Movies

In Search Of Steve Guttenberg, The 80s’ Biggest Comedy Star And Protagonist Of My Favorite Celeb Story

I had so many questions for Steve Guttenberg.

The man occupies what is arguably a historically unique position in the cultural landscape. Fresh out of high school in 1976, he moved to LA with $300 in his pocket to become an actor. After setting up his own fake studio office on the Paramount lot (“I became my own agent,” he says), Guttenberg booked his first lead role in 1977, at age 19 (The Chicken Chronicles). Despite a funny name, a not especially memorable face, and no obvious flair for physical comedy, he relatively quickly went on to become basically the biggest comedy star of the 1980s, with roles in the wildly successful Police Academy franchise, Cocoon (and its sequel), Short Circuit, and Three Men And A Baby (and its sequel). For a time, he was neck and neck with Tom Hanks in terms of fame (rumor has it Hanks beat him out for the role in Splash and turned down the part in Police Academy that eventually went to Guttenberg).

And then Guttenberg sort of disappeared, with no movie roles between 1990 and 1995. In the 2000s he started to become one of those hardest-working actors you never see (see also: Roberts, Eric) with roles in everything from Veronica Mars to Sharknado 4 and Lavalantula, as well as its sequel, 2 Lava 2 Lantula. The highlight of this period was arguably Guttenberg playing himself in probably the best episode of Party Down, delivering the immortal hot tub line “You really should take your underwear off, the jets feel great on your balls.”

Guttenberg’s amiable everyman shtick seemed to get white-hot, then burnt itself out, before becoming an ironic joke. These days almost every semi-famous social media influencer seems to be unknowingly channeling Guttenberg’s brand of handsomish inoffensive positivity. Did I mention Guttenberg also holds the Guinness World Record for most hot dogs prepared in under a minute? Who needs an EGOT when you’ve got that?

It seemed like he had dabbled in fame and come out the other side, and appears for all the world happy and healthy. In typically eclectic Guttenbergian fashion, this week he was promoting Good Boy, the latest in Blumhouse’s horror anthology series Into The Dark for Hulu. In Good Boy, a goofy-fun, satirical horror-comedy in which Judy Greer adopts a murderous support dog, Guttenberg plays Greer’s long-suffering editor at the local paper. The film was released June 12th, to coincide with Pet Appreciation Week, which was an odd bit of kismet for me personally.

See, Steve Guttenberg also stars alongside a dog in probably my best-ever celebrity encounter story. It would’ve been about 2008. My girlfriend at the time was looking after her roommate’s dog, a lovable and energetic dalmatian (I think his name was Arthur?) who happened to be afflicted with explosive diarrhea that day. As she left their apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, grappling with the spotted beast and trying desperately to coax him off the sidewalk as he spewed foul brown water from the anus, who should attempt to strike up a conversation? That’s right, Steve Guttenberg, the erstwhile star of Police Academy. He had happened to be eating at an outdoor cafe at the time, and The Gute, ignoring the dog, struck up a conversation with the then-girlfriend, found out she was going to school for theater, and offered to discuss acting with her some time, or some such. He even gave her his number.

Naturally, I’ve retold this story at least 100 times since then. Who uses a diarrhea dog as an ice breaker? Legendary. I never did have the balls to prank call Steve Guttenberg, though I often considered it. What does one say?

12 years later, fate had reunited us, once again over a dog. Could I ask about what it’s like living in the afterglow of such success? What must it be like to constantly have forgettable interactions with people who will remember them for the rest of their lives? And how did he ever the find time to become a hot dog champion? As I said, many questions.

As soon as we got on the phone, however, it became abundantly clear that the real Steve Guttenberg, or at least the one I was talking to, didn’t have much in common with the fictional one from Party Down who goes commando in the jacuzzi. The Steve Guttenberg to whom I was speaking was sober-minded and serious about his craft, which he compared numerous times to painting. I think it was about 90 seconds in when Guttenberg compared his slowed output of the early ’90s to Picasso’s Blue Period that I realized I was never going to be able to ask him about chatting up my ex-girlfriend over a shitting dog. In the context of the call, it would’ve been like hurling a dog poop bag at his head just to see how he’d duck.

