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Steve Guttenberg Was Our Favorite Nice Guy, Until He Wasn’t

The latest installment of Misleading Men, the series where we look back at actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment

“You are the last guy I would pick to be a movie star.”

That quote is the first line of the first chapter of Steve Guttenberg’s 2012 memoir, The Guttenberg Bible. It comes from an agent the actor met when he was 16. The agent wasn’t impressed, advising Guttenberg, “Forget being an actor. You don’t have the look, you don’t have the talent, and your name is ridiculous.”

Plenty of stars have similar stories about people who told them they couldn’t make it. But while Guttenberg proved the guy wrong, the agent had a point. Guttenberg was one of the biggest comedy stars of the 1980s, but his look was never that special, his talent never leapt off the screen and his name was ridiculous. But that seeming ordinariness — that liability that kills 99 percent of all actors’ chances of breaking into Hollywood — ended up working for him.

Until it stopped.

Guttenberg grew up in Long Island and got interested in acting as a teenager. As he told The New York Times in 2003, back then he was relegated to supporting roles — “There were much more charismatic guys than me” — but he ended up landing a small role in an off-Broadway production of The Lion in Winter. “I guess it’s just luck that you get chosen,” Guttenberg explained, using a word — luck — that pops up a lot when he talks about his career.

As he describes in The Guttenberg Bible, he graduated from high school in 1976 and moved to L.A. immediately afterward. “I had $300 in my pocket, salami from my mother and my father’s briefcase,” he recalled. Guttenberg would sneak onto studio lots, scamming the props department into supplying him with furniture that he’d then use to occupy an empty office space and make business calls. Along the way, he booked small roles on commercials, like for Windex.

But his career didn’t take off until he was cast in the lead role of The Chicken Chronicles, a 1977 high school sex comedy in which his late-1960s character is looking to get laid, get in trouble and get out of going to Vietnam. The movie didn’t do well, but Guttenberg had a great time. “What a difference there is between coach and first class,” he wrote in his memoir. “Being the lead means everything is better. Everyone from the crew to the supporting players treated me as if I was something special.”

He kept appearing in movies — from the thriller The Boys From Brazil, alongside Laurence Olivier, to the forgotten disco comedy Can’t Stop the Music. But perhaps as importantly, he internalized a lesson he learned from hanging out with veterans like Olivier: “I always find the more successful the actor, the nicer they are, the sweeter they are, the more understanding they are,” Guttenberg said in a 2012 NPR interview.

His next big break was in 1982’s Diner. The Barry Levinson comedy was about a group of 20something Baltimore friends, and it helped launch the careers of Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern and Kevin Bacon. For Guttenberg, it showed that he wasn’t just a goofy guy but someone who was sweet, smart and vulnerable. He got the role of Eddie Simmons in part by telling Levinson about the long-distance relationship he was having with his girlfriend who still lived in New York. It’s not hard to see those experiences feeding into his insecure character, who’s about to get married but may be more committed to his football fandom than his future wife.

Diner was a critical hit as well as another example of Guttenberg’s good fortune. According to his memoir, the studio wasn’t high on Diner, even threatening not to release the movie. But Levinson snuck Diner to Pauline Kael, arguably the world’s most influential critic at the time, and she loved it, essentially forcing the studio to put it into theaters. “[T]his was one of those magic, lucky times when a reviewer can actually change the course of a film’s destiny,” Guttenberg wrote.

“A hit is unlike anything you know, or I know, or anybody knows,” he continued. “It comes from a deep, intense energy on the production, and a lot of luck. Luck that you have the right script, the best director for it, the perfect casting and a studio that has the money to release it.”

The hits kept coming for Guttenberg, one seemingly feeding into the next. He wanted to work with Ron Howard on Splash, but when he got turned down (in favor of Tom Hanks), he quickly found his way into Police Academy. (Ironically, the Police Academy producers had wanted Hanks for the role that eventually went to Guttenberg.) Turns out, Police Academy was the bigger box-office smash, becoming the sixth-highest-grossing movie of 1984. The exploits of a bunch of goofy idiots proved to be irresistible to audiences who had flocked to other anarchic R-rated ‘80s phenomena like Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds. And at the center of Police Academy was Guttenberg’s Carey Mahoney, the straitlaced guy who seemed relatively normal around this collection of buffoons and whose bland handsomeness was our guide among the lunacy.

