Steve Guttenberg — armed with an everyman handsomeness and a comforting demeanor that MovieWeb aptly describes as “warm simplicity” — has been a working actor for nearly half a century, starring in popular films such as “Diner,” “Short Circuit” and “Cocoon,” and the “Police Academy” and “Three Men and a Baby” franchises.
Guttenberg also has been a director, producer and author, and his 2012 memoir, “The Guttenberg Bible,” now lends its name to the autobiographical stage show he stars in. “Tales From the Guttenberg Bible” is being presented by the George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through May 21. Click here for the NJArts.net review.
In this interview, we discuss the show as well as some of his past projects and co-stars, and explore the poignant reason why most of us haven’t seen him in a while.
Q: So we’re here to promote “(Tales from) The Guttenberg Bible” — the stage show, not the ancient text.
A: (laughs) Exactly!
Q: But the show is autobiographical and you’ve been away for a while, so I figured we’d go back a bit first.
A: Let’s do it.
Q: When an actor has a long career that absorbs peaks and valleys, people sometimes get snarky with the “Where’d they go? Where’ve they been?” sarcasm. But you actually have a very poignant answer for that.
A: Well, for the last five years I’ve been taking care of my dad in Arizona. He was on dialysis and in pain most of the time. Previous to that, I had been looking after both my mom and dad, as my mom had a bout with breast cancer that was quite difficult. She had a wound which would not heal, so we had to provide a lot of care for her. I’ve been looking after my family.
Q: In a very involved way. To assist your father you became a certified dialysis technician.
A: Right. My sister Susan and I went to school and we both became certified dialysis technicians so that we would not have to take him to the dialysis center every day, which we had been doing for years. My dad was a highly decorated Army Airborne Ranger, so the Veterans Administration has been incredible. They gave us equipment every year to help us with our training, and they created a little hospital setting in my parents’ den so that my dad was able to get his dialysis treatments at home, which was a great help.
Q: And in what we are now learning is Steve Guttenberg fashion, you wrote about it as well.
A: I did. I wrote a book, which will be published sometime this year or next, called “Time to Think.” I would leave from L.A. at 3 a.m. on a Monday morning, drive 400 miles to Arizona so that I would arrive to take my dad to dialysis on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday I would drive back. So, I did about 800 miles a week and it gave me a lot of time to think.
Q: You referenced your parents in your speech when you received your Hollywood Walk of Fame star. Appropriately, your star is in front of the Police Activities League office. But that wasn’t your first visit there, right?
A: No, it was actually one of the first casting offices I used to go to in Hollywood. When I did, they told me to just leave and never come back. You know, the “You’ll never make it.” I thought, “Oh, great.”
Q: In between dismissing your talents, did casting directors ever suggest that you change your last name?
A: All the time. I would’ve done it but it was just so expensive and difficult to do at the time.
Q: Now it can be argued that it’s one of the things that makes you memorable. And authentic, which is something you are often associated with: authenticity.
A: Now people don’t change their names as often, but years ago they did. And sure, when I went to the Academy Awards or the Players Club here in New York and I was amongst some very famous actors that had changed their names — writers, too — I thought about that. But these days, whenever I’m in a room full of actors, writers, directors and others in the arts, I just think about how proud I am to be among them. It takes a lot of balls to be an artist. There are a lot of trials and tribulations that go with it.
Q: You would know, as I think you’re one of the poster adults for resiliency in this business. You’ve seen all the imaginable highs and lows, and yet here we are nearly a half a century later talking about a new “big idea” piece of art you’re bringing to the stage.
A: I love it. I just love being creative and being an actor and being around other actors. It’s great.
Q: At one point, very early on, that meant doing commercials. Later in your career you would work with a who’s who of senior actors. Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole, Gregory Peck, Jessica Tandy, etc. But I’m not sure if any of them were as famous as Col. Sanders, who you appeared in a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial with.
A: Yes, Harland was his first name, and he was wonderful. A very, very gentle soul, generous, unassuming and very thankful. Possessing great humility about his success, which was enormous.
Q: At that point of your career, are you just putting your head down and treating everything like a job? Or do you take the time to recognize that “Wow, I am acting with an American icon here”?
A: Oh, I knew it. Even today, when those situations come up, I always know it. I’m very aware when someone like that walks in and I see that very familiar face, because I’m a fan, too, you know? I sometimes spend a few minutes looking at them. I mean, they are walking pieces of art, right? You see them on television or in the movies and it’s as if they’re in a museum, and then all of a sudden they come to life and it’s as if the Mona Lisa was walking down the street. It just blows your mind for a little bit.