I couldn’t insult Steve Guttenberg in that way. Even if he had once nearly cuckolded me. Maybe that’s the key to his early success, that we always want to see him as the nice guy. So sure, maybe I didn’t discover the Rosetta Stone of 1980s comedy fame. But what did I expect in a 20-minute interview? Steve Guttenberg has written two memoirs. Maybe I should read them.

Good morning. How are you doing? You doing a lot of press for this one?

We are, yeah, it’s a very talked-about picture. So people want to hear about it.

We’ll just go with the big ones first. What’s your relationship with fame like these days?

I’ve been very fortunate. I started in the film business when I was 17. When I had just turned 18, I did a picture called The Boys from Brazil (1978), with Olivier and Peck and James Mason, Uta Hagen. So I started the fame trail pretty early, and I’ve always looked at it with great respect.

Did you consciously take a step back from acting in the nineties?

No, I’m an artist and I do the same thing every day. I put it in a 10-hour day and I’m always doing something creative, whether it’s painting, taking a dance class, taking an acting class, theater movement, mask, writing, and I’ve been doing it for over four decades. So it’s the same thing for me every day. It’s show and it’s business. So my job is to do show, to be the best artist I can be, the most creative and most open, the most explorational artist I can be.

And the business is selling paintings. So sometimes your paintings sell at the gallery and sometimes they don’t. There was a period during the Blue Period for Picasso that his paintings didn’t sell as vigorously. Van Gogh never sold a painting until years after. So being an artist is the same thing to me every day. I’ve been very, very fortunate to have the business be a little better than terrific to me and has rewarded my family and friends and myself with a great quality of life that we all can enjoy. So every decade’s just been the same for me. Wake up every day, be creative.

The way I imagine it, you are at a position where you’re sort of comfortable, and I don’t know, maybe you can just take a job every now and then when it seems particularly interesting. How close am I?

Actually, you’re pretty far from the mark.

Okay.

Yeah, I just am fortunate to have never worked a day in my life. I get up and I’m creative every day. As Robert Frost said, when your vocation meets your avocation, then you never have to work. And that’s been the way it has been for me since I was 12 years old, making $2 a performance doing Jack and the Beanstalk. I looked for outlets where I can create art. So some days I cook, sometimes I dance, some days I film, and an actor could only do what he’s offered. So when I’m offered a dance class, I’ll decide if I want to take it. If I’m offered a mask class and not the coronavirus mask, of course, but theatrical masks, I’ll decide if I want to take it. And if I get offered a picture, I’ll decide if I want to do it. My decisions always rest on my family and my creative ability to add to the piece. It’s pretty simple.

Then are you getting a lot of offers these days?

Yes. Very lucky. I’ve always been very lucky. I’ve always gotten offers to do cinema or movies or television and because of the commercial success of a few of the pictures I’ve done, that elevates the amount of offers, but I’m lucky. I’ve never been without work.

So I read that you had, when you first came out to Hollywood, you had this thing where you would create your own fake studio office. What was the story with that?

True. I came out to Hollywood when I was 17 and a half, and I had two weeks to become a movie star. And then I had to go back to Albany State and start my college career. So I drove around all the studios. I found Paramount was the queen mother of them all. So I snuck into Paramount, found the Lucille Ball makeup building, found an office, got some furniture, got a telephone, and started becoming my own agent. And it took off from there.

Did you ever get in trouble for having this unauthorized the office there?

I wouldn’t say trouble. I would say I got caught walking around the studio at three in the morning often. I would be the ghost of Paramount. And I would, once in a while, a guard would catch me on a bicycle, show me to the Bronson gate and I would just come in to Gower gate. So it didn’t matter.

Do you still live in Manhattan now?

No, my wife and I moved to a town called Pacific Palisades in California.

You were on the Upper West Side for a while. How long were you in New York? And when did you guys move out?

I was there almost 20 years and we moved to California two years ago.

Do you miss it? Seems like you’d have to really love it a lot to be there 20 years.

