ... shoo-ins for, 40, 50-million-dollar [opening] weekends.”
Guttenberg said ultimately he takes heart from the story of other performers’ comebacks. “There was a famous actor who was perceived as cold. Nobody knew this guy; he couldn’t get a ... job. And then along came Quentin Tarantino,” he said, apparently referring to John Travolta and " Pulp Fiction.” “And then he makes 10 great movies and $250 million. The same ... guy. People would turn their heads away on the street. They didn’t event want to look at him. And all of a sudden he’s a big movie star.”
He pauses and lets one last gerund-flavored F-bomb fly.
“I mean ... Hollywood, right?”