Q: In 1981, you portrayed Olympic goalie Jim Craig in the television movie “Miracle on Ice.” It’s difficult to convey to someone who wasn’t alive then, just how big a role that was at the time. Craig was enjoying American Hero status. He recently said that he considers the movie underrated, and he praised your performance.
A: I had a wonderful time playing him, and got close to (team captain) Mike Eruzione and several of the players from that team. And I played a hero. That was wonderful because … first of all, being Jewish yet being able to play someone of Irish descent was wonderful. The same thing with Mahoney (his character in the “Police Academy” movies). I mean, the Irish and the Jews are very much alike in their DNA and what they’ve gone through as a people. But I also enjoyed it in an athletic way. I love sports and I love that team and there’s nothing like a miracle. You know, impossible is spelled I-am-possible.
A: (laughs) That’s cool, right? That’s from Audrey Hepburn.
Q: If I said to you, as you were filming it 40 years ago, that “Diner” was going to be considered the great piece of cinema that it is today, you would’ve thought what?
A: I knew it. After Tim Daly and I did the bar scene, I knew it. I took a roll of quarters and called my publicist and said, “I think we got something here. I don’t know what.” But I’m a movie-goer and I love movies and I’ve always had a nose for the things that the mass public will like. And when we did “Diner” and we shot that scene, I called him and said, “I don’t know anything about distribution or movies or how to make a hit, but we got something here.” Maybe we all knew?
Q: True or false. You auditioned for “Police Academy” dressed in your father’s police academy shirt?
A: True. It is a shirt from the actual NYPD Police Academy. My dad gave it to me.
Q: You said “it is’,” not “it was.” Does it still exist?
A: Oh yeah. I still have it.
Q: The “Police Academy” co-star you were closest with off the set was?
A: Bubba Smith.
Q: The movie that strangers mention most frequently outside of “Police Academy”?
A: I’m very lucky to have been in several seminal movies, so people mention a lot of different ones. They come up to me and talk about “The Bedroom Window,” “Short Circuit,” “Can’t Stop the Music,” “Police Academy,” of course “Three Men and a Baby,” “Cocoon” and “The Day After” as well. Oh, and “It Takes Two” with the Olsen twins. I’m pretty lucky.
Q: In “It Takes Two” you also starred with the late Kirstie Alley. What was she like?
A: Kirstie was just a force of nature. Honest, loving, sweet, generous, kind, beautiful. Everything you think she’d be, she was.
Q: You and Kirstie were both in hit movies featuring babies, which I’ll use as license to ask a silly question. Is it more difficult to play off of a baby, as you did in “Three Men and a Baby”; a robot, like you did in “Short Circuit”; or an invisible entity, like you did in “Cocoon”?
A: I approached them as the same. I see acting as simply creating true emotions in an imaginary circumstance. That made all of those different situations seem the same for me.
Q: Your latest imaginary circumstance isn’t so imaginary. What is “Tales From the Guttenberg Bible”?
A: It’s a play starring myself and some other great actors. The story is about family, career, love, devotion, comedy, meaning and luck. It’s about making the impossible possible.
Q: Your career, and your family.
A: Yes, and it’s about being Jewish. Being a Jewish actor, being a leading man in a profession where typical leading men and women are not Jewish, you know? They’re typically All-American-looking.
Q: The show is staged rather cleverly, in the sense that you have actors who are playing multiple characters throughout.
A: Yes, David Saint, our director, is brilliant. And it was Julian Schlossberg, our producer, who said, “This is not gonna be a one-man show. We’ve gotta have three other actors playing all the parts.” And that was just brilliant on his part.
Q: And these actors will portray some pop culture figures that everybody knows?
A: Oh yeah. You’ll see Robert Evans and Col. Sanders and you’ll see Paul Reiser and others. Everybody has just a moment and it doesn’t land on them, but we have some really terrific characters.
Q: Whenever material is autobiographical, it gives a star a chance to correct a misconception or do what they could do to steer their public image. Is there something in this show that you tried to correct, or wanted the audience to know? Something you felt they weren’t hearing?
A: No, because I really never know what they’re hearing, anyway. It’s enough for me to tell the audience a story about my career and being Jewish as a leading man and the fun and excitement I still experience, being an artist.
Q: Which you will be experiencing right there before them, in real time.
A: Right. It’s a lot of fun.
George Street Playhouse presents “Tales From the Guttenberg Bible” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through May 21. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.
Robert Ferraro is a pop culture journalist and the founder of The Giving Arts, where he helps public figures promote their charitable endeavors. Visit thegivingarts.com.
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