He starred in the first four installments — there have been seven overall — but the franchise started a pattern of critics not taking him or his work seriously. Roger Ebert gave a rare no-star review to the first Police Academy, memorably declaring, “It’s so bad, maybe you should pool your money and draw straws and send one of the guys off to rent it so that in the future, whenever you think you’re sitting through a bad comedy, he could shake his head, and chuckle tolerantly, and explain that you don’t know what bad is.”

Undeterred, Guttenberg kept picking commercial winners, going from Cocoon (directed by Howard) to Short Circuit to Three Men and a Baby. All successes — even though most viewers would be hard-pressed to name anything memorable Guttenberg did in any of them. In each film, he’s the nervous guy, the nice guy, the forgettable guy. There was a squeaky-clean quality to him that wasn’t rehearsed — it came naturally for Guttenberg. In a 1988 interview, he recalled that unlike his Three Men costars Ted Danson and Tom Selleck, he didn’t like going out much. “My idea of a good time was watching sports and eating pizza,” he said. “Ted and Tom are older than I am, but in actuality, I felt the oldest.”

He knew the reputation that he had, but he didn’t seem to mind it: “I don’t feel cornered by being Mr. Nice Guy at this point in my career,” he insisted. “Being Mr. Nice Guy got me where I am now.”

Still, he had higher aspirations. In the same interview, he confided, “I enjoy being an actor, but I very much want to become a better actor, in my own eyes a real actor, someone other actors look up to, like De Niro. I can see myself as a leading man. I’m the kind of guy the audience can feel safe and comfortable with. … I would like to do films that have impact, resonance and substance.”

That’s where Guttenberg’s luck ran out.

It’s not that he never starred in any dramas — he was in the 1983 ABC television movie The Day After — but he never fully made the leap. And so, when the calendar flipped from one decade to the next, his brand of inoffensive likability lost its currency. He turned to saccharine family films like Zeus and Roxanne, and Parent Trap-like comedies such as It Takes Two. He tried to develop his own material, including the 2002 screen adaptation of the play P.S. Your Cat Is Dead, which he directed, but the projects generated little interest.

That old agent’s comment about Guttenberg’s ridiculous name started to feel prescient. Whereas others he worked with in the ‘80s — Danson, Selleck, Howard — continued to have prominent careers, he seemed chained to the decade in all its tacky, faded, shallow glory. Even the word “Guttenberg” felt like a punch line — a way to suggest some dated cultural artifact that we couldn’t believe was once popular.

Tellingly, his most memorable role of this century, on the short-lived Starz sitcom Party Down, featured him playing a dopey version of himself. Nowadays, if you see Guttenberg, it’s probably in a ridiculous SyFy monster/disaster movie like Lavalantula, Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens and 2 Lava 2 Lantula, which have doubled as Police Academy reunions and celebrations of Guttenberg’s current status as a pop-culture punchline.

He did appear on Broadway in 2011 as part of a Woody Allen one-act play, Honeymoon Motel, but it prompted a L.A. Times profile to note grimly that “[t]he third-most popular search for [Guttenberg’s] name on Google is for ‘Steve Guttenberg Dead.’” He also had a short-lived stint as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars, in which his earnestness was on full display:

Other funny-man actors will do a dark change-of-pace role — like Alan Alda on Horace and Pete or Albert Brooks in Drive — but Guttenberg seems incapable of trying. Though, to be fair, he did play a pedophile on Veronica Mars. “[T]his absolutely had some qualities of character that I’d never played before,” Guttenberg later told the A.V. Club. “I mean, he was despised. So that was really cool, actually, to play someone who I’d despise.” But he knows that his reluctance to go dark has probably hurt him professionally. “I like being nice,” he said in 2008. “But as an actor, a lot of times people mistake niceness, kindness, for a weakness of your character.”

So, the agent was right. Steve Guttenberg is the last guy most of us would pick to be a movie star. His rise was fueled in part by good luck, and whether in his memoir or in recent interviews, he seems to have made peace with how fickle fortune can be.

“I always think that there is some divine guidance,” he told The New York Times in 2003. “There are 10 actors that can play every role. Tom Selleck could have played Indiana Jones; he was supposed to. Silence of the Lambs was developed for Gene Hackman. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was supposed to be Warren Beatty and Steve McQueen. A great character is a great character, and I just think it is sort of how the gods go.”

In the last few years, there’s been talk of a Police Academy reboot. Maybe the gods will smile on Steve Guttenberg one more time.