3 essential Charles Grodin movies to remember him by

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Photo courtesey of HBO Max

DAN BUFFA, SPECIAL FOR THE JEWISH LIGHT

“It’s not a payoff. It’s a gift.”

My dad knew what needed to be done Tuesday evening, as the sad news washed over our movie minds that one of its underrated performers had passed on. Charles Grodin, a gifted comedy mind in the world of movies, died at the resilient old age of 86 yesterday, leaving behind an esteemed gathering of roles, spread out over decades of work in film and television. On our hangout night of the week, we turned on “Midnight Run” last night in honor of Grodin, which was one of many stellar performances.

Before we talk more about Martin Brest’s 1988 classic, as well as two other essential roles, let me get this out of the way first: I didn’t watch enough Grodin movies. I watched a decent amount, but his passing alerted me to the fact that I have some catching up to do. The most addicted film mind can scour the Earth for movies and still manage to miss a lot. With a last name of Grodinsky (his paternal Jewish grandmother changed it to Grodin), Charles hadn’t worked a lot over the past few years due to a fight with bone marrow cancer-but his body of work shines like a brand new penny when you take a glimpse at his IMDB  page.

You could say he took his talent and stuffed it for all that it was worth ever since his first role back in 1954, playing the drummer boy uncredited in “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.” Grodin had amazing comic timing in a film, never seeming too ahead of the dialogue or stuck behind it. He stood out 15-20 minutes after a movie ended, because he wasn’t the actor who needed to be the lead in a movie and take up the attention. He was a pro and made acting look easier than usual. In roles from “The Heartbreak Kid” to “Heaven Can Wait,” all the way to his last few films, including the Richard Dreyfus-starring television movie, “Madoff.”

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If there was a star in the film, Grodin was the guy trying to steal his or her thunder. Here are my personal Grodin favorites:

GEORGE NEWTON IN “BEETHOVEN”

I don’t think this film was originally designed to touch as many hearts as it did. St. Bernard adoptions must have skyrocketed due to Grodin’s reluctant-yet-resourceful dad trying everything in his willpower arsenal to take care of the new family dog, including feuding off some bad guys in the end who wish to do harm. Not only does the film still play well, but it is easily rewatchable with the whole family. Like the best comedy actors, he took basic material and turned it into something more. This was a big example of that trait.

SPENCER IN “TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS”

A movie involving Chicago Cubs adoration wasn’t an easy pick for this list, but like the previous role, he gave a seemingly ordinary role something extra. Grodin’s Spencer finds his life invaded and identity stolen by Jim Belushi’s charismatic thief, and the two cross paths and rage against each other for the course of the film. Made in 1990 and co-written by a young writer named J.J. Abrams, this is another movie that showed off both Grodin’s comedy setup skills and his knack for stealing scenes from the star. Talk about leaning into a role for all that it’s worth. You won’t find this on many Grodin’s greatest lists–but it’s on mine.

JOSEPH MARDUKAS IN “MIDNIGHT RUN”

Here’s the thing. This movie doesn’t work without Grodin. His wacky yet dry sense of humor paired perfectly with Robert De Niro’s Tommy Gun blend of blunt force dialogue delivery. A tale about a former cop turned bounty hunter trying to get a mob accountant who jumped bail across the country in one piece, fighting off fellow hunters like John Ashton’s Marvin and Dennis Farina’s mobster. The whole film hedged its bets on the chemistry between the two leads. I compare this film to “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” because of the odd couple De Niro and Grodin presented. The latter kept audiences in the dark about his character’s true abilities and intentions but didn’t hesitate to show his skills. Two scenes in the film shine big time due to Grodin. One takes place in a diner where the penniless duo are forced to impersonate health inspectors. The other takes place at the end when that unexpectedly moving score plays as two completely different men find common ground.

The power of the movies and all of their players lies in the ability to mark the time. I watched “Midnight Run” with my dad as a kid, and we watched it again last night. Throughout the film, the laughs occurred at the same moments, getting even better when De Niro makes Grodin catch that train, only to have the accountant turn on him. Everything that was great in 1988 was still worthy 33 years later. Grodin’s work won’t go away because he did; you’ll just have to catch the train and watch more of his movies. There’s still time. Heck, there’s always time. If you don’t, who will know what a litmus configuration is?

What are some of your favorite Grodin roles?