When Charles Grodin came to town last week for the premiere of his new play “The Right Kind of People,” he made a special appearance at a seminar held at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El.
It was the first time the 69-year-old actor/playwright has been in a synagogue since his bar mitzvah.
But Grodin, who was raised in an Orthodox home, considers himself thoroughly Jewish, and someone who lives by Jewish principles.
He cites his five years hosting his own CNBC cable talk show, on which he railed against the injustices of the day. He cites his daily commentaries on CBS Radio and his extensive charity work.
And he cites his new play, now running at San Francisco’s Magic Theater through Sunday, Dec. 12. It’s a comedy about the petty, ultra-selective world of New York City co-op boards, and the untoward power they wield.
“It’s set in a co-op board but you can find exclusivity anywhere in America,” says Grodin in a phone interview from his Connecticut home. “These characters would never for a second think they are bigoted. The so-called bigoted people seem just as reasonable as the ones who aren’t.”
The play opened to mixed reviews, but Grodin isn’t worried. Having worked on it for nearly 15 years (it’s based on his own surreal experiences with a Fifth Avenue co-op), he is confident the play says what it means and means what it says.
“I do stay with things a long time,” says the actor. “The passage of time helps you see things differently, and I would rather be accurate and truthful.”
Born in Pittsburgh, Grodin grew up steeped in an Orthodox religious education, but not much of it stuck.
“In Hebrew school,” he recalls, “we’d recite the Hebrew written on a blackboard. I annoyed the rabbi so much he threw me out of class. I was thrown out of class in high school as well, not for being rude, but for being persistent with my questions. That makes for a good talk show host. Persistence annoys the heck out of people.”
He went on to star in such classic films as “Midnight Run,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Heaven Can Wait,” and the hit “Beethoven” movies. His wry, comically understated on-screen persona clicked with audiences. Grodin also worked on Broadway, both as an actor, playwright and director.
His now-defunct CNBC talk show, and subsequent commentary duties for CBS Radio and “60 Minutes II” have revealed Grodin’s passion for social justice. But he abhors the eviscerating approach many cable hosts take these days.
“I don’t want to be a bomb thrower,” he says. “There is so much hatred, so much venom and ridicule out there, what do we need terrorists for? We need to step back and say, ‘I don’t agree with you, but I appreciate your sincerity.’ People are convinced of their point of view, including me, but I allow for the possibility I don’t see the full picture.”
Off camera, he says, he tries to live “in a way my rabbi would be proud of me. I’m very active with prisoner issues, with kids in crisis. I try to live by religious principles, even if I don’t do the ritual.”
That’s not entirely true. He and his wife, “a nice Jewish girl from Kansas City” do celebrate the Jewish holidays with their children.
As for “The Right Kind of People,” Grodin hopes it’s Broadway bound, but having been around this block before, he’s open to anything. “It’ll do its run in San Francisco,” he says of the show, “then I want to move it eastward. It’s a long journey, but I’m prepared for that.”
And as for his Jewish connections, they remain strong, if a bit flexible. “If I ever detect any anti-Semitism,” he says, “then I become more Jewish.”
“The Right Kind of People” by Charles Grodin plays 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinees, through Sunday, Dec. 12., at the Magic Theater, Building D, Fort Mason Center, S.F. Tickets:
$20-$38. Information: (415) 441-8822.