Steve Guttenberg at Sardi's on Broadway. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from New York — 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.