I love it. I love New York City. It’s entertainment every block. You walk down the block and there’s a poster for My Fair Lady. And there’s a newsstand with all the newspapers on it, someone speaking French when they walk by, someone walks by with a pizza, somebody’s carrying Chinese food, a messenger’s coming by with Thai food, the iconic buildings. You walk down 76th street, East 76th street, the beautiful architecture. You go to The Met. You go to MoMA. You walk uptown. You walk downtown. Just absolutely the greatest city in the world.

Have you found things in Pacific Palisades that make you feel okay about having left?

Absolutely. There’s a Pierson Playhouse, which is a wonderful theater in Pacific Palisades. They always have terrific fare. And the library’s magnificent in the Pacific Palisades. You have the mountains, you have the sea, you have the beach, you have terrific book clubs, a woman’s club, The Optimist Club. You have The Armed Services Club. There’s no lack. There’s a great bookstore. So there’s no lack of intellectual stimulation, but once you stop comparing New York to L.A., then you can have a successful life in both and a great quality of life.

So what was it about this particular role that made you want to do it?

Well, Jason Blum’s office called us and asked if I was interested. So I read the script by Aaron and Will Eisenberg, and I thought they did a great job. And I’m a fan of Tyler MacIntyre. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of his work, Tragedy Girls, Patchwork, he’s a talented guy and Judy Greer’s one of the most talented actresses working today. So I was pleased to be able to support her. And that’s my job, to support Judy Greer.

What are some of your favorite movies of the past few years here?

I loved Get Out. I just thought it was brilliant. I thought Jordan Peele did an incredible job and that’s probably my favorite movie in the last few years.

Do you still gravitate towards comedy or do you try to get away from it? Does it matter to you?

It doesn’t matter to me. I’m a painter, so sometimes I’ll paint a still life. Sometimes I’ll paint a landscape. Sometimes I’ll do portrait work, painting. And that’s what acting is, painting. So you might enjoy painting your family portrait more than you’ll enjoy painting a stranger, but it’s the joy of the craft. And I’ve been very, very fortunate to be able to entertain my craft for 40, almost 45 years professionally. And then I guess, 50 years, yeah, 50 years doing the craft since I was 12 years old.

Do you think comedy is a lot different now than it was in the eighties when you were kind the face guy of movie comedy?

No. Comedy is the same. It always will be the same. People laugh at the truth. It’s never been different since Shakespeare had the Globe and the Groundlings got in cheap and they were where the laughs started and then they rolled back to the rich expensive seats. Comedy’s the same. That’s why, take a look at Laurel and Hardy. You’ll laugh. There’s just nothing different between Seth Rogen’s comedy and Laurel and Hardy’s comedy. It’s funny. That’s why you laugh. It’s true. That’s a fact.

What about breaking into show business? Do you think it’s any different now than it was when you first came out to L.A.?

No, it’s the same. You do the best job you can with the equipment you are given. So if you look like Brad Pitt, you are going to have a different trajectory than if you look like Paul Giamatti or if you look like me. Different. And that’s cinema and film. The issue is most people consider cinema and film acting, and it’s not all of acting. There’s theater also. So if you look like Brad Pitt, or you look like Paul Giamatti or me, you can play roles that don’t look like you in theater. Whereas on television, it’d be very hard for Brad Pitt to play the down on his luck lonely guy, because of how he looks. But he could play that in theater very easily. So I think it’s the same as it was when I started. Train, read, become as smart as you can and work as hard as you can every day to get people to see you as an artist and in theater you can absolutely make a living for the rest of your life. And in film and television, it’s a bit more capricious, but, and there’s more awareness of it, but I think it’s the same. You got to train and also lady luck has a lot to do with it.

Was theater a big thing for you and your family when you were growing up?

Absolutely. Oh yeah. We went to the theater all the time. I did theater constantly and it’s a terrific way to learn your craft because if you don’t do it well on Wednesday night, we’ll do it great on Thursday night and it’s a great opportunity to work out.

‘Good Boy’ is currently available on Hulu. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

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