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Are You Ready for Mr. Grodin? : Q&A with CHARLES GRODIN


After years as a film star and the ultimate gadfly guest on the TV series of such performers as Johnny Carson and David Letterman, Charles Grodin tonight takes the plunge as a talk-show host on cable's CNBC channel.

His nightly one-hour series, "Charles Grodin," which will originate at the CNBC studios in Fort Lee, N.J., will be seen here at 7 p.m. and repeated at 10 p.m. Grodin, known for his dry humor, replaces the program hosted for two years by Tom Snyder, who tonight launches his own new talk show on CBS, following the Letterman series.

An actor, director, producer and author, Grodin, 59, born in Pittsburgh, has appeared in such films as "Rosemary's Baby," "Heaven Can Wait," "Midnight Run," "Real Life," "Dave," "The Woman in Red," "The Great Muppet Caper," "King Kong," "The Heartbreak Kid" and the two "Beethoven" comedies. His books include "It Would Be So Nice if You Weren't Here," "How I Get Through Life" and "We're Ready for You, Mr. Grodin."


Question: How did this show come about?


Answer: I had been interested in this for a couple of years, trying to find a way not to travel. We have a 7-year-old in second grade. We very much wanted to keep him in context, not just school but sports and everything else. I wasn't going to be separated from my family, so I started conversations with various people over the last couple of years.

I was actually a guest on the Tom Snyder show at a time when they were looking for someone to replace Snyder. I guess I was peripherally aware of it, but not really, and they just asked me to do it. It's not too far from where I live, Connecticut, and that's how it came about--off a guest appearance.

Q: You've been described as the talk-show guest from hell. How did that kind of persona develop? How much planning was involved--or is that you?

A: It's not all made up. It's kind of a performing instinct. If I go out and say, "I'm very happy to be here, I'm very excited about my new movie or my new whatever-it-is and I really had a ball working with so-and-so," it's boring. Jimmy Stewart can talk about how he didn't get that much sleep or something, but I wouldn't risk that.

I felt right from the beginning, when I started with Carson about 20 years ago, that something else was needed. And the something else in my mind had to do with instant conflict, because I didn't know any other way as an unknown person to the viewing audience. How could you get something that would be interesting? So it really starts with the need to create a conflict. Mostly it's gone that way.

It's all a joke. It's just a thing. It was a choice to do that, and I'm comfortable with it. The problem is that when I do it, it's a blessing and a curse. I have friends that don't even want to look at this. They just put their hands over their eyes or leave the room and say, "Is anyone laughing, does anybody know what he's doing?" because they're terribly afraid that everybody thinks I really am upset.

I'm actually requested with Letterman: "Tell him to come on and really be furious." I just heard recently that Bette Midler actually was nominated (for an Emmy, which she won in 1993) for an appearance on the Johnny Carson show. I didn't know you could get nominated as a guest. I could have been nominated as best actor on a talk show--that might have been my category. I would have taken some ads out.

Q: Before, you were on the giving end. Now you're in the other seat. What kind of persona will there be?

A: We taped a show (last week) in case it's snowing and I can't get to the studio on Jan. 9, a hopefully unlikely event. The first question I said to Tony Randall was that in reading his bio, "I see that your given name is Leonard Rosenberg." I said, " My given name is Leonard Rosenberg." Now that's a joke, but he wasn't sure. So there's that other persona getting back in there with the host. But I would say there's very little of that.

Q: Would you consider it a pretty straightforward type of talk show?

A: I wouldn't say that. No. I wouldn't go that far.

Q: What are you aiming for?

A: Entertainment. I hope it's not so fluffy it'll fly up into the air. I'll be trying to have entertaining interviews with people like Mario Cuomo, who's a guest on the first week. And Morley Safer. What we're trying to do here is have humor and entertainment from people of substance. On the other hand, (a) guest is Marty Short, who's, like, an incredibly insubstantial guy. Generally speaking, if we can get laughs out of Mario Cuomo, we'd be on the right track.

Q: So it's not like being the talk-show host from hell?

A: No. I would not be the talk-show host from hell. I don't think so. I mean, maybe I will. I can only state my intention, but then there's my whole character and personality we have to contend with. My intention is not to be from hell.

Q: Would there be guests--do you like the idea?--who would basically play the role you played on those other shows